How Ravi Shankar made India proud and influenced foreign policy

For Indians of my generation, the defining memory of Ravi Shankar remains the Bangladesh concert. You probably know the story. In 1971, when the Pakistani army let loose a reign of terror in what was then East Pakistan, the world grew agitated as stories of brutality began to emerge. And though India hosted 90 lakh refugees, Western governments refused to take action.

Partly, this was because Richard Nixon, who was then President of the US, felt obliged to Pakistan for serving as a bridge between Washington and Beijing. So, no matter how many East Pakistanis were murdered or raped, Western governments refused to even condemn the atrocities.

It was then that Ravi Shankar, an Indian Bengali, went to see his friend, George Harrison. The Beatles had just broken up and at that stage Harrison was the most commercially successful ex-Beatle. Shankar asked Harrison if he could do something to raise public consciousness.

Harrison agreed at once. He wrote a song called Bangladesh (“My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes/Said he wanted help before his country dies..”) which quickly became a hit and transformed the Western world’s understanding of what was happening in East Pakistan.

But Shankar believed that more needed to be done. So, Harrison agreed to organise a massive concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden to benefit Bangladesh refugees. The Beatles had not performed live since

1966 so any performance by an ex-Beatle was a big deal. Plus, the concert featured other big names of that era: Leon Russel, Eric Clapton, and another ex-Beatle, Ringo Starr. Though this was not announced initially, Bob Dylan also made one of his increasingly rare live appearances. So great was the demand for tickets that another concert was quickly organised.

You can hear the concert on the live album or watch the movie. Just before the rock stars come on, Ravi Shankar plays a small set. The audience, primed by stories of Shankar’s role in persuading Harrison to organise the concerts, goes berserk as soon as Shankar plays the first few notes.

Ravi Shankar stops. He pauses. He looks at the crowd and then he says: “If you enjoyed the tuning-up so much, I hope you will like the concert even more.”

Many, many years later, I asked Ravi Shankar about that remark. Was it, as we believed then, just an innocent expression of delight? Or was he being ironic or even a little snide about an audience of rock fans who understood nothing about Indian music but just clapped at anything?

The answer surprised me. It was not an innocent remark. He was being snide. He had begun to get slightly irritated by the rapturous response he received from stoned American audiences, who had no understanding of Indian music.

In many ways, the Bangladesh concert summarises the kind of influence Ravi Shankar had in the West. In 1971, he was the most famous Indian in America and probably the only living Indian they had heard of in Middle America. Each time he played at a rock festival (and he played at many such festivals, including Woodstock) he would be cheered on by adoring crowds. Rock legends flocked to him. George Harrison put sitar parts on such songs as John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood. Brian Jones added a sitar to the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black. Indian music had suddenly become trendy.

Such was Shankar’s power that he could take an issue such as the atrocities in East Pakistan and turn it into a cause celebre. It was only because he went to see George Harrison that Bangladesh became a global symbol of human rights violations.

And yet, the man himself changed very little. Contrary to what many of the obituaries have suggested, he never played raga rock. He remained true to his musical roots. And no matter how stoned or admiring the audience, he played exactly the kind of music in California that he would have played in Calcutta.

He never betrayed the musical tradition he was born into. And when he did extend himself and collaborate with other musicians, it was rarely with rock stars but with such classical heavyweights as Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta and various symphony orchestras or with such jazz greats as Bud Shank. (The collaboration between Shankar and Shank on improvisations from the Pather Panchali theme remains a classic.)

Of course, everyone in India did not see it this way. In the early 70s, he was often attacked by contemporaries who suggested that he had become a hippie or a drug addict. It got to the stage where Shankar even held a press conference in Bombay where he introduced the soundtrack of the film Charley (which he had composed) and declared, “I have not become a hippie.”

In the end, the music won through. Even his bitterest critics within India admitted that no matter what they thought of his Western adventures, he was a genius, one of the greatest sitar players of his or any other generation. He was a performer par excellence and a composer of outstanding merit.

But for people like me, his greatest achievement is more straightforward: in the 60s and the 70s, when the West looked down on Indians and Indian culture, he single-handedly turned the tide and made us proud of ourselves and our traditions. In the process, he became an idol to millions of White people and even, as Bangladesh demonstrates, affected foreign policy.

And till the end, he remained himself, slightly detached from the fame and always willing to laugh at it. But he never ever compromised on the musical legacy of his forefathers. And he took Indian music to new global heights.

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