Ravi Shankar, Indian Sitarist, Dies at 92

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Ravi Shankar, Indian Sitarist, Dies at 92

Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitarist and composer whose collaborations with Western classical musicians as well as rock stars helped foster a worldwide appreciation of India’s traditional music, died Tuesday in a hospital near his home in Southern California. He was 92.

Donal F. Holway/The New York Times

Ravi Shankar, center, played during the Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1971.

Mr. Shankar had suffered from upper respiratory and heart ailments in the last year and underwent heart-valve replacement surgery last Thursday, his family said in a statement.

Mr. Shankar, a soft-spoken, eloquent man whose performance style embodied a virtuosity that transcended musical languages, was trained in both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Although Western audiences were often mystified by the odd sounds and shapes of the instruments when he began touring in Europe and the United States in the early 1950s, Mr. Shankar and his ensemble gradually built a large following for Indian music.

His instrument, the sitar, has a small rounded body and a long neck with a resonating gourd at the top. It has 6 melody strings and 25 sympathetic strings (which are not played but resonate freely as the other strings are plucked). Sitar performances are partly improvised, but the improvisations are strictly governed by a repertory of ragas (melodic patterns representing specific moods, times of day, seasons of the year or events) and talas (intricate rhythmic patterns) that date back several millenniums.

Mr. Shankar’s quest for a Western audience was helped in 1965 when George Harrison of the Beatles began to study the sitar with him. But Harrison was not the first Western musician to seek Mr. Shankar’s guidance. In 1952 he met and began performing with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he made three recordings for EMI: “West Meets East” (1967), “West Meets East, Vol. 2” (1968) and “Improvisations: East Meets West” (1977).

Mr. Shankar loved to mix the music of different cultures. He collaborated with the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, who had become fascinated with Indian music and philosophy in the early ’60s. Coltrane met with Mr. Shankar several times from 1964 to 1966 to learn the basics of ragas, talas and Indian improvisation techniques. Coltrane named his son Ravi after Mr. Shankar.

Mr. Shankar also collaborated with several prominent Japanese musicians — Hozan Yamamoto, a shakuhachi player, and Susumu Miyashita, a koto player — on “East Greets East,” a 1978 recording in which Indian and Japanese influences intermingled.

In addition to his frequent tours as a sitarist Mr. Shankar was a prolific composer of film music (including the score for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” in 1982), ballets, electronic works and concertos for sitar and Western orchestras.

In 1988 his seven-movement “Swar Milan” was performed at the Palace of Culture in Moscow by an ensemble of 140 musicians, including the Russian Folk Ensemble, members of the Moscow Philharmonic and the Ministry of Culture Chorus, as well as Mr. Shankar’s own group of Indian musicians. And in 1990 he collaborated with the Minimalist composer Philip Glass — who had worked as his assistant on the film score for “Chappaqua” in the late 1960s — on “Passages,” a recording of works he and Mr. Glass composed for each other.

“I have always had an instinct for doing new things,” Mr. Shankar said in 1985. “Call it good or bad, I love to experiment.”

Ravi Shankar, whose formal name was Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, India, to a family of musicians and dancers. His older brother Uday directed a touring Indian dance troupe, which Ravi joined when he was 10. Within five years he had become one of the company’s star soloists. He also discovered that he had a facility with the sitar and the sarod, another stringed instrument, as well as the flute and the tabla, an Indian drum.

The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer.

“Born at Gouripur (now in East Pakistan [Bangladesh] )in 1924 in a family with a great musical tradition, Vilayat Khan is sixth in an unbroken line of maestros going back to the Mughal period. His father, the late Ustad Inayat Khan, still remembered as one of the greatest sitarists of all time, initiated young Vilayat in the art of Sitar playting, though this guidance was lost to Vilayat at the early age of thirteen due to the death of his father. Dedication and discipline, however, carried him through and to such heights that at a relatively young age his virtuosity was recognized not only in India but abroad also. He has played to appreciative audiences in UK, Europe, USSR, East Africa and Afghanistan. Just as Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize created a storm in European intellectual circles, Vilayat Khan’s polite but firm refusal of a Sangeet Natak Akademi award created a sensation among musical circles in India three years ago.”

(via Ustad Vilayat Khan — The Supreme Genius of Ustad Vilayat Khan (1968 – HMV/EMI India, EASD-1332) | ghostcapital)

WATCH NOW: Rishi Dhir of Elephant Stone's Solo Sitar Performance of "Motherless Child"

WATCH NOW: Rishi Dhir of Elephant Stone’s Solo Sitar Performance of “Motherless Child”

(Photo credit Bowen Stead and Daniel Barkley)

Elephant Stone’s highly anticipated third LP, The Three Poisons, comes out on Tuesday, August 26.

Watch frontman, singer, bassist, and sitarist Rishi Dhir perform a solo sitar version of one of the album’s best tracks, “Motherless Child.”

And stay tuned to Stereo Embers Magazine for “Elephant Stone Week,” which commences on Monday, August 25.

We’ll…

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