This review is by Amy Hughes
Ravi Shankar feels like a forever presence. For the ones he touched with his music, that feeling of immortality is an apt descriptor. For the man – the human being – that roamed this earth for 92 years, the state of existing is hard to describe.
With author Oliver Craske, Shankar’s official biography Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar (Hachette Books, 2020) paints a portrait rich in colors: the muted tones that inhabit his childhood to the neon tapestry of the Swinging Sixties to the earthy, husky embers inhabiting his later years, all brought together in an extensive and complex tome.
Craske is well-versed in Indian culture and music and his extremely helpful notations on Indian instrumental and musical terminology are sprinkled throughout the chapters, bringing into focus how Shankar rose from his dysfunctional, distant family and embraced a worldwide audience with his masterful techniques that helped bring not only Indian music but Indian culture to the forefront like never before.
Having said this, a review that merely lists his chronological accomplishments is a disservice to his legacy (Shankar passed in 2012). Herein are my thoughts and impressions of a full and rich life.
Shankar’s connection to George Harrison is well-documented in Beatledom history. However, Craske paints a more nuanced portrait of these two souls, with varying degrees of master & student, “father” and “son.” What one should come away with is a deeper appreciation of Harrison’s love in helping Shankar overcome the tragedies of his cultural homeland (“The Concerts for Bangladesh”) and bringing Shankar and his support for his 1974 Dark Horse tour.
Harrison continued his love and devotion for Shankar throughout his life, helping produce his music and taking great concern and care for his daughter Anoushka (herself an accomplished sitarist) when the weight of her father’s legendary status would come to bear on her own career.
Shankar’s musical abilities were not first and foremost in his youth. That he was a dancer in his older brother Uday’s troupe as a youngster is revelatory to a reader not fully immersed in his story. His childhood revolved around dance, traveling and performing throughout India, Europe and the United States. But while he was engaged in this creative aspect, his personal life was torn apart numerous times. Craske reveals the painful memories of Shankar’s sexual abuse as a child, his detachment from his father (a prominent figure who was assassinated), the death of a brother and ultimately the passing of his beloved mother.
His relentless work ethic in these pages is unmatched. Moving from dance to sitar (an alliance with Allauddin Khan started his official training), the dedication to not only the instrument that came to define him, but also his innate ability to focus and move ahead with passion (which included training with Khan’s daughter Annapurna, who he married in 1941) and by extension his love for country (beginning work as the music director at All India Radio in 1949). He composed continually: ballet, orchestration, film (working closely with director Satyajit Ray) and music director for several Hindi movies.
It came as a surprise then to delve deep into Shankar’s personal history of love. One would surmise that Shankar embraced love to fill the gaping hole left by his father. In as much as he tried to be a “parent” to his son Shubho (born in 1942), the father-son bond was tied primarily by long distances. As Shankar began (and continued) an arduous touring schedule, coupled with the demands of composing, he was constantly away from ‘home.’ Craske (as his official biographer) was able to extract Shankar’s deepest feelings towards not only his family issues but also how he felt a deep bond with his extended family: the audiences he performed for.
As Shankar’s popularity grew worldwide, he hopped, skipped and jumped across the globe. Several world-shattering moments though fueled depression and thoughts of suicide in 1940, namely the assassination of Gandhi. His father’s murder (unsolved) and increasing detachment from his wife & son led him to what would now be considered a promiscuous lifestyle. He admitted as much to the many liaisons – public and private – two of which resulted in the births of daughters Norah and Anoushka. Norah’s upbringing (unconventional as her mother Sue Jones decided to stay in the US and raise Norah as a single parent). She remained mostly under the radar until her late teens and then at age 23, she exploded onto the music scene with her album ‘Come Away With Me.’ Shankar grew in his admiration for Jones (and with a family bond that obviously was hard to fathom), she also found a way to connect with not only Shankar, but also with Sukanya Rajan, his second wife and Anoushka.
Craske also notates to great extent throughout the chapters Indian terminology, with regards to composing, instrumentation and how to understand the differences between East and West musicianship. While Harrison went to extraordinary lengths to incorporate Shankar into modern music, Shankar had already accomplished this and more with his indescribable sets at both Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. Several iconic musicians had already lent their lives (as it were) to Shankar including saxophonist John Coltrane and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. While Shankar struggled with the concept of merging his beloved Indian music with ‘the West,’ his collaboration with composer Philip Glass starting in 1965 was beneficial and lifelong. While Glass to most ears is considered experimental and minimalist, Shankar’s work gave him a life-altering course in composition and performing. Their 1990 album “Passages” is the hybrid of their brilliant philosophies.
While Shankar appeared content with his masterful work – performing, teaching, mentoring, building study centers, composing – he nonetheless became a member of India’s Parliament for six years and then in 1992… his son Shubho (in his adult life had become an accomplished sitarist thru his mother’s strict teaching) succumbed to pneumonia, leaving behind a wife and son. Shankar was devastated – a “cruel blow” as he described it and threw himself into work. Whatever his misgivings about his role as a parent, he knew that as time went on, his ill health which began in childhood would catch up with him in some fashion.
Craske entered his world in 1994 as an editor and assistant in procuring his life’s work into his 1997 autobiography ‘Raga Mala.’ His friendship with Shankar permeates ‘Indian Sun’ in ways that only someone who has spent decades with could understand. As it is meticulously researched, the openness and trust between the two help illustrate, as noted in this review, the complex, multi-faceted cultural figure who was more at home in front of an audience than anywhere else in his lifetime. He was blessed to perform one last time in November 2012 with Anoushka and as his heart was failing, had surgery in December which he did not recover from. He died December 11, 2012.
While I can’t fully expound on this mammoth medium to the extent it deserves, I fully and wholeheartedly recommend it as required reading for everyone who thinks they know “Pandit” Shankar merely as a great musician. He was so much more.
I give this book 5 out of 4 beetles (one extra!)