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The definitive biography of Ravi Shankar, one of the most influential musicians and composers of the twentieth century, told with the cooperation of his estate, family, and friends
For over eight decades, Ravi Shankar was India's greatest cultural ambassador. He was a groundbreaking performer and composer of Indian classical music, who brought the music and rich culture of India to the world's leading concert halls and festivals, charting the map for those who followed in his footsteps. Renowned for playing Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and the Concert for Bangladesh-and for teaching George Harrison of The Beatles how to play the sitar-Shankar reshaped the musical landscape of the 1960s across pop, jazz, and classical music, and composed unforgettable scores for movies like Pather Panchali and Gandhi.
In Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, writer Oliver Craske presents readers with the first full portrait of this legendary figure, revealing the personal and professional story of a musician who influenced-and continues to influence-countless artists. Craske paints a vivid picture of a captivating, restless workaholic-from his lonely and traumatic childhood in Varanasi to his youthful stardom in his brother's dance troupe, from his intensive study of the sitar to his revival of India's national music scene. Shankar's musical influence spread across both genres and generations, and he developed close friendships with John Coltrane, Philip Glass, Yehudi Menuhin, George Harrison, and Benjamin Britten, among many others. For ninety-two years, Shankar lived an endlessly colorful and creative life, a life defined by musical, emotional, and spiritual quests-and his legacy lives on.
Benefiting from unprecedented access to Shankar's archives, and drawing on new interviews with over 130 subjects-including his second wife and both of his daughters, Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar- Indian Sun gives readers unparalleled insight into a man who transformed modern music as we know it today.
THE OCTAVE IN INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC
In everyday usage, the Indian octave resembles the Western equivalent in being divided into seven principal notes (swaras) or twelve semitones. The seven notes are most commonly known by their abbreviations—sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha and ni—from which they derive their collective name, the sargam.
The Indian sargam is movable in that these names do not stand for absolute pitch values. They are comparable to the terms do, re, me, fa, so, la and ti in Western terminology (where a “movable do” solfege system is followed).
In Indian musicology the octave is sometimes further subdivided into twenty-two shrutis or microtones, which are said to be the smallest changes in pitch that a human ear can detect.
Ravi Shankar’s principal sitar was usually tuned so that his sa (the tonic or first note) was C sharp. When he played with Western orchestras he used a sitar tuned to D.
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: C
NOTE: flattened 2nd
NAME: komal Rishabh
ABBREVIATION: komal re (or ri)
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: C sharp/D flat
ABBREVIATION: re (or ri)
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: D
NOTE: flattened 3rd
NAME: komal Gandhar
ABBREVIATION: komal ga
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: E flat
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: E
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: F
NOTE: sharp 4th
NAME: teevra Madhyam
ABBREVIATION: teevra ma
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: F sharp
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: G
NOTE: flattened 6th
NAME: komal Dhaivat
ABBREVIATION: komal dha
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: A flat
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: A
NOTE: flattened 7th
NAME: komal Nishad
ABBREVIATION: komal ni
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: B flat
EQUIVALENT IN KEY OF C: B
RAGAS CREATED BY RAVI SHANKAR
Pancham Se Gara
TALAS COMMONLY USED BY RAVI SHANKAR
Dadra tal: 6 beats, divided 3–3
Ardha jaital: 6½ beats, divided 3–2–1½
Rupaktal: 7 beats, divided 3–2–2
Keherwa tal: 8 beats, divided 4–4
Mattatal: 9 beats, divided 4–2–3
Jhaptal: 10 beats, divided 2–3–2–3
Sadhe Das: 10½ beats, divided 4–4–1–1½
Chartal ki sawari: 11 beats, divided 4–4–3
Sadhe Gyarah: 11½ beats, divided 4–4–2–1½
Ektal: 12 beats, divided 4–4–2–2
Jaital: 13 beats, divided 2–2–2–2–2–1–2
Dhamar: 14 beats, divided 5–2–3–4
Ada chautal: 14 beats, divided 2–4–4–4
Chanchar: 14 beats, divided 3–4–3–4
Pancham sawari: 15 beats, divided 3–4–4–4
Teental: 16 beats, divided 4–4–4–4
Shikhar tal: 17 beats, divided 4–4–4–2–1–2
SHANKAR FAMILY TREE
STAR FORMATION 1920–1944
In the holy city of Benares sound is everywhere.
Sitting in his southern Californian home, where he usually spent about half the year, Ravi Shankar surveyed the lush greenery and tropical flowers in the garden and the azure Pacific skies above. He was eighty-eight. His pen was poised, for he had been invited to write about his favorite place on Earth. He loved this suburban idyll, but at heart he had mostly been an urban creature. He often reminisced about Paris, New York and London. Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Los Angeles had played important roles in his life too. Yet one place stood out. “Varanasi seems to be etched in my heart,” he wrote.2
The north Indian city of Varanasi, or Benares as Ravi usually called it, has been a place of pilgrimage and learning for many centuries. It is said to be one of the world’s oldest surviving cities. Hindus still arrive from all over India because they believe that dying here and having their ashes scattered in the sacred River Ganges enables them to attain moksha—freedom from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. The city’s abiding magic somehow resists the encroachment of commercialization and the pressure of population growth. Benares is believed to be the eternal abode of Shiva and the holiest of all tirthas, those special crossing points on Earth where the barriers are thinnest between this world and the other. It was here, just before dawn on April 7, 1920, that Ravi Shankar was born.
“The city is a feeling in your bones; it is beyond comprehension,” he said.3 The ghats, the tiers of stone steps that descend into the west bank of the Ganges, with temples and palaces towering above, were the place Ravi loved most as a child. All human life was there: ritual bathing, wrestlers in training, sadhus worshipping amid wandering cows, boatmen sheltering under bamboo parasols, cricket games and theatrical plays, even childbirth and death. He could pass hours there, relishing the sound of the shehnais, the oboe-like reed instruments that resonated at auspicious hours from the palaces. They began at dawn, as the city was greeted by the sun rising across the Ganges. But his favorite time was sunset. Such was the ecstasy he felt then that he sometimes had to be taken home at night against his will. This was India as it might have been two millennia ago. The adult Ravi wrote of how the view from the ghats at dusk still filled him with “a very deep spiritual peace that makes me forget all the material world.”4
Benares was a profoundly formative influence, but there were other forces shaping the boy. He was born at a pivotal time in India, on the cusp between the ancient and the modern worlds. Power was draining away from the princes and the landed aristocracy; there was an educated middle class growing in size and confidence, and the British Raj was entering its final phase. It was a time of political ferment. It was only a year since the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, when troops under British command fired on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar, and during Ravi’s first summer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi began his two-year Non-Cooperation Movement of peaceful resistance to British rule. The British were building a new imperial capital of startling hubris at New Delhi, while at the same time trying to suppress the surging nationalist movement. As a child it was normal for Ravi to see the British beating up and arresting Indians, and he was aware of the attacks carried out by freedom-fighters. When he read Ananda Math, a book banned for its nationalist sentiments, he felt he had to hide it in case he was caught and sent to prison.
But there was little in Ravi’s first decade to suggest that he would become a world-changing musician. He was a lively, curious boy, his horizons limited to the city and the surrounding area. His family increasingly struggled for money and he had only two years of schooling in Benares. He sang well and occasionally played musical instruments but did not study music formally.
Ravi Shankar’s given name was Robindra. He was the last of seven sons, five of whom survived infancy. During his youth most people called him Robu, or occasionally Robin, or Robi—Bengali for the sun. To this day most Bengalis call him Robi Shankar. He did not change his name to Ravi until he was about twenty. His eldest brother, Uday, born in 1900, left for Europe when Robu was only four months old and did not return for over nine years. The second son was stillborn. Then came Rajendra, born in 1905, and Debendra, in 1908, who were both at school in Benares at the time of Robu’s birth. Rajendra, or Raju, had inherited an intellectual streak from their father, and young Robu was fond of his gentle nature. Debendra, or Debu, was sterner and Robu was less close to him. Bhupendra, born in 1911, was the tallest of the brothers at five foot eight, and the most artistic: he enjoyed drawing, writing poetry and songs, and singing along to the harmonium. He was Robu’s favorite brother, but there was an age gap of nine years between them. After Bhupendra there had been one more boy, Puchunia, who died at only ten months. They had no sisters.
Robu’s mother, Hemangini Chandra Chakrabarty, was from a family of zamindars (landowners) who had fallen on hard times, while his father, Shyam Shankar, also from a landowning family, rose to become foreign minister in the state of Jhalawar. His parents were both Bengali Brahmins, belonging to the priestly caste. It was an arranged marriage, and their horoscopes were favorably aligned, but they were very different from each other. She had an inner strength but was soft-spoken, poorly educated, knew no English and had the Bengali handwriting of a child. He was intellectual and cultivated, a high achiever with a questing spirit, and had a beautiful calligraphic hand. Born in 1886, she had been only eleven at their wedding, and fourteen when she had Uday. Shyam was nine years older than his wife.
