“Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar” by Oliver Craske

Ravi Shankar, detail from Faber & Faber cover Ravi Shankar, detail from Faber & Faber cover

Indian Sun is a large book teeming with larger-than-life characters, not all of whom are called Ravi Shankar. Oliver Craske gives us a whole complex world, or, if you like, two complex worlds, Indian and Western, meeting, sometimes uneasily, through music. 

Shankar is at the center of the story, but it’s the other people in his life who help us understand him. He enjoyed numerous personal and professional relationships over the years with such distinguished musical people as Benjamin Britten, Philip Glass, George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin, John Coltrane and many other musicians from the classical, jazz and popular worlds, as well as with many Indian musicians. Indeed, it’s likely that some people picking up this book will do so because they know of Shankar’s association with The Beatles, in particular George Harrison, perhaps remembering the sitar featuring in songs such as “Norwegian Wood” (actually written before the two met) or “Within you, without you.”

For a while, of course, Indian music, and, to some extent, Indian culture (John Lennon’s flirtation with transcendental meditation and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi) became all the rage in the West due to the involvement of The Beatles and others with Ravi Shankar. It was played by Ravi Shankar himself at the Monterey Pop Festival, followed shortly thereafter by his appearance at Woodstock and at the Concert for Bangladesh (1971). “I wonder how much they understand,” Shankar commented worriedly at the time, “and where all this will lead to.” He was always concerned about popular music’s connection with drugs, particularly LSD, and would not play for stoned audiences if he could avoid it; the music itself, he knew, provided its own spiritual “high” if listened to properly, that is without the help of so-called mind-expanding drugs.

The friendship with Harrison, however, as we find out in Craske’s book, was actually a genuinely deep one both personally and musically, with Harrison taking a serious interest in Indian music (he did learn to play the sitar quite well) as well as acting on occasion as Shankar’s producer in England. At Harrison’s premature death (2001) Shankar wrote

 

I feel I have been cheated by George. Why did he have to go so soon at such a young age when I really wanted to go first?

 

Shankar himself lived until 2012, dying at the age of ninety-two.

 

Craske keeps the music itself very much in focus: we learn how an Indian raga is put together and how a sitar is tuned (there’s even a diagram with explanations at the beginning of the book), but we also find out that the conductor Zubin Mehta carried a tin of chilies in his pocket to sprinkle on bland western food, and that the great tabla player Alla Rakha, as Ravi Shankar joked, learned English by watching Bonanza and Ben Hur. “Alla Rakha is going squint by watching TV all the time,” Shankar wrote to his long-time girlfriend Kamala Chakravarty. This book abounds with amusing (and telling anecdotes), but Craske never loses sight of what he is doing—there is plenty of serious analysis along with the anecdotes, and it is always accessible to a general reader.

Craske makes sure that readers have a properly rounded-out portrait of Ravi Shankar, perhaps for the first time. There are detailed chapters on Shankar’s career before he became a star in the West, and this story needed to be told. Shankar began his musical journey as a singer and dancer; Craske entitles one early chapter “Dancing Comes First”, as he gives an account of Shankar’s involvement with his older brother Uday’s professional dance troupe, helping to expand the audience for classical dancing.

In the 1920s and 30s Shankar turned to the sitar and song, and by the time India got its independence in 9147 he was well-established, landing a post as Director of Music at the All-India Radio External Services division in Delhi just at the right time. As Craske puts it, “A revolution had arrived in the lives of North Indian classical musicians,” and Shankar was more than ready to take his part in it by moving the music from a rather specialized and elite genre to something a more general audience could understand.

Under Nehru’s leadership, there was a resurgence of Indian arts, because the new government, in spite of the Prime Minister’s comparative indifference to art, saw its political and social value. Nehru believed that the arts “might help to bind together India’s extraordinary diversity into a national culture.”

Ravi Shankar, as he started to become known in the West during the 1950s, would extend this into the possibility of East meeting West through music, giving the lie to Kipling’s idea that “never the twain shall meet.” And that’s where Craske moves into more familiar territory, as Shankar discovers Western music, travels all over the world, collaborates in “fusion” projects such as his two sitar concertos with Menuhin, works as a film composer (he provided the music for Attenborough’s Gandhi) and, of course, exchanges musical ideas with everyone from Britten to The Beatles. He became well-versed in Western music, remarking, for example, on “Beethoven’s grave and deeply thoughtful soul” as compared to Enescu’s “unbridled passion of the gypsies; sorrows, tears—everything is there,” he said.

