Ravi Shankar, the master of the Indian sitar, photographed last year at… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Among the items the Grammy Museum included in its George Harrison “Living in the Material World” exhibit that opened about this time last year was a letter the ex-Beatle received following the all-star Concert for Bangladesh fundraiser he spearheaded at Madison Square Garden in 1971.
The letter was from his friend Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar master who had sought Harrison’s help in raising public awareness of the plight of residents of the small nation that had recently been devastated by floods and war.
Shankar, who died Tuesday at age 92, thanked Harrison in his letter for his efforts in rounding up some of the biggest names in rock music at the time -- including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell and Billy Preston -- to bring their celebrity to bear on behalf of people struggling half a world away.
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But Shankar also urged Harrison to use his fame to help those in his own audience, advising him to encourage his fans “to stay away from the drugs.”
It was an issue that Shankar saw close up after his endorsement by one of the members of the world’s biggest rock band put him in a new position in the West. In India, Shankar had long been revered as one of the greatest proponents of that country’s classical music.
But in the West, he became something of a rock star himself, sharing the bill at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 with Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, the Who, the Mamas and the Papas and the Jefferson Airplane; at Woodstock two years later again with Hendrix as well as Santana, Arlo Guthrie, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and a host of other prime movers among the hippie generation.
It worried Shankar that new audiences discovering the sublime intricacies of his nation’s musical tradition were treating it simply as background music for their drug-induced trips. And over time, he expressed not only frustration but also occasionally anger that the improvisation-based Indian music was being received by some as just another strain of jam-band instrumental noodling.
Usually, though, he maintained a sense of humor about the earnest naivete toward instruments, sounds and performance practices foreign to rock audiences.
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As documented on “The Concert for Bangladesh” album, which won a Grammy Award as album of the year, he and his ensemble opened the show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, at first engaging in low-intensity interplay with one another. Then the music subsides, and the audience applauds.
A smiling Shankar than addressed the crowd, saying, “If you enjoyed the tuning up that much, I hope you enjoy the music even more.”
Ultimately, many musical explorers did learn to understand and appreciate the complex rhythms and exceptional virtuosity of Shankar and fellow musicians such as Ali Akbar Kahn and Alla Rakha, who joined him for the Concert for Bangladesh, and his own sitar-playing daughter, Anoushka Shankar.
Ravi Shankar’s success and influence also opened doors for musicians from other countries and cultures, which led Harrison to aptly describe him as “the godfather of world music.”
Yet he maintained a disarming humility about himself throughout his 92 years. It was the quality that initially caught the attention of a Beatle who had brushed elbows with celebrities and royalty of the highest magnitude.
“Ravi Shankar was the first person who did not try to impress me,” Harrison said in Martin Scorsese’s documentary “George Harrison: Living in the Material World.” That, in turn, is the one thing that could impress a Beatle -- and so many others around the world who came to identify Indian music with the man who did more to spread it across the globe than any other.
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