Ravi Shankar – Father of World Music

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Have you heard sitar music, from India? Joshua Leo and Liz Waid look at the man who made this traditional music popular around the world.

Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Joshua Leo.

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And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Voice 1 

This beautiful music is made with a sitar. This is a traditional musical instrument from India. It looks a bit like another popular instrument called a guitar. On one end of the sitar is a round empty gourd. This deep rounded base makes the sound louder and more complex. From this base comes a long flat stick called the “neck.” Almost 30 strings, like thin ropes, go up and down the neck. The sitar player plays seven of these strings. He pulls on them with his fingers. The remaining strings make noise as the musician plays the other strings above them.

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This instrument is very complex and beautiful. It is one of the major instruments in the traditional music of India. But people all around the world know and love sitar music. How did this instrument become popular in countries far from India? There is one musician who helped encourage people’s love of sitar music more than anyone else. Some people call him the father, or founder, of world music. Today’s Spotlight is on the famous Indian musician Ravi Shankar.

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Ravi Shankar was born in India in 1920. When he was 10 years old he moved to Europe. His brother led a dance group that performed traditional Indian music and dancing. Shankar learned to dance and joined his brother’s group. Shankar also learned about many cultures and customs. He learned many kinds of music. But he loved music from India the best. Shankar noticed that people from other cultures also loved Indian music. He told the writer Thakur Paramjit:

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“I listened carefully to our music. I observed the reaction of audiences on hearing it. This watching and judging helped me. I decided what we should give to Western audiences to make them respect and enjoy Indian music.”

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When he turned 18 Ravi Shankar moved back to India. He went to live with a famous musician named Allauddin Khan. Khan became Shankar’s teacher and spiritual guide. Shankar spent six years living and studying with Khan. He learned classical Indian music styles and instruments. But the instrument Shankar loved most was the sitar.

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Shankar soon became a well-known musician and composer in India. He wrote music for the National Theatre. He worked as the director for All India Radio for many years. Shankar established the Indian national orchestra in the mid-1950s. People in India loved Ravi Shankar’s music. He performed in many live concerts. Shankar also wrote and performed music for some of the most popular Indian films at the time.

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Ravi Shankar’s fame began to spread beyond India too. Many people in other countries began to enjoy sitar music. Western musicians became interested in learning to play Indian traditional music. They even played western and eastern music together. They made music that mixed the traditions from different countries and cultures. This style of music is sometimes called world music.

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Ravi Shankar became friends with many famous people. One of the most famous was the British musician George Harrison. Harrison was a member of the rock band The Beatles. He first met Shankar in London. Then Harrison visited Shankar in India. Shankar taught Harrison to play the sitar. Soon, millions of people heard sitar music in songs by The Beatles. Ravi Shankar told Shashi Vyas in an interview:

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“I was one of the first when I first started to experiment with western instruments and western musicians. George Harrison came to me because he was so interested in our music. And he became my student. He did not do it only because it was popular at the time. He loved it until the end and became very very dear to me.”

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 Ravi Shankar played his sitar in many concerts all over the world. The largest event that Shankar organized was a concert for Bangladesh. At that time, there were many problems in Bangladesh. Ravi Shankar wanted to help. He asked George Harrison to help him organize a concert for Bangladesh. It became a huge music event. Shankar, Harrison and others gathered 250,000 US dollars for the people of Bangladesh.

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Because Ravi Shankar had a great influence on music all over the world, some people criticised him for not being traditional enough. But Shankar always kept an Indian approach to music. He said:

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“I have experimented with non-Indian instruments, even electronic ones. But all my experiences were based on traditional Indian songs. When people discuss tradition, they do not know what they are talking about. Over centuries, classical music has had elements added to it. It has had changes and improvements. But it has always held to its traditional base. Today, the difference is that the changes are faster.”

Voice 2 

Ravi Shankar often played with musicians who used other styles of music. But he always kept the important parts of Indian folk music. For example, he was always free to change the music while playing. Even when playing with many other musicians Shankar would not always follow the music exactly as it was written. He would play what he felt sounded good. He did not always follow the set rules that some western music uses. Shankar told Sashi Vyas:

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“Music rises above all languages and barriers. It is the most beautiful communication skill one can have. Music makes us all experience different emotions. Different kinds of music, whether it is by voice or instrument, Eastern or Western, Classical or Pop or folk from any part of the world, can all be spiritual. Music has the power to move the spirit of a person as if there is no time.”

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This power to move people’s spirits was Ravi Shankar’s gift through music. He died in 2012 at the age of 92. Ravi Shankar was more than a sitar player. He was also a teacher and example for many people.  His two daughters, Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, are also both successful musicians. Musician Lalgudi Jayaraman explains exactly why people will never forget Ravi Shankar:

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“His connection with music was driven by reason all through. The high quality of his music shows that spirit. Ravi Shankar loved and enjoyed good music. He came to it with child-like excitement even after becoming a world-known master. Only such an attitude to art can bring out influential music like his.”

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The writers of this program were Shelagh Godwin and Rena Dam. The producer was Rena Dam. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can find our programs on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called ‘Ravi Shankar, Father of World Music’.

Voice 1 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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The sitar music in this program is from Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar.

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