Ravi Shankar bridged cultures by bringing sitar to the West, but at a cost
He later returned to India and took up music, discovering he was drawn to the sitar, an instrument with over 20 steel strings that requires considerable strength to position correctly and brutal stamina to play. Adding to the complexity is the performing regimen: sitar players do not read music, but are required to memorize a reportoire of ragas, or traditional melodic patterns, that they then improvise upon. The practice can take years to master.
“It’s the only instrument you can’t call easy,” he told this writer in a 1998 interview.
Shankar’s career as a recording artist, film composer, international touring musician and orchestral director began in the 1940s. He later strove to work with musicians outside his tradition, including French flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, American violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, to whom he gave lessons on Indian improvisation skills.
However, Shankar is best known for his friendship with, and mentoring of, Mr. Harrison, whom he met at a party in London in 1965. At the time, Harrison had already performed a sitar solo on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” a John Lennon composition, and became enraptured with the instrument.
With Shankar, Harrison immersed himself with the instrument to deepen his playing, an experience that became immediately apparent on “Love You To,” considered a landmark for the group.