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APPRECIATION

Ravi Shankar's impact went beyond the Beatles

Mark Caro

10:38 AM EST, December 13, 2012

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The Fox News Web headline Wednesday morning captured something in the air despite its utter wrongness:

"Beatles' sitar player Ravi Shankar dies at 92."

Well, first, the Beatles' sitar player was George Harrison. Shankar, who died Tuesday in his Southern California home a week after heart valve replacement surgery, never performed on a Beatles album.

He also didn't introduce the Beatles to the sitar, directly at least. Harrison played it on "Norwegian Wood" in 1965 after first seeing the complex Indian stringed instrument on the set of the Beatles movie "Help!" — though, as the story goes, David Crosby is the one who actually got Harrison interested in the sitar as well as Shankar's music.

Harrison did meet Shankar in 1966 and studied the instrument with him that year, instantly becoming the sitar master's most famous disciple. The results of Harrison's immersion in Indian classical music could be heard on "Love You To" from the Beatles' "Revolver" (1966) and "Within You, Without You" from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967), zeitgeist albums that turned a huge new Western audience on to this exotic-sounding Eastern form of music.

Harrison also is credited with getting Shankar onto the bill of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and by the time the Beatles made their 1968 spiritual pilgrimage to India, it was Shankar's style of music that served as the soundtrack to a Western pop embrace of Indian culture, religion, mysticism, fashion and food.

So, yes, the Beatles had much to do with Shankar's cultural impact in the U.S. and Europe. Here was an Indian classical music virtuoso, years before the term "world music" would be coined, playing at massive rock events such as Woodstock (1969) and the Concert for Bangladesh (1971, the soundtrack of which opens with him playing a 161/2-minute raga), and the kids were cool with that.

Yet, Shankar was already a towering figure of Indian classical music by the time of his Fab embrace. He had composed the acclaimed scores to Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray's "Apu" trilogy of the '50s and had toured the world, including Chicago. Chicago Symphony Orchestra records show that Shankar played at Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago campus back in 1961, though Symphony Center Presents director Jim Fahey said Shankar told him he first traveled to Chicago in 1933 as part of his brother Uday Shankar's dance troupe. Shankar was in his teens when he quit touring as a dancer and began training on the sitar.

"Ravi Shankar was certainly the innovator and instigator of the development of sitar music in our time," said Clar Monaco, who teaches sitar at the Sadhana School of Indian Music in Orland Park and plays it in the band Sandalwood. "There will never be anybody who can come close to doing what he did with that magnitude."

Monaco called Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Nikhil Banerjee the 20th century's three sitar giants, but "Ravi Shankar was certainly the most versatile because, way more than the other two, he broke away from traditional Indian classical music and collaborated with Western artists such as Philip Glass and Yehudi Menuhin. Even though he was collaborating with Westerners, he was able to pull it off, and the sitar didn't lose its integrity."

Hema Rajagopalan, founder and artistic director of Chicago's Natya Dance Theater, marveled at how Shankar could "bring the music to a level where people could understand it, that non-initiated audiences could love, without diluting the form, without diluting the integrity of Indian classical music."

Rajagopalan, who has choreographed dances to Shankar's compositions and was part of a group that presented him in Chicago in the 1980s, described his music-making as "a very transcendental process," with Shankar creating his own ambience through the lighting of incense and the slow playing of his ragas to establish the mood. He somehow was able to train audiences to hear the intricate interplay of melodies and rhythms, she said, "in a way that you can internalize and experience that inner joy that classical Indian music brings to you."

She likened Shankar to a fellow cross-cultural musical ambassador, Yo-Yo Ma: "He's another person who thinks of sharing the art form to uplift a person. It's supposed to reach out and touch somebody."

Shankar touched many people in Chicago over the years. Fahey said he performed eight times at Orchestra Hall/Symphony Center between 1996 and 2008, and he also had concerts there scheduled in 2010 and in October that had to be canceled due to health problems.

Shankar's 2001 Symphony Center concert was billed as his "farewell," Fahey said, but "thankfully his health improved, and he was able to return to us four times after that."

By the time of those later appearances, Shankar had taken on living-legend status. But he still had to play that sitar, sometimes accompanied by his daughter and fellow virtuoso Anoushka. (Singer Norah Jones is also his daughter.)

"It's such an amazing and complex instrument that to witness performances and to witness his virtuosity was one of the thrilling parts of his performances here," Fahey said. "Even in his later years, people would be on their feet when he walked in the door, but people would also be on their feet applauding after the amazing work he did onstage."

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro