Shankar has been an internationally celebrated icon in the arts for more than half of his life. Hailed as the “godfather of World Music” by former Beatle George Harrison, he is now gearing up for his latest world tour.
It will begin next month at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, then move to Washington D.C., London and, in November, Calcutta.
Closer to home, Shankar will be honored Thursday through Sunday at the fourth annual Indian Classical Music & Dance Festival. The event, sponsored by the Indian Fine Arts Academy of San Diego, will take place at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.
“He is in a league of his own,” said longtime Shankar admirer Shekar Viswanathan, the academy’s board secretary and chair of the applied engineering department at National University. “In India, he is a superstar, recognized equally by younger and older generations. In the West, he’s recognized the way Pavarotti was. He’s a musician’s musician.”
Since the 1950s, Shankar’s name has been synoymous with both Indian classical music and the 19-stringed sitar, an exceptionally demanding instrument that he plays even the most intricate music on with deceptive ease. In addition to thousands of concerts across the globe, Shankar’s career includes landmark performances in the 1960s at the Monterey International Pop Festival and Woodstock.
“Woodstock killed me!” he recalled with a laugh, speaking during a recent interview at his Encinitas home.
“There were half a million people and it was raining, and the music was like incidental music. They were enjoying it, but I couldn’t communicate (to them). At the end, I said: ‘No more.’ I had so many programs lined up, big concerts and (festivals). I canceled everything, killing my whole career for almost a year and a half. Then I slowly came back into classical music.”
In 1971, Shankar shared the stage with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Harrison and fellow ex-Beatles Harrison and Ringo Starr at the Concert for Bangladesh, pop music’s first all-star benefit. He organized the event with then-student Harrison, who became a lifelong confidante.
“With George, it was something very special — the whole concept of Indian music and tradition — because he was very much interested in our philosophy, spirituality and the old texts, the Vedas. I was very happy to see such a serious approach,” Shankar said of the late Harrison, who first studied with him in 1966 in India.
Shankar has inspired several generations of performers and listeners, including rock bands (The Beatles, The Byrds, Cornershop) and countless jazz and classical-music artists. Now, as then, he is India’s most influential cultural ambassador. “He’s one of the true legends. We listened a lot to his albums,” U2 singer Bono said of Shankar’s impact on the Irish rock band.
“I am so very honored beyond description to be named after this incredible man,” said saxophone star Ravi Coltrane, the son of jazz icon John Coltrane. “I am continually inspired and elevated by (Shankar’s) commitment to music, by his kindness and grace.”
Shankar, who turned 91 on Thursday, responded in an instant when asked the secret of his seemingly perpetual vigor. “Her!” he said, pointing to his wife, Sukanya. “I would not be here without her. She’s a better doctor for me than all of my doctors. In fact, they call her ‘Doctor’.” Sukanya, 56, smiled at her famous husband, then deflected his praise. “It’s his vitality, his quicksilver mind,” she said. “I can never take him for granted. He’s always wanting to find out new things and learn, and — at this age — is so interested in every subject.”
Shankar will not perform at the festival honoring him in La Jolla this week, but he plans to attend each day. He’s also preparing for his May 19 concert in San Francisco, his first anywhere since a heart ailment last fall led to the postponement of his remaining 2010 performances.
“Beginning a world tour at the age of 91 is evidence of three-time Grammy Award-winner Ravi Shankar’s energetic, revolutionary and dynamic musicianship and passion for playing music,” said Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, under whose auspices the Grammys are presented.
Shankar was only 29 when he became the musical director of All-India Radio in 1949.
He worked tirelessly to bridge India's two distinct classical music traditions -- Hindustani and karnatak -- which represent the country's northern and southern cultures, respectively. Both are oral traditions -- meaning they do not have the written scores used in Western classical music -- and require the memorization of "thousands of things," including compositions, melodic forms and rhythmic cycles, as well as a mastery of improvisation.
The complexities of both Indian classical music traditions are so great that very few Western listeners were willing, or able, to embrace them during the first half of the 20th century. With a winning combination of passion and determination, Shankar changed all that.
"People would say: 'Oh, Indian music is very exciting and exotic But when does it start? When does it end'?" he said. "Because (just) the tuning of the instruments takes a long time, which I made a joke about at the Concert for Bangladesh. So I knew what Western people liked and didn't like. This is what, in cinema, you call film editing. For years (at concerts), I would explain how the scale of a song goes up and down, and explain the mode of the raga and the time (signatures), before we played each piece. I'd also tell the background of each composition and tell little jokes, and and that almost immediately made me accepted by audiences. I'm so glad, because I did that for 4 or 5 years, all over the world. And I think that opened the door for all our musicians (from India) to gradually gain acceptance."
An avid reader of books and newspapers, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, Shankar takes walks each morning. He also practices the sitar every day, the better to keep his fingers nimble.
"The only big difference I feel at this age is a little more anxiety," he noted. "Once I start and get into it, I forget the age. I feel so much richer, in depth and new ideas, then I ever have before. Mentally, I sometimes feel like: 'How can I start? I'm getting old!' But then I forget everything and it comes much easier. Of course, (regarding) the speed and virtuosity, I may not be able to run as fast as I could (before). But I feel so much more richer in my playing."
His quest to remain musically and intellectually engaged is a key reason he still welcomes students to his home several times each year. They travel from around the world to study with him, some for a few days, others for weeks. “When I teach, new things come,” Shankar said. “When I say ‘new,’ it’s based on tradition, but new ideas. I’m bombarded by so much (stimuli) that it becomes very painful sometimes! I’m amazed how, by the press of a button on a computer, you can learn about anything you want today. But if people could go deeper into things, and not just skim the surface, that would be a great thing.”
Shankar’s longevity has inspired both his daughters, fellow sitar player and frequent musical partner Anoushka Shankar, 29, and multi-Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Norah Jones, 32.
“I think I will be doing music as long as my dad,” said Jones, a New York resident. “His (longevity is) a testament to the power of doing what you love.”
Anoushka Shankar, who on Feb. 22 gave birth to her and her husband’s first child, son Zubin Shankar Wright, is similarly awed by her father.
“He’s always looking forward, never back, and that propels him at an age where other people retire,” she said. “It’s incredible, isn’t it? But I thought it was incredible 10 years ago.”
RAVI SHANKAR AT A GLANCE:
Born: April 7, 1920, in Benares, British India (now Varanasi, India).
First major accomplishment: Became Music Director of All-India Radio and founded the Vadya Vrinda Chamber Orchestra, both in 1949.
U.S. concert debut: Carnegie Hall in 1938.
First U.S. album release: “Ravi Shankar Plays Three Classical Three Ragas” in 1956.
Most recent album: “Collaborations” by Ravi Shankar & George Harrison (2010).
Grammy Awards: Three.
Oscar nominations: One (for “Ghandi,” whose namesake he knew) in 1982.
Noteworthy: Composed “Sare Jahan Se Accha,” India’s second best-known song (topped only by its national anthem).
Collaborators: Many, including Zubin Metha, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Philip Glass, Yehudi Menuhin, Andre Previn and Mstislav Rostropovich.
Students: John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, George Harrison, Kartik Seshardi and many more.