How important was the West’s role in the Ravi Shankar phenomenon?

A comprehensive look at Ravi Shankar’s place in history cannot sidestep his combativeness and his flair for public relations. These played no small part in the stardom he achieved, and the way unhappy controversies were papered over.

Published: 15th December 2012 11:36 PM  |   Last Updated: 17th May 2013 10:41 AM   |  A+A-

There is a big (896 pages) reference compendium called The Penguin Companion to Classical Music. Note that title again. It does not say Western classical music, or Asian or African. Just “classical music”. So we would think that this book, in convenient dictionary format, is about the classical music of the world.

But it isn’t. In all those hundreds of pages, the word Hindustani does not appear, or Carnatic. There is no Tyagaraja. Not one of the great Khan sahebs of Hindustani classical music figures anywhere. The word India exists, to inform us that Indian music had the same sources as music in modern Europe. In other words, what we have here is a companion to Western classical music parading under false universal pretences.

There is one, and only one, classicist of Indian music who was found worthy of notice: Shankar, Ravi. All right, he gets only 5 1/2 lines, 3 1/2 of which are about his tour of Europe and contacts with Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison. But that is 5 1/2 lines more than what Muthuswamy Dikshitar, who re-invented the violin, got. The lesson to learn here is that recognition in any field of human endeavour assumes meaning only when it comes from the white West. This is of course no reflection on Ravi Shankar. His greatness was genuine and acquired through tortuous sadhana. But he became more equal than his peers because he was seen as part of the culture that the Beatles so brilliantly symbolised.

Let it also be remembered that Ravi Shankar did not go looking for Western recognition as a shortcut to success. Far from it. His westward gravitation came naturally. His father was already settled abroad when he was born. At 10, “Robu” was in Paris with his other brothers helping Uday Shankar, the eldest, to set up his dance troupe.

It should be noted, too, that Ravi Shankar’s counterculture fling with the hippies did not dilute his classical worth. He was versatile. He was activist enough to be a part of the communist-inspired IPTA movement and multifaceted enough to contribute to the musical substance of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and Attenborough’s Gandhi. But a comprehensive look at his place in history cannot sidestep his combativeness and his flair for public relations. These played no small part in the stardom he achieved, and the way unhappy controversies were papered over.

The withdrawal into silence of his hugely talented wife Annapoorna Devi was a major loss to music. By available accounts, this daughter of the great Allauddin Khan was more talented than Ravi Shankar. This was probably true considering that her disciples included the likes of Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Nikhil Banerjee. She must have been devastated by whatever happened during the flareups between her and the husband she married when she was 14. Some who knew the couple said Ravi Shankar was jealous of her musical virtuosity. The wife’s Bhishma-like resolve to remain silent only kept the chatter going.

It is a fact that Vilayat Khan felt eclipsed by Ravi Shankar. To a large extent, the reason was Vilayat’s acerbic personality and the contrast provided by Ravi Shankar’s cultivated charm. But Vilayat had reasons to be haunted by the feeling that his contributions to music did not receive the recognition they deserved. He was a prodigy who began performing when he was six. He modified the sitar and developed a revolutionary style of his own, the gayaki ang, which won devotees and imitators wherever he went. But the limelight was focused on Ravi Shankar. Vilayat Khan showed his resentment in small ways—rejecting the two Padma awards offered to him and accepting an unknown group’s title, Bharat Sitar Samrat.

As in music, so in dance. The debate is still on as to who served Bharatanatyam better—Rukmini Devi who “cleansed it” or Balasaraswati who took abhinaya to unprecedented heights of glory. But in the celebrity circuit, the upperclass wife of an Englishman reigns. To what extent can art go without the backing of the West? Who wins in the end—the art or the glamour?


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