As he became known in the West, Shankar dedicated more and more of his time to finding the appropriate place for Indian music in world culture; he had already made a great contribution to the revival of Indian music at home, and he now wanted to show the West, as he said, that “there is something very deep [in Indian music] that is yet to be appreciated by Westerners.”  Shankar was, of course, not alone in his belief in the power of music; we might recall Handel saying to an aristocratic admirer, “My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make men better.”

Shankar was always perplexed, however, by the attitude so many in the West took towards Indian music; the Russians and Japanese thought of it as folk music, many Americans said it was like jazz, and everyone looked for similarities between it and their own music. “The similarities are very superficial,” he said. Part of him wanted Indian music to be appreciated as Indian music, but the other part wanted it to find a place in the wider world, just as Haydn replied to Mozart when asked how he was going to manage in London if he didn’t speak English: “Meine Sprache versteht Man durch die ganze Welt,” his language (music) could be understood by the whole world. Shankar bent his energies to achieving that understanding.

His influence spread quickly and remains to this day pervasive; there are few who have not heard at least one piece by Shankar, and his tradition has been brilliantly carried on by a new generation of Indian musicians, including his daughter Anoushka. As Craske puts it, “Ravi’s enduring impact extends beyond his musical legacy to his example as a kind of global citizen who traveled relentlessly, breaking down barriers between peoples, introducing them to the best of India.”

 

 Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, Oliver Craske (Hachette, Faber & Faber, April 2020)
Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, Oliver Craske (Hachette, Faber & Faber, April 2020)

Craske also gives us a detailed and sympathetic portrait Shankar the man, a complex and sometimes puzzling person, a man who broke hearts but made few enemies, a loving father who seems to have rediscovered that role after many years absence, and a man who seems to have had, like Haydn, little envy for his peers and contemporaries. He had a rather lonely childhood; his beloved mother Hemangini died in 1936 when he was a teenager and his father was a strict martinet; his brother Uday was at first the shining star of the family, and eventually Shankar had to get out from under his influence. He was married twice; his first marriage, which lasted forty years until his wife Annapurna consented to a divorce, was rocky to say the least, and the fact that she was the daughter of Shankar’s musical guru Allauddin Khan, known as Baba, who, after Hemangini’s death, raised Shankar as his own son. Shankar’s long-term mistress Kamala was the sister of his brother Uday’s wife. The second marriage to Sukanya seems to have been more successful, although in between he had an affair with his producer Sue Jones which resulted in a daughter, Norah, with whom he reconnected years later in 1997. She, like her half-sister Anoushka, is an accomplished musician, and the three of them sometimes played together; Shankar established good relations with his daughters, who both adored him. “Basically, I am a one-woman man,” he claimed; one might be tempted to use the phrase “serial monogamist.”

Although it is his music which makes Ravi Shankar great, the personal often has an annoying habit of getting mixed up with the artistic or professional. Shankar was a decent human being, a workaholic who had the same sorts of personal vicissitudes that ordinary mortals have; “the perfectionism that manifested itself in his music,” Craske tells us,

 

was allied to a sense of perpetual dissatisfaction, a combination that has inspired much great art but has also destroyed many musicians.

 

His wife Sukanya recognized that his grief for his mother was unresolved, and he seemed to know only too clearly that he had

 

missed out on the innocent joy of youth … being immersed too early in a very adult world.

 

At the same time, luckily for him, he had “a deep joie de vivre that survived everything” and which helped him remain young at heart. For Craske, who knew Shankar for eighteen years,

 

the image of him that stands out above all for me is of that open mind, ever curious, playful like a child. He embraced the creed that learning never ends, and he expressed it in an unquenchable thirst for musical exploration.

 

Ravi Shankar is fortunate to have had such a biographer as Oliver Craske, a candid but judicious friend and no hero-worshipper—Indian Sun is likely to be the definitive biography of Ravi Shankar for many years to come.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.