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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  • rakesh_katyal

    Akhilesh is completely lost. He has no clue how to run UP. Mulayam in the meanwhile is busy somersaulting in Delhi. The state is slipping into the hands of goons lead by Azam Khan and SHiv Pal Yadav. All progress is stalled and people are already missing Mayawati. SP decline may be faster than Mamta’s.

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  • Ramdhir Singh , Jaunpur

    Akhilesh should bring in private players like
    Bihar to resolve issue related to power crisis

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  • Sumit Bose

    I am exasperated at the kind of blinkers worn by the “dalal Brigade”. I can understand a perception or ideological stance for an obituary to an abrasive and controversial personality as Bal Thackeray, but even for a committed artist as Ravi Shankar, one has get exasperated and literally grab the neck of these blinkered dalal and point it out.

    Ravi Shankar came upon the scene with his brilliance when the entire musical scene of Indian classical music was almost cent percent in the domain of Muslim performers. It is not that these performers were all true blooded Turks or Persians or Arabs, they received patronage from the ruling class only on conversion to Islam. Our Muslim overlords did all in their powers to Persianize Indian classical music, and when a few centuries of that failed and the pleasures of Indian classical music were too intoxicating,it was it left to our Indian converts to entertain our Muslim overlords.

    This brought in the various “gharanas” of music. This was tightly controlled and passed on from father to son or maximum to the son-in-law.

    Ravi Shankar had to be a son-in-law to Alauddin Khan and only then was the training imparted to him. His brilliance put him in the forefront, of course, being the younger brother of an icon as Uday Shankar was a door opener, but Ravi Shankar’s genius and artistic talent propelled him way ahead of many others.

    This gave confidence and a voice to a whole generation of Hindu classical musicians. He was just as poet Shailendra was, a throbbing proof that Hindus too can excel and supersede others, in fields that one thought only Muslims only can do.
    It was a sad and pernicious state of affairs, and Ravi Shankar inadvertently broke a centuries long prevailing trend.

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    Swaroop Mitra Reply:

    @BoseJi, expecting pliable “dalals” to have any modicum of culture or a dash of intellectual honesty is as good as expecting the descendants of the Nehru/Gandhi vansh to have honesty in any molecule of their being.

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  • Mona Oak

    Whoever wrote this article does not know the West is still looking down on India being the slum dwellers nation where almost half of its population lives on subsistence level so wake up you silly writer and face the reality. Ravi Shankar made no difference to India’s standing except that hippy Beetle George Harrison help Ravi Shankar to become get quick rich and produced an illegitimate child abroad and precisely in the USA. Got it you ignorant twit?

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  • h.mani

    Thanks Summit Bose,for so well researched thought.It is very sad,you had to write this when Singhavi saheb could have written a more balanced obitury,but then he would than be not bleeding heart liberal pseudo secular,won’t that be so?Thanks any way,I appreciate little truth in factless nation of yours.It counts wherever it may comes.Nice day

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  • h.mani

    Iwas at Madision Garden that day,it had nothing to do with India or Indian music,it had all to do with man’s brutality to fellow humans,and in US young caresand even today they do.NAM and Iraq War are our best expression of desent which we American are good at,with or without Indian music.

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  • s.asim

    what does vir Sanghvi kbows about classical Music or for that matter Pt. Ravi shanker. can he what are the characterstics of his Gharana. He is more adept in lobbying, he should concentrate. See how these people are getting back to public life-sanghvi,Barkha,Abhishek Singhvi just because public memory is short.

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  • ge

    Really?, You must be smoking Vir!

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  • Pravin shah

    Another piece of silly and wishful thinking. The West i.e the proverbial man on the street….considers India filthy,( it is !) backward ( surely yes…) corrupt ( read Ms Radia conversations !) and self-anointed repository of culture and civilization ( yes, read MMS)

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  • Ramesh Kumar

    EVEN NIRA RADIA MUST BE WONDERING OVER HER CHOICE AND ANALYTICAL ABILITY OF THE AUTHOR.NO WONDER SHE WAS CAUGHT.

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  • milkha singh

    the author is smoking something very strong. I like the thinking pattern here, Ravi Shankar and foreign policy influence??? In any case, majority of people in the west don’t know Ravi Shankar, don’t care about Ravi Shankar. And may I remind the author, people in India don’t care about Ravi Shankar. The people that I talk of in West and in India are those who wake up everyday in the morning, and commute to work, and are working very hard to have savings. I am not talking of spoiled “civil-society” [whatever the hell it means]

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  • XYZ

    I wish what he writes is true. Because being poor unhealthy unfit socially illiterate and illiterate is better than people killing other people. To maintain the harmony. And if he managed to do that to even a little extent it was something good.

    He did not try to change the image for the world but help the unhelped indians through someway.

    People in US – shut up… Like we do not have much idea about what happens there when a mad guy comes and shoots around your schools or for that matter what happened during pearl harbour, you wouldn’t understand the extent of saddness our country has faced either. I do respect your country! and the incidents that happened there were sad too. Melanchony is all that left you dont understand ours we do not understand yours.

