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Fri December 14, 2012
Music News

Indian Musicians Remember Their Teacher, Ravi Shankar

Originally published on Mon December 17, 2012 9:27 am

The world mourned the death this week of Indian maestro Ravi Shankar, whose name became synonymous with the sitar. Tributes eulogized Shankar as the great connector of the East and West who'd hobnobbed with The Beatles and collaborated with violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. Less has been said about the roots of the music he spent a lifetime perfecting and innovating.

Indians mourned the man they affectionately call Pandit-ji, or Teacher. I sat down with one of his disciples, 48-year-old Shubhendra Rao, a sitar star in his own right. Rao says that, forever the innovator, Shankar fundamentally changed the instrument that he introduced to the West and that spawned the earliest genre of World Music.

The sitar is made of two large gourds set on each end of a long playing board of 19 or 20 strings, six or seven that are actually played, while the rest simply resonate. Rao says Shankar swapped one of the main melodic playing strings for a bass string.

Rao draws his sitar up from the floor to demonstrate, plucking the string that resonates deep and low. He says that single addition stretches the sound of the instrument from two and half octaves to three and three.

Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal says Shankar knew his sitar so intimately, it was like an extension of his body.

"It's not just resonance, but a radiant resonance," Mudgal says. "Of course there was speed, there was virtuosity, there was expression — his playing was expressive. There was very beautiful use of dynamics."

Cornerstone Of Indian Music

Shankar composed concertos, ballads, film scores and ragas — the melodic patterns that represent specific moods, seasons and even time of day. Mudgal says they are the cornerstone of Indian classical music. One of her favorites performed by Shankar is the Raag Bhatiyar, an ancient dawn raag that she says sparkles with "all kinds of acrobatics with the voice of the instrument."

Shubhendra Rao says that, as a young man, Shankar abandoned a glamorous life in Paris to return to India to study with renowned instrumentalist Allaudin Khan and begin a lifelong love affair with Indian classical music.

"From the five-star hotels of Paris and New York and Los Angeles, finally he ended up in a small room infested with snakes and mice," Rao says. "And totally giving up everything and focusing on music."

By the mid-1940s, Shankar was building a reputation as a composer and conductor. He was appointed music director of All India Radio and, Rao says, began commanding adoring audiences even then.

"Here was this handsome, handsome man — girls would just go to see him, forget hear him perform," Rao says. "And this is all before the West. So he changed the whole approach to how an artist is perceived."

Elevating The Music

Shankar changed the nature of performance in India, too, highlighting tabla players, the percussionists of Indian music, who had previously sat in the shadows. He's credited with elevating the respect and the pay that performing artists earned in India.

Rao says Shankar was simply alive to experiment. A student of the Hindustani classical music of northern India, Shankar embraced the genre of the south, as well. He played both from the Dhrupad style of temple music and Khayal, the more playful music of the court. Rao fingers race across the keyboard of his sitar as he performs an especially distinctive raag that Shankar composed by combining two traditional ragas into one.

Ravi Shankar refused to fill the role of the graying doyen, performing up until his death. Rao says his teacher and musicologist was "92 going on 29."

"He was many things put together," Rao says. "On one side, he was spiritual. On one side, he was playful. On one side, he was a child with a great sense of humor and lived life to the fullest."

Some critics in India accused Shankar of commercializing India's classical music to make it more palatable to non-Indian ears. Mudgal calls it "nit-picking." She says the Indian star collaborated with Western artists, but on his own terms. Shankar himself insisted he was not a practitioner of fusion; rather, he said he jealously guarded the heritage of northern Indian classical music, which he had learned as a young man.

In closing out our session with him, Sitarist Shubhendra Rao performs one of his favorite song by his master and teacher. Listening to the soulful melody, it's difficult to conclude that Ravi Shankar's music was anything other than a celebration of India.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The world mourned the death this week of Indian maestro Ravi Shankar, whose name became synonymous with the sitar. Tributes eulogized Shankar as the great connector of the East and West. Less has been said about the roots of the music he spent a lifetime innovating. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on how India remembers its first global musician.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Indians mourned the man they affectionately called Pandit-ji, or Teacher. I sat down with one of his disciples, 48-year-old Shubhendra Rao, a sitar star in his own right. Rao says, forever the innovator, Shankar fundamentally changed the instrument that he introduced to the West. The sitar is made of two large gourds set on each end of a long playing board of 19 or 20 strings. Shankar swapped one of the main melodic strings for a bass string to deepen the tone, stretching the sound from two and a half octaves to three and a half.

SHUBHENDRA RAO: For example, like this string, this is the bass string.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAO: So a lot of his music, he could play and give that, you know, total bass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHUBHA MUDGAL: In his playing, he was able to get a certain radiance about the sound.

MCCARTHY: Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal. She says Shankar knew his sitar so intimately, it was like an extension of his body.

MUDGAL: It's not just resonance, but a radiant resonance. Of course there was speed, there was virtuosity, there was expression. His playing was expressive. There was very beautiful use of dynamics.

MCCARTHY: Shankar composed concertos, ballads, film scores and ragas, the melodic patterns that represent specific moods, seasons and even time of day. Mudgal says they are the cornerstone of Indian classical music. One of her favorites, performed here by Ravi Shankar, is "Raag Bhatiyar," an ancient dawn raag.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "RAAG BHATIYAR")

MUDGAL: All kind of acrobatics with the voice of the instrument, very sparkling, very uplifting in many ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "RAAG BHATIYAR")

MCCARTHY: Shubhendra Rao says, as a young man, Shankar abandoned a glamorous life in Paris to study back in India with renowned instrumentalist Allaudin Khan and begin a lifelong love affair with Indian classical music.

RAO: From the five-star hotels of Paris and New York and Los Angeles, finally he ended up in a small room infested with snakes and mice, and totally giving up everything and focusing on music.

MCCARTHY: By the mid-1940s, Shankar was building a reputation as a composer and conductor. He was appointed music director of All India Radio and, Rao says, began commanding adoring audiences even then.

RAO: Here was this handsome, handsome man. Girls would just go to see him, forget hear him perform. And this is all before the West. So he changed the whole approach to how an artist is perceived.

MCCARTHY: Shankar changed the nature of performance in India, highlighting tabla players, percussionists, who had previously sat in the shadows. He's credited with elevating the respect and the pay performing artists earned in India. Rao says Shankar was simply alive to experimenting. A student of the Hindustani classical music of northern India, he embraced the genre of the south, as well. He played both the Dhrupad style of temple music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: ...and Khayal, the more playful music of the court. Rao says he composed one especially distinctive raag by combining two traditional ragas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: Ravi Shankar refused to be the graying doyen, performing up until his death. Shubhendra Rao says his teacher-cum-musicologist was 92 going on 29.

RAO: You know, he was many things put together. On one side, he was spiritual. On one side, he was playful. On one side, he was a child, you know, with a great sense of humor and lived life to the fullest.

MCCARTHY: Critics in India accused Shankar of commercializing India's classical music to make it more palatable to non-Indian ears.

MUDGAL: I think it's nitpicking. (Laughing)

MCCARTHY: Shubha Mudgal says the Indian star collaborated with Western artists, but on his own terms. Shankar said he was not a practitioner of fusion, but rather, he jealously guarded the heritage of northern Indian classical music, which he had learned as a young man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: Listening to sitarist Shubhendra Rao close out our session with a soulful song by his master and teacher. It is difficult to conclude that Ravi Shankar's music was anything other than a celebration of India. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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