The one and only time I interviewed Ravi Shankar, I felt myself more than a little tongue-tied, trying to put into words a personal reaction to the Indian classical music that he had spent a lifetime bringing to the world. I attempted, however amateurishly, to describe the impact of hearing the meditative solace of ages-old ragas he has recorded over the decades blossom into a firestorm of improvisational intensity.
When I was done, Shankar paused, much like a professor might when an eager but grossly naïve student had blurted out so banal an explanation of his life’s work.
“I see,” Shankar said. “And this is how this music seems to you?”
It was the kind of reply that quickly made one feel, despite the appreciative intent, a little out of his depth.
“Well, to tell you the truth, this is how it should be. The music should never be concocted or forced. It should always be spontaneous.”
Shankar was an artist of tremendous patience and kindness. I got to witness that firsthand. All you needed was one of the scores of recordings he cut through the years to realize that. But Shankar, who died yesterday at the age of 92, was more. He was more than a master sitar player and improviser. He was, especially to American ears, a gatekeeper to a musical culture that many of us knew little or nothing about.
Sure, it took a connection to the psychedelic music fashioned in America during the late ’60s and, especially, a well-documented friendship with Beatle George Harrison to help unlock those doors. But once unbolted, the grace and contemplative beauty of Indian classical music became part of a world lexicon. No single artist before or since has raised awareness of Indian music and, perhaps, culture to a global level.
“Once in a while a musician comes along who takes a tradition of a country and moves it to the next level up,” said the acclaimed Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain ahead of a performance Shankar gave at the Singletary Center for the Arts in October 1995. “This is what Ravi Shankar has done.”