New Delhi: The Prime Minister’s Office, announcing Pandit Ravi Shankar’s demise, termed him “a national treasure”. Appreciative as the title is, it doesn’t even begin to capture the reach and musical influence the sitar maestro had on the world.
He played a pivotal role in spreading Indian classical music to the west, creating a special place for sitar in genres like rock that were, until then, dominated by its western counterpart – the guitar.
But just like Merlin, he too had his Arthur Pendragon, a culturally open young Liverpudlian whose band had begun taking over the world: George Harrison.
Beatle mania was at its height as George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Ringo Starr made their way across the Atlantic for a second tour of the US. For George Harrison, in particular, this was to be a life-changing trip.
David Crosby, the Byrds’ lead singer and close friend to George, introduced him to Indian classical music and the works of one Ravi Shankar, an Indian sitar player par excellence. Harrison, then merely 22 years old, became fascinated with the instrument and began idolizing Ravi Shankar.
Later that year the young Beatle bought his first sitar from a little shop in London called ‘India Craft’ and played it in ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ track from ‘Rubber Soul’.
The following year Harrison finally met his Indian idol and was accepted as a student. The sitar maestro spoke about this to ‘Rolling Stone’ in 1997: "When George became my student, I got a new audience: the younger generation. And, of course, they came like a flood because the whole thing happened with the hippie movement and this interest in Indian culture. I was like a rock star…”
The maestro not only taught him about music but also had a strong influence on his spiritual life, helping him in his quest to better understand and appreciate Hinduism.
But the young British star wasn’t the only famous disciple he’s had. The list included violinist Yehudi Menuhin and enigmatic jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
The three time Grammy nominee also had his fair share of tours in the west and he was always met with great crowds and a fervent admiration, something rare for an Indian classical musician.
While all of this may have added to the spread of Indian music through the west, it’s probably George Harrison’s part that made a major difference. The sitar went on to feature in 3 of the Beatles’ albums and has led to what the maestro called “the great sitar explosion.
The recently deceased Pandit Ravi Shankar may well, in years to come, be remembered by the accolade his most famous disciple accorded to him: “the godfather of world music”.