Ravi Shankar Feted On His 80th Birthday

Sitarist to be honored at May 1 concert in Los Angeles.

In the '60s, the name Ravi Shankar conjured images of peace, love and the Beatles. But before that decade — and since — Shankar, the world's most well-known sitarist, has symbolized the mystery and wonder of Indian classical music.

And now — Friday (April 7), in fact — he is turning 80. And the world is taking notice, once again, with honors and celebrations.

The festivities began in New Delhi, India, in February, when Shankar was made a commander of the French Legion of Honor. Bestowing the honor (the highest the French government gives to a civilian), French ambassador to India, Claude Blanchemaison, said Shankar's "name is synonymous with music in our country."

On May 1 at Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Shankar and his daughter Anoushka (with whom he has been recording and is now touring for the first time in years) will join the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a belated birthday program that will include his Concerto No. 1 for Sitar and Orchestra, a piece that blends and contrasts Western and Indian musical styles.

And then there is the recent reissue, in paperback, of Shankar's 1997 autobiography, "Raga Mala." The book, published by Welcome Rain, was edited by former Beatles guitarist George Harrison and sells for $25. That is the discounted version of the original (published by Genesis) that comes autographed, bound in Indian silk and packaged with a set of Shankar's and Harrison's favorite incense sticks and a CD that includes a track with Harrison and former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. That version of the book sells for $432.

The book's packaging, as well as the ebb and flow of Shankar's visibility over the decades, are peripheral to the ways in which he has embodied a timeless musical tradition and taken it to the world.

Crossover Begins At Early Age

He made his contacts with celebrity and Western ideas of music-making while he was still very young. At age 10, he sat on Andrés Segovia's knee. Béla Bartók used to visit his family (his brother Uday was a famous dancer).

But Shankar's exposure to Western ways has not compromised his dedication to the instrument and the way of life he learned in his youth from his guru Ustad Allaudin Khan. "My music is a religious act," Shankar has said. "My guru taught me that the best way to worship is by music."

That feeling is at the core of his musical tradition and his own musical journey.

Previously familiar only to a small, specialized audience, Shankar made his first tour of Europe and the U.S. in 1956 and '57. He subsequently participated in crossover concerts with Yehudi Menuhin that were recorded and issued under the title West Meets East — now available on the British BGO label, and developed an awareness of Indian music among Western music-lovers.

'The Godfather Of World Music'

That set the stage for his association with Harrison and the Beatles in the '60s. When the Beatles guitarist began his studies of the sitar with Shankar, his interest in the instrument ignited a craze for Indian music that blazed its way through Western pop culture. Harrison subsequently called Shankar "the godfather of world music."

For a time, in the mid-'60s, the sitar became a main ingredient in psychedelic rock. The craze culminated with Shankar's performance at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival.

After incense and fuzzy plucked-string sounds had faded in pop culture along with the "flower children," Shankar's visibility in the West began to decline, at least in the eyes of his temporary rock fans.

Influencing, Adopting Western Music Ideas

But Shankar and his music went on. He served as a musical guru to a number of western musicians including minimalist composer Philip Glass, a relationship preserved on the 1990 recording Passages (BMG/Private).

Shankar's interaction with the West has been double-edged; while he was influencing the work of Western musicians, classical and popular, he was also adopting some of their ideas and techniques. His concertos for sitar and orchestra juxtapose the two music systems and find them more complementary than conflicting. The Concerto No. 1 was recorded in 1987 by EMI with Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony. The second concerto is titled Raga Mala.

Indian music draws on the inspiration of the moment, the depth of the musician's soul and interaction with an audience, not on symbols and instructions printed on paper. In an interview, Shankar demonstrated this by picking up his sitar, beginning to play, and commenting on the music: "That is a raga I have played many times, but it was never quite like that before and it will never be quite like that again. Each time, the raga is new."

An idea of the mystique in which his art has developed can be glimpsed in a statement by another Indian musician, Ali Akbar Khan, whose instrument, the sarod, is a smaller relative of the sitar: "If you practice for 10 years, you may begin to please yourself. After 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience. After 30 years you may please even your guru. But you must practice for many more years before you finally become a true artist."

At 80, Ravi Shankar seems to have reached that goal.