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Millennium Post

Ravi Shankar the rock star

The late Sitarist could charm classical purists and yet innovate at a time when fusion wasn’t born Pt Ravi Shankar was in the US what Raj Kapoor was in Russia – the face of India. In the mid twentieth century if you were an Indian in US with a musical instrument, any American you bumped into would say, ‘Ah! You are from the country of  Pt Ravi Shankar’.  What made Ravi Shankar incredible was that he could for hours give a Hindustani classical performance that was hundred million per cent authentic, with no experimentation, no inovation, that would make the purest of purists salute him. But, he could also think out of the box and he did think out of the box, that too in the 20th century, long before people had the courage to do so, especially in classical music, where purists are always trying to hold on to traditions.  In some ways, it made him similar to Tagore.

Tagore’s music too was Indian, but with so many flavours from across the world. And because of this, people like Tagore and Pt Ravi Shankar are universal citizens of the world. They can’t be pinned down as just Indians or Europeans or from any other one part of the world. They hunger for new sights and sounds and they embrace these new sights and sounds and transform them, transcreate them and mutate them into a  language that is their own and at the same time reaches out to the people in the streets. It requires courage and they have that vision and that courage.

It was this vision and courage that brought Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin together in the 1950s and 60s. Long before people dreamt of fusion, these two were sharing their language and music.

And then, there he was, freely and without inhibition teaching George Harrison of the Beatles to play the sitar in Rishikesh. And the first time we hear this music is in the Beatles song Norwegian Woods from their album Rubber Soul. He was their mentor and it wasn’t just a celeb thing. George Harrison was perhaps the least high-profile of the Beatles, but whatever he did, he was extremely spiritual about it. Of course, the paparazzi was there in Rishikesh, but these two were bonding. And Ravi Shankar had a big soul to have bonded so simply with so many artistes across genres and years.

Nondon Bagchi is a  musician based in Kolkata (As told to Poulomi Banerjee)
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