Pandit Ravi Shankar, the sitar legend, recently performed at his twice-postponed 90th Birthday Concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The 91-year-old maestro took to the stage with a walking cane and (relatively) flowing white beard, looking more like the mystic Sri Aurobindo than the young sitarist who introduced Americans to classical Indian music more than 50 years ago. But as soon as the flute and percussion accompaniment kicked in, his fingers started to fly and his sitar began to sing, mesmerizing the musicians and the crowd alike. As he left the stage, the rapturous audience gave him a resounding standing ovation, not just for a magical evening, but also for a mythical career.
Although there is lively debate on the question of the best contemporary sitarist, there is no denying that Ravi Shankar is the most famous sitarist to ever live. As a global ambassador of Indian culture, Shankar brought the medieval music of the Indian courts to modern amphitheaters and performing arts centers around the world. His music introduced millions of people to the intricacy and ecstasy of raag (melody) and taal (rhythm), and his performances inspired new audiences to explore and embrace classical Indian music.
More than just a popular Indian musician, Ravi Shankar significantly shaped American popular culture. Despite his reluctance, the 1960s countercultural movement embraced him, and as hippies began attending his performances, he started performing at their concerts. Indeed, Shankar played a four-hour show at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and also performed an inspired set in the rain at Woodstock. But his most enduring impact on American pop culture is the Concert for Bangladesh, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.
During the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh, 10 million refugees poured into India, resulting in the world's largest refugee crisis. In order to help raise money and awareness for relief agencies, Shankar approached his dear friend George Harrison with the idea of a benefit concert. Together they produced the Concert for Bangladesh, which brought together an extraordinary group of musicians for two shows at Madison Square Garden. As the first major benefit concert of its kind, the Concert for Bangladesh provided a blueprint and inspiration for the many benefit concerts that followed, such as Live Aid, Farm Aid, the Tibetan Freedom Concert and the Concert for Pakistan.
From a musical perspective, the Concert for Bangladesh was eclectic and dramatic. Ravi Shankar performed the riveting raga "Bangla Dhun" with sarod legend Ali Akbar Khan and tabla luminary Alla Rakha. The concert was Bob Dylan's only major performance between 1969 and 1974, and featured a poignant rendition of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit." Despite the fact that Eric Clapton was struggling with his heroin addiction at the time, he joined George Harrison and Ringo Starr for the first live performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And George Harrison debuted his song "Bangladesh," written specifically for the event, with an opening lyric that paid tribute to Ravi Shankar: "My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes, told me he wanted to help before his country dies."
Ravi Shankar not only shaped American music, but American spirituality as well. With the rise of Indian gurus coming to the United States in the 1960s, Shankar emerged as the musical counterpart to their spiritual teachings, and his music has long been associated with meditation, yoga and tranquility. Shankar himself acknowledged the spiritual aspirations of his music and his focus on transcendence: "Different types of music, whether it is vocal or instrumental, Eastern or Western, classical or pop or folk from any part of the world can all be spiritual if it has the power to stir the soul of a person and transcend time for the moment." Shankar's embrace of sound and spirit, and his view of music as sonic theology, endeared him to other iconic musical seekers, including George Harrison, Philip Glass and John Coltrane, who named his son after Shankar.
As a prominent Hindu who chose to live in the United States, Ravi Shankar is an important figure for Hindu Americans. He has continuously promoted and embodied the core Hindu values of pluralism, introspection and creativity, and his Hindu devotion is apparent on his album Chants of India, a collection of Vedic chants and Hindu prayers. As a unique bridge between India and the United States, his legacy is deeply intertwined with politics and culture, religion and spirituality. And even though his career is coming to an end, his impact will be felt for years to come through his historic concerts, his albums and soundtracks, his cross-cultural collaborations, his student lineage, and his immensely talented daughters Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar.