His last bow
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Ravi Shankar's legacy lives on in the world music that he helped create
Suddenly, in the 1960s, Indian classical music acquired an avant garde oomph. Notes of the sitar threaded the psychedelic fantasies of the flower-power children, the Beatles took to it, John Coltrane experimented with it. The musician who taught George Harrison the sitar and played at Woodstock was Ravi Shankar. There were those who criticised him for playing to the gallery, but few could match him in showmanship. The debonair Shankar was known to have floored audiences with sheer virtuosity. He met his critics with a clear-eyed vision of his musical project — to reach out to a wider audience, to evolve new synchronicities, even if it meant abandoning formal purity.
Trained in the Maihar gharana under Allauddin Khan, Shankar would develop a style of his own, introducing a new vocabulary of sounds to Indian classical music. Yet he might have inherited a taste for experimentation from his teacher. One of India's first recording artists, Allauddin Khan had started the Maihar Band, where the cello, the banjo and the clarinet joined ranks with traditional Indian instruments in an orchestra. Decades later, the memory of this early excursion into Western styles and forms might have stayed with Shankar as he collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta and Philip Glass. Shankar wrought changes within the Indian tradition as well. Together with the legendary sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, he would popularise the concept of the jugal bandi, a duet of two solo musicians.
The legacy of Ravi Shankar lives on in many ways — in the "world music" that took shape from his experimentations and in an illustrious list of students. Yet his most lasting legacy may be his compositions, many of which lie in the popular domain. The haunting tunes of Ray's Apu trilogy were composed by Shankar, as was the score for Gandhi. The melodies of Ravi Shankar will always be intrinsic to the Indian imagination — after all, he set "Saare jahaan se acchha" to tune.
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