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Ravi Shankar was an Indian musician and composer best known for popularizing the sitar and Indian classical music in Western culture.
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Born in India in 1920, Ravi Shankar is an Indian musician and composer best known for his success in popularizing the sitar. Shankar grew up studying music and toured as a member of his brother's dance troupe. After serving as director of All-India Radio, he began to tour India and the United States, winning three Grammy Awards and collaborating with many notable American musicians,
"I keenly listened to our music and observed the reaction of audiences on hearing it. This critical analysis helped me to decide what we should give to Western audiences to make them really respect and appreciate Indian music."
"I have experimented with non-Indian instruments, even electronic gadgets. But all my experiences were based on Indian ragas. When people discuss tradition, they don't know what they are talking about. Over centuries, classical music has undergone addition, beautification, and improvement—always sticking to its traditional basis. Today, the difference is that the changes are faster."
Born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi (also known as Benares), India, Ravi Shankar came into the world as a Brahmin, the highest class of Indians according to the caste system. His city of birth is a well-known destination for Hindu pilgrims and was once described by Mark Twain as "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and look[ing] twice as old as all of them put together."
Shankar lived in Varanasi until the age of 10, when he accompanied his brother, Uday Shankar, to Paris. Uday was a member of a dance troupe called the Compagnie de Danse et Musique Hindou (Company of Hindu Dance and Music), and the young Shankar spent his adolescence hearing the rhythms and watching the traditional dances of his culture. Looking back on the time he spent with his brother's dance troupe, Shankar once recalled, "I keenly listened to our music and observed the reaction of audiences on hearing it. This critical analysis helped me to decide what we should give to Western audiences to make them really respect and appreciate Indian music."
At the same time, Shankar was absorbing the musical traditions of the West and attending Parisian schools. This mixture of Indian and Western influences would be apparent in his later compositions, and would help him cultivate the respect and appreciation from Westerners that he sought for Indian music.
At a music conference in 1934, Shankar met guru and multi-instrumentalist Allaudin Khan, who became his mentor and musical guide for many years. Just two years later, Khan became the soloist for Uday's dance troupe. Shankar went to Maihar, India to study sitar under Khan in 1938. (The sitar is a guitar-like instrument with a long neck, six melody strings, and 25 sympathetic strings that resonate as the melody strings are played.) Just one year after he began studying under Khan, Shankar began giving recitals. By this time, Khan had become far more than a music teacher to Shankar—he was also a spiritual and life guide to the young musician.
Of his mentor, whom he called "Baba," Shankar once recalled, "Baba himself was a deeply spiritual person. Despite being a devout Muslim, he could be moved by any spiritual path. One morning, in Brussels, I brought him to a cathedral where the choir was singing. The moment we entered, I could see he was in a strange mood. The cathedral had a huge statue of the Virgin Mary. Baba went towards that statue and started howling like a child: 'Ma, Ma' (mother, mother), with tears flowing freely.
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