Seeking a Renaissance in San Francisco
On Tuesday, Dec. 11, Sitar legend, Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away (Rolling Stone’s coverage). The news has spread worldwide, with artists and fans paying tribute to his artistry. As a lover of all types of art, and growing up with so much of it around me, I’ve been fascinated with not only the art form itself, but the history of the artist. Behind each melody, performance, or composition, there is a person – A person with a tremendous amount of history and life experiences that have gotten them to where they are, affected their performance, and has eventually reached you as a listener.
Pt. Ravi Shankar is no exception to the rule. Most of the world knows of him and his work post-1967. He is hailed as the Godfather of World Music (what exactly is World music, by the way? In my mind, it is a way for people to classify all music that is not rooted in the Western Classical system, into a giant group). He was catapulted to fame thanks to The Beatles, and namely George Harrison, performing first at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967) and then at Woodstock (1969). Since then, his personal life has been in the media and was particularly spotlighted after his first daughter, Norah Jones, established herself (Jones on Shankar). And of course we know his second daughter, Anoushkar Shankar, also a Sitar artist.
But what else? What about his days as a dancer (yes, dancer)? His guru Ustad Allauddin Khan, court musician for the Maharaja of Maihar? What about his ingenious first wife, Annapurna Devi, and their late son Shubhendra (both sitar virtuosos in their own right)? And what about other giants of Sitar like Ustad Vilayat Khan?
Ravi Shankar was born in 1920 in Varanasi into an illustrious family of artisans. His brother, the trailblazer, Uday Shankar had started a dance troupe at the Almora Centre. In 1929, Uday’s Dance Company became the first Indian dance and music troupe to tour the world (more on Uday Shankar, here). By the age of 10, Ravi had moved to Paris to be a dancer in his brother’s company. He met Kamala Shastri during those early years, developing a strong friendship. Court musician Ustad Allauddin Kahn, joined Uday’s troupe on one of their tours, immediately captivating the young, Ravi. Ravi left the celebrity life (that he had achieved at the age of 10!) to study Sitar in 1938 (Shankar on his training). He ended up marrying Annapurna Devi (Roshanara Khan), his guru’s daughter and they had a son Shubendhra Shankar – (Many say that Annapurna Devi was much more brilliant than her husband; she went on to train some of the leading sitarists of India).
Panditji later took up with dancer, Kamala Shastri (Charkravarty). She accompanied him on tours around the world, including to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
His story post-1967 has been all over the media and may be what made him relevant in the global scene. It’s important to note this, because many superior or equally capable artists did not ‘make it big’ because of lack of exposure and media attention.
Anyhow, I’m certainly not trying to be Panditji’s biographer, here. I’m merely putting it out there to all art-lovers that we often superficially focus on the music that is produced or what we see in the media. Gaining depth and knowledge on an artist reveals how the global musical diaspora and life experiences affect a person’s artistry – It shows you how life and art intertwine. Just some food for thought..!