I by no means am a huge sitar fan, but appreciate his abilities, kindness and influence.
I mainly know Shankar because of the Beatles. I was really getting into their music and personalities in 1979/1980, and that they had this Eastern meditative nuance and shift in their music that brought a more worldly flavor was an exotic consideration when growing up in Kentucky.
George Harrison was kind of the silent partner in the Beatles, and Shankar helped to ground him, which in turn helped prevent the Beatles from spinning out of control. Harrison, through Shankar, was able to give the fame and adulation facing the Beatles some ethereal perspective.
With the Peace movement in the 1960s came a tolerance for alternative musical influences. Shankar had been attempting to bridge Eastern and Western musical styles, and already had been playing with John Coltrane, but it was his collaboration with the Beatles and friendship with Harrison that catapulted him to stardom.
Two songs in particular by the Beatles stand out as examples of Shankar’s influence. The song “Norwegian Wood” from the 1965 album “Rubber Soul,” which features Harrison playing the sitar, but tuned in a more Western style so it sets the song off but remains familiar. Also “Within You Without You,” from the epic 1967 release “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” This tune has a traditional Eastern flair in sound and interpretation.
Shankar also pioneered the concept of a rock benefit concert with the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. With Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr and Billy Preston helping to play two shows at Madison Square Garden, along with a three-record live recording and movie, Shankar was instrumental in helping to raise $12 million for the refugees fleeing Bangladesh into India.
[George Harrison playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. The guitar battle between Harrison and Eric Clapton starting at the 3:20 mark is impressive.]
Throughout his 60-year playing career Shankar won three Grammy awards and was nominated for an Oscar for his musical score for the movie “Gandhi.” He played huge sets at the Monterey Pop Festival and at Woodstock, which greatly expanded his audience.
It didn’t matter who he was around, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Shankar was comfortable in his abilities and command. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He played, and preferred not to have his music considered merely as a jam band soundtrack for drug experimentation, but also appreciated the influence his success and access to famous musicians provided.
Of late it has been Shankar’s daughters who have been the newsmakers. Norah Jones has won nine Grammy awards and sold like 50 million records, and Anoushka Shankar, who is an Indian sitar player, has twice been nominated for Grammy awards in the World Music category.
It isn’t any one thing, but Ravi Shankar’s grace and discipline raised the consciousness of Eastern philosophy and Indian culture in the United States, and that’s not a bad thing considering how hyper-local America tends to be.
Go well my friend, and be at peace.