In certain circles, the echoes of the late sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar's talent are everywhere — and not just in the places you might expect.
There's his daughter and sitar protegee Anoushka Shankar, who's followed in her father's fusion footsteps, as well as his daughter Norah Jones, who grew up without her father in a relationship only publicly acknowledged when Jones was on the brink of adulthood. (Shankar had a complicated personal life that is touched upon glancingly in his autobiography Raga Mala, published in 1997 when he turned 75.)
But his influence comes through in more surprising places as well, from the name that fan and onetime Shankar student John Coltrane gave his son, to the way that the sound of the sitar seeped into who knows how many pop productions in the decades that followed and Shankar's first encounter with George Harrison in 1966. (As I write this, I have sitting next to me Shankar's 1968 book My Music, My Life, which boasts a "complete" manual for the mechanics of playing the sitar and introduction to raga theory that is all of 55 pages long.)
Moreover, lots of folks around the world won't know other Indian instruments like a bansuri flute or a sarod or a sarangi, but they can instantly identify the sitar's sound — and that's entirely thanks to Ravi Shankar. Twenty years ago, when I first fell entirely accidentally into the world of South Asian music — which then became a long-standing passion of mine — the only Indian musician's name I knew was his. Back then, I couldn't possibly have foreseen having had the chance of working with him for a short time about a decade later, when I was asked to put together a retrospective compilation of some of his most notable experimental work. He was a warm and gracious presence, and seemed intrigued by how I had stumbled into Indian classical music. "But you're Greek!" he exclaimed. Well, yes — but as for so many others, I was lucky enough to have experienced his music as a portal into this whole other world.
Shankar became the world's foremost ambassador of Indian music and culture, but he couldn't be all things to all people. There have been many other astoundingly talented sitarists who were either contemporaries of Shankar or younger, among them Nikhil Banerjee, Vilayat Khan and his son Shujaat Husain Khan, but none of them ever became household names the way Shankar did. He was a spokesperson for the North Indian tradition, which only tells half the story of Indian classical music. And critics and connoisseurs sometimes derided the way that Shankar reshaped centuries-old tradition into easily digestable bites — turning ragas that traditionally would unfurl over the course of an hour or much more into ditties — ragettes, maybe? — that alaap to jhala lasted maybe 10 minutes in all.
Yet no other artist caught the fire of popular imagination the way that Shankar managed, or knew how to connect to Western audiences the way he did. After all, this was someone who moved to Paris at age 10 and when he was about 13 saw Cab Calloway play the Cotton Club in Harlem, and whose artistic family was admired by such world-class aesthetes as James Joyce and Anna Pavlova. Perhaps no one else was as willing to continue to evangelize about Indian classical music throughout his life. Even well into his 80s, Shankar patiently gave performances and explanations that traced the basic outlines of Indian classical theory — which many master musicians of any style would find far beneath them.
And Shankar passionately explored all kinds of musical streams with an amazing group of collaborators, creating a global network of kindred spirits that bore tremendous riches.