How Indian maestro Ravi Shankar's music melded east and westby Amit Chaudhuri / June 8, 2020 / Leave a comment
Ravi Shankar was born to a Bengali family as Robindra Shankar Chowdhury on 7th April 1920 in Banaras, north India. The story of the Bengali is a story of displacement—not just the displacement that came from the partition of the state upon independence in 1947, but also cultural displacement and remaking. Shankar’s life and work is an exemplary product of this history. His father Shyam Shankar Chowdhury was a displaced Brahmin who was also a Middle Temple barrister and a man who, at the time of Shankar’s birth, had made his home outside Bengal, in Banaras. Ravi Shankar was what Bengalis would have called a prabashi Bangali—an “expatriate Bengali,” part of a colonial scattering that fed accidentally into the resurrection of classical traditions. Like much of world history in both the west and the east, Indian tradition as we know it today is a recent reinvention; and Shankar would be one of its great reinventors.
The name Robindra, which became “Ravi,” is quite possibly a homage to Rabindranath Tagore, whose experimentation not only with genres but also how to live as an Indian and as an artist was a precursor for Shankar. Tagore’s willingness to hit, miss or discover prefigures the unpredictable shifts in the sitar player’s life. The word robi or, in its Devanagari spelling, ravi, means “sun,” and its punning, life-giving force is referenced in the title of Oliver Craske’s compendious and immensely readable new biography, Indian Sun.
Ravi Shankar was the youngest of seven brothers, of whom the oldest was another experimenter, the dancer Uday. Uday never learnt any of the Indian classical dance forms. He chose to create his own unique style from a general sense of the traditions. He started his education in London as a student of fine arts. The painter William Rothenstein became, Craske quotes Uday as saying, “the first to open my eyes to the greatness and beauty of India and her arts.” Rothenstein was one of those minor English figures who became midwives in the fashioning, and facilitating, of the arts in India. Earlier, he had circulated Tagore’s translation of his Bengali songs, the Gitanjali, among friends who included WB Yeats, leading to…