By the time of Robu’s birth, almost twenty years after Uday’s, his parents were effectively living separate lives. In Jhalawar, where the family had spent the previous four years, and long stretches of the previous two decades, Shyam had begun living apart from his wife. After a nine-year relationship with an Englishwoman called Miss Morrell, whose family had cut her off for being the mistress of a “black-devil,” he had married her in 1917 or 1918.5 They had a Hindu ceremony, and she took the name Vrinda Shankar. Shyam had not divorced Hemangini and this second marriage did not prevent him getting her pregnant with their youngest son. Having two wives was not unlawful for a Hindu at the time, but it was rare and generally disapproved of.
Shyam traveled frequently on matters of state and in 1920, after a brief period in Calcutta, he left for Europe with His Highness Bhawani Singh, the Maharaj Rana of Jhalawar. Shortly before the birth of Robu, Hemangini settled in Benares with her sons and Shyam appointed a friend, a Mr. Biswas, as their guardian. At first they stayed in Biswas’s house on Tilebhandeshwar Galli, a lane that weaves its way through the Bengali neighborhood in the middle of the city, about four hundred yards from the river. It was here that Robu was born, in a home haunted at night by both fireflies and a ghost. Robu never saw the ghost himself, but apparently it manifested itself as different people. On one occasion Hemangini saw one of her brothers in the bathroom, but on returning to the bedroom found he had been fast asleep there all along.6
In Jhalawar, the family had enjoyed the privileges and prosperity of court life, and in Robu’s early years they remained comfortably off. Apart from returning to Jhalawar for five months in 1921, Shyam remained in Europe with his second wife until late 1924, and then decided to leave state service. There was a free spirit within him in conflict with his establishment instincts. “I have always fought for freedom and gave mortal offense to His Highness when I tried to break away from the bondage of slavery,” he explained. “I could not stick to it any longer.”7 The Maharaj Rana reacted by seizing land that Shyam had earlier been granted and denying him fair compensation. He was, however, awarded a pension of 200 rupees per month, which in theory should have been enough for Hemangini to raise the family in Benares. In reality, after various courtiers had taken their percentages, she received only 60 rupees, which was clearly insufficient. Shyam never sent her anything extra, even as he went on to establish an international portfolio career as a barrister, lecturer, consultant and composer.
Hemangini and Robu were especially close. His fondest childhood memory was lying on the flat roof of their three-story home with his head in his mother’s lap as she sang and told him stories of happier days, of her childhood in her village of Nasrathpur, or the palace life at Jhalawar, where his older brothers had been treated like princes and even had a pet tiger cub. “All those stories sounded like a fairy tale,” he later mused.8 Life had become a struggle for Hemangini. She cooked well, and Robu developed a lifelong taste for traditional Bengali dishes such as shukto, but she often went without so that the boys could eat. Later the family moved to a house further along the same street, renting from a landlord called Dukhi Teli. Their hardship was thrown into relief by a wealthy family living in a mansion opposite. This was where Robu saw riches for the first time: there was marble everywhere, mouthwatering sweets and fruits to eat, plenty of land, a tennis court and a motor car.
In her Jhalawar days Hemangini had often received gifts from the maharani, and of necessity she now resorted to pawning them. In the evening she would remove a bangle or sari from her trunk, drape a shawl over her head, grab Robu’s hand and scurry through the shadows to Dukhi Teli, who would pay her for each item. Robu’s brothers were unaware she was doing this. It was unthinkable for a woman of her status to take a job, but she earned some money by making blouses at home on a sewing machine. She showed no bitterness, but Robu felt her sadness and solitude as though they were his own wounds.
