India’s devotion to music goes back to prehistoric times. There are references in the religious texts and other ancient treatrises which suggest that music had achieved a high degree of sophistication already 3.000 years ago. At the end of the mediaeval period, most of the musicians were professionals. Most of them were muslims or low castes hindus but despite of their low condition, they were highly appreciated by their high castes employers (princes and rich businessmen). Yet, when the Indian culture was at its peak, it was the contrary. Through history, hindus have considered musical knowledge as something essential in the education of any cultured person. More recently, a man has done a lot to popularize the Indian music in the world. His name is Ravi Shankar.
From the Beatles to John Coltrane and the Stones, from Rostropovitch to Yehudi Menuhin, Ravi Shankar, the great master of sitar ( a string instrument with a very long neck and a sound box made from a pumpkin), has influenced all of them. Born in 1920 in a brahmin family, he has been ( and still is) the guru of many musicians, regardless of their age. He started as a dancer in the company of his brother Uday ( who was the first to introduce the indian art in the West). In the 30’s, the company played in Europe. That’s when he met Ustad Allaudin Khan, a very famous indian musician. At this time, Ravi was learning to play the “veena” ( something like a sitar but from South India) and sitar. Very impressed by the talent of the great master, he learnt from him for seven years.
At 36 years old, he travelled to the USA for the first time…and began his mission, popularizing the indian classical music in the West. His name became famous in the late sixties, when one of the Beatles, George Harrison, chose him as his guru. Then, Monterey and Woodstock festivals, with Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and many other rock and folk stars. In the 60’s, Ravi Shankar drew so much attention because of the sound of the sitar, its resonance effects. At this time, western musicians were looking for originality, exoticism, mystery,… they liked the psychedelic sound of the sitar. Famous and rich, Ravi Shankar created his own school at Los Angeles ( USA) in 1967.
Despite of mixing styles, Ravi says he has always refused to adapt to the everchanging western music. “My music is immemorial, it follows the ancient concepts of “raga” and “tala” ( melody and rhythm in the indian classical music). I think music can bring peace to the world. Any elaborate form of music is spiritual.” Considered as the real creator of the “world music”, he lives now in California. But regularly, he goes back to Calcutta, “a city that looks like New York because of its constant agitation”.