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  • Anonymous

    Islamists are a curse on humanity and a disease.

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  • junaid

    Islamophobia is a phobia in the minds of Muslims planted to make them feel that the world is after them.I quote from your letter. Is this not true? Look whenever, America and other western countries find, the christianity is in danger or something is possible, they will get together to do it in no time. Take for example South Sudan, an Island in Indonesia. They created states for christians in no time. Look why they are there in Afghanistan and Iraq. What are they doing to Pakistan, Yemen etc. Are not only the Muslims who are the target of their “kindness” Tell me if America is fighting against any other religious group except Muslims. The facts are facts.

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    jumanji Reply:

    you blame only western countries. Are eastern countries fond of Islam? Name one country where muslims are happy(unless it has monarchy (gulf countries)). No religion likes Islam – christians, hindus, budhists etc. anyone. So stop blaming USA

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  • Ganapanty

    The same way Muslims fear BJP, the world fears Muslims.

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  • jumanji

    good reply. No need to post any more replies, you said it.

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  • Anonymous

    Muslims need to ask themselves what do they prize more ALLAH OR ISLAM.If it is ALLAH then that unholy book and its supplementary written 1000yrs after the original need to be junked. But the problem is muslims like islam and not really bothered about allah . Thus the BEARD , HEAD SCARVES , SNIPPED FORESKIN all external appearance , INTERNALLY VACCOUS.
    I can only speak of UK. Thus we see MUSLIMS PACKING UK JAILS and majority non terrorist offences. Thus muslims depend on all the modern inventions made by the non muslims for their amenities and even their survival for left to their own , they wont be able to extract a drop of oil.. THEY ARE IN SUCH A PITIABLE STATE TOTALLY AT THE MERCY OF THE WHITE CHRISTIANS. Now they need to ask why, the same civilization that built AL HAMBRA , and algebra (Al-jibra, as it was known).produced minds such as AlBiruni, and that book Al Muquaddama.
    For answer refer to 95 thesis pinned in front of a church. Thus began the chasm.
    OH YES THEY DID NOT HAVE LOW CASTE HINDU CONVERTS LIKE ZIA FULL OF MALCONTENT leading the muslims like the pied piper of hamlyn , another one being Zakir Naik another ANTAJA

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  • Anonymous

    Any religion or thought process which is stagnant and tries to recreate the 7th century is stupid. Why do you use modern medicines not prescirbed in Koran? Why do you use electricity. computers, cars which did not exist in Koranic times and then say all the knowldge only exists int he koran. God save the world in case the world were to be run by mad Maulivs who get money from Saudi sheiks and want the world t run by the koran.

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  • mumtaz mehnaz 90

    Stupid to write such a blog.

    Why dont you turn the gaze inwards Mr Zia. People like me who travel to France, UK and US know that Muslims are now identified with killers and bombmakers. On top of it all the male Muslims want to put us, the girls in a Chaddar or tent and flirt with the Hindu, Christian or white girls who are smarter just because they have more freedoms and are not bound down by a book. So the woman in the house is the dependable ruck sack and the woman outside — Non Muslim– is all glamour and fun.

    Have the Sharia in your house Mr Zia. Would you want your sister or daughter to be an unequal partner in matrimony? Or be bound down by the dictats of a 75 yr old Maulvi who himself lusts for child brides.

    Reform islam. Instead of trying to force us to become fundamantalists just becasue this column makes you popular with orthodox Muslims.

    PLEASE TELL ME WHICH VERSES IN KORAN ARE ADDRESSED TO WOMEN. WHY SHOULD I BE DICTATD BY A DISCOURSE AIMED AT MEN?

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  • Dude

    Reform reform get these muzzos out of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangerstan all of which belongs to India!

    Why don’t you do an article on the Hindu Holocaust? 80 Million plus Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains massacred or converted by force by the scum of the earth Islamites……..80 milion sunshine not 6 million like how the west has coveted the 6 mill jews that died in the jew holocaust at the hands of Hitler….

    Go back to arabia!……
    Wish there was an ashoka type figure that would reclaim all the lands unite India and rid these lands of all Islams……Putrid abrahamic religion!

    We all know how muslims like to fabricate all evidence and history claiming they invented everything even pre islam…..but most of all they like to bully and take land! and convert by force…….

    If I was in power 1000 years ago I would have discarded of all Hindu traitors who were too weak and helped these scum enter the land of hope! peace and tranquility!……..

    Sanatana Dharma long live!

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  • Dude

    It’s not acceptable for your people of islmaic background to have killed and converted 80 million Hindus, Buddhists and Jains from the time you invaded and tried to rule for 7/800y years!

    Where is your remorse for this? We all know what happened! Only you muzzos think you converted ppl peacefully….. All you can say is where is the evidence…..

    I mean you must be a ****** if you think an average joe will want to convert to such a pitty ful religion!

    It’s fact! its history ! it happened! it is why your sorry a s s ancestors were converted down the line to be what you are now a fake follower of a rubbish 3rd generation book of abraham which was created a by a illiterate warmonger

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