The family’s only pet was a mynah bird called Gangaram, which was kept in a cage next to the outdoor water tank. One sultry afternoon, when Robu was four or five, he thought he would give the bird a refreshing bath, but the cage slipped from his grasp and plummeted to the bottom of the tank. By the time he managed to retrieve it the bird was dead. He was horrified, although the fear of being caught was greater than his grief. At his shouts, his mother came running. “Who has killed Gangaram?” he howled, pretending that someone else had done it, but she realized what had happened.9
Indian classical music is an oral tradition, passed on direct from guru (teacher) to student, and to this day many of its protagonists follow in a family lineage and begin training at an early age. Robu might not have been a hereditary musician but the family was, as he once said, “rather more musical than most.”10 In Jhalawar his mother had attended musical events at court, and in her melodious voice she sang him many semi-classical or folk songs that she had learned there. His father, he later discovered, had a deep love of music. As a young man studying in Benares, Shyam had been trained to sing in the old classical dhrupad style, and he learned Sanskrit hymns from the Vedic scriptures. He had a rich voice and had learned how to project it in the days before amplification. When he was staying in Britain during the First World War he had arranged wartime entertainments for Indian soldiers, and even composed the first Indian ballet to appear in London’s West End, Hindu Mystic Ballet, which was staged at the Playhouse Theatre in 1915.
Rajendra was the most musically inclined of Robu’s older brothers. He played in the ensemble at a cultural club, Sangeet Samiti, and there were some instruments he had acquired or borrowed in the home, including a flute, a harmonium and, up on a shelf, a dilruba and an esraj, both fretted, four-stringed instruments played with a bow. Robu was particularly drawn to a small sitar that stood in the corner of the room. Initially he was forbidden to touch it. When he was about five or six, he would try it out in secret. He loved the buzzing sound, the sympathetic strings resonating in response when he plucked the main melody strings. Later he would surprise the family by playing some of the compositions that Rajendra had been practicing. There was rather more encouragement for his singing. Rajendra’s friend Annada Charan Bhattacharya, nicknamed Bechu, taught him some songs by the living titan of Bengali culture, Rabindranath Tagore, which are known collectively as Rabindra Sangeet. Robu also picked up songs from gramophone records. He often sang in front of guests at home and, later, at school, where he first experienced nerves about performing in public.
Benares is famous for its Banarasi-style silk, and a Muslim family of weavers lived nearby. Robu sometimes saw their daughters on their rooftop, and he was transfixed by one of them, who would have been about seventeen: “She used to smile at me and I was in love with her! She was so beautiful. I had a weakness for women from that very time.”11 When he was six, there was an incident with a young aunt in Nasrathpur that lit a spark of erotic curiosity in him.12 “Falling in love was one of those natural things I was born with,” he said.13 “My body was small but in my heart I already felt mature. I looked very sweet when I was young. Women used to fondle and kiss me. They thought I was a boy, but they didn’t know the passion aroused.”14
Robu would have been about eight when he first met his father. Shyam arrived at the house one morning to pick him up. Wearing his best Savile Row suit and with his fair complexion, he looked like a British sahib, thought the awestruck Robu. Shyam took his son to the Hotel de Paris in the Cantonment, the British quarter, where he was staying. He had two female companions: Madame Henny, a Dutch woman, who was his latest girlfriend, and Miss Jones, a cousin of Vrinda, who had died a couple of years earlier. The four of them sat down to a breakfast of fried eggs but the experience was humiliating for Robu, who was used to eating with his hands and had no concept of European table manners. He was bombarded with instructions on how to use the cutlery and the serviette, and he was on the verge of tears when he spilt egg yolk on his clothes. “I don’t know how I got through that breakfast!” he said.15
Shyam stayed in Benares for only about a week. One day he bought Robu a balloon and took him down to the ghats, where he bumped into Biswas and began a long conversation. Robu was bored and kept playing with the balloon until it burst with a loud report. Shyam said nothing, but when Biswas eventually left he grabbed Robu by his shoulders and shook him. Robu was not sure what he was being punished for, but he remembered how upset he was. “I had never felt any love from him; he had never taken me in his arms or touched me with affection,” he recalled. “I cried, although I tried not to. I really didn’t have much feeling for him then.”16
Shyam did something on that visit that seems out of character. Debendra had completed two years at college, but his father said to him, “What is the use of studying? You should try something adventurous.”17 He bought him a Chevrolet van and Debendra began running a private bus service. It was a surprising gesture from someone who valued education so highly.
Shyam was born in 1877 in Kalia, in the district of Jessore, in what was then the eastern part of undivided Bengal. Governed by his intellect, he was not interested in being a zamindar like his father, Barada Shankar Hara Chowdhury. From an early age he had unusual selfbelief and determination. At South Suburban School in Calcutta, he used to study so hard that he slept for only four hours a night. He read classic authors in English and Bengali.18 He was a product of a modern Bengali society that prized education and the professions, that was molded by British rule but also drew strength from the nineteenth-century Bengal Renaissance and demanded the right to participate in a universal culture.
He entered Calcutta University aged just fifteen, transferring to Benares shortly afterward. At twenty-one he began his career in the governments of Indian princely states by becoming private secretary to the chief of Piploda, in what is now Madhya Pradesh. There was a British restriction on Bengalis working in state service in the region, so the chief instructed him to drop “Hara Chowdhury” from his name, because it identified him as Bengali. He abridged his surname to Shankar. The transformation to “a pucca Rajput in habits” was complete when he donned a turban and learned to ride, shoot and play polo.19
- Best Classic Bands, "Best Music Books of the Year"
- '...[A]n intimate, expert reading of Shankar's music, as well as revelatory access to create the definitive portrait of his context within modern culture."—The Guardian
- "A master receives masterly treatment... an outstanding, forensic and deeply sympathetic biography..."—The Arts Desk
- "[A] superlative biography... [A] masterly chronicle of a life teeming with all-too-human incident but heavenly inspiration."—London Times
- "The definitive biography of the Maestro, told with the cooperation of his estate, family, and friends. Rigorously researched and lovingly presented, Oliver Craske offers a detailed and compelling account of the life of Ravi Shankar and the worlds he touched through his music and personal journey."—East Meets West Music
- "...Craske handles the niceties of Shankar's personal life with diplomacy while staying focused on his subject's musical mission and lifelong hunger for spiritual fulfilment. He wears his expertise lightly and his passion on his sleeve: a winning combination for a definitive work."—The Observer
- '"Read as a whole, this book feels like an Indian version of A Dance to the Music of Time: the same characters bumping into each other over the course of nearly a century, relationships fraying and re-knitting, love affairs flaring, dying down, re-igniting, children repeating the mistakes of their parents, all against a backdrop of war and famine and independence and nationalism."—The Spectator
- "Oliver Craske's extraordinary biography Indian Sun... is not a hagiographic portrait of a spiritual icon but a remarkably human life story, defined by familial failures, seething rivalries, physical frailty and relentless ambition. For anyone who has been moved by a Shankar recording, this is a portrait of the man behind the music and the unchartered waters of Shankar's quest to save Indian classical music from extinction. With his elegant writing and extensive research, Craske manages to shatter Shankar's cliché Eastern sage persona and rebuild his reputation as one of the giants of world music. Indian Sun transcends its subject by becoming something larger than a narrow timeline of an undeniably large life. In using Shankar as an axis, Craske has written a broader cultural history of music and hyphenated artists in the 20th century - a measured rumination on the possibilities and the price of artistic ambition... this is a beautiful book, as resplendent as its subject's music and life."—Washington Post
- "Indian Sun is a new authoritative biography of the Indian musician Ravi Shankar's life, published to coincide with this year's centenary of his birth... Oliver Craske traces the full breadth of Shankar's life beyond the known flashpoints of his career."—NPR's All Things Considered
- "A definitive, meticulously truthful book, full of discoveries."—BBC Radio 4 (Pick of the Week)
- "A supremely readable biography that deftly interweaves his personal life, his professional life, and where necessary some brilliant analysis of his music and Indian music in general."—Songlines
- "Tells the personal and musical story of a life that changed so many musical cultures."—BBC Radio 3's Music Matters
- "A key virtue of this fine biography is that it mostly resists the tendency to idealise Shankar. When [Richard] Attenborough went to see India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the early 1960s about his proposed film on Gandhi, Nehru advised him that it would be wrong to deify the Mahatma because 'he was too great a man for that.' Craske fruitfully follows the spirit of Nehru's advice."—Sight & Sound
- "[A] compelling, informative, and the definitive book on this musical legend."—Library Journal
- "Indian Sun... gives us a superb trove of detail, some of it astonishing... Mr. Craske is at his best when writing about the least-emphasized aspects of Shankar's career... Yet the book excels, too, in those areas of which we're already aware. Mr. Craske is eloquent on the appeal of the music itself, and explains superbly how the Indian and Western classical idioms are so unlike each other."—Wall Street Journal
- "[An] incredibly detailed and wonderfully written biography."—World Music Institute newsletter
- "Compelling and informative" (One of the "Best Arts Books of 2020")—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 672 pages
- Hachette Books