Ravi Shankar’s gift went beyond his skills on the strings

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Ravi Shankar transcended difficult boundaries between East and West

He had a way of making the complexities of Indian classical music accessible to people

The writer recalls the first time she heard him play

He was a name Indians uttered when they wanted to boast of their homeland

CNN  — 

If there was a musician who transcended the difficult boundaries between East and West, it was sitar maestro Ravi Shankar.

Panditji, as he was known to his fans, did it by remaining true to his craft.”He was an amazingly pure artist,” says Kartik Seshadri, one of Shankar’s pupils and a sitar master in his own right.

Though he’s often thought of in the West as an experimenter and collaborator – with guitarist George Harrison, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Phillip Glass and conductor Andre Previn – Shankar was a traditionalist.

Indian classical music, as ancient as the scriptures of Hinduism, flowed from his fingers with ease. His music transfixed even those who knew not one iota about the complexities of it.

“That is the beauty of his approach to music and how he was able to transfer that and translate that to an audience in the West,” Seshadri says.

Shankar’s music moved from introspective to playful.

“There’s a whole gamut of emotions that finds a place with people,” Seshadri says.

Shankar died Tuesday in San Diego, his home for many years. He was 92 and led a life rich with accomplishments and accolades.

I was one of those people who was transfixed the first time I listened to Shankar.

I was still in high school in Tallahassee, Florida, when Shankar and his troupe came to town for a performance at Florida State University’s music school in December, 1978.

There were only a handful of Indian families in Tallahassee then, and not much was available to us in the way of homeland culture. It was a rare treat for us to be able to see Shankar in concert.

My mother was especially excited. She was trained in voice and sang the songs of another talented Indian, Rabindranath Tagore, India’s sole Nobel laureate in literature. She played harmonium with her songs and sometimes, a tanpura, a string instrument that resembles a sitar but has no frets.

It was a moment of pride, as well – in a time when India was known to many of my American friends as a land of human misery. When we wanted to boast of the greatness of our land, we uttered Shankar’s name.

A few days before the concert, organizers called my mother with a special request: Could she possibly cook dinner for the musicians? Shankar was craving a home-cooked Bengali meal.

Of course, yes, my mother said. Who would not be honored to cook for the maestro?Then came days of cooking – spiced rice pilau with raisins and pistachios, chicken curry, lentils and sandesh, a special milk sweet for which Bengalis are famous.

On the night of the performance, Opperman Music Hall was packed. The lights dimmed and Shankar’s music filled the air, mellifluous and luscious like the rich silk of a Benarasi sari.

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I didn’t understand the melodic forms and rhythms of the music that was played that night.

I knew that he had written the music for director Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed “Apu Trilogy.” But I was not unlike millions of others who connected Ravi Shankar’s name to the Beatles and to the concert for Bangladesh.

I had expected to react in typical teenage fashion with boredom. Instead, I was transported to another sphere. Shankar’s sitar was magical.

The rhythms of the performance fell and rose with the improvisation of each melody framework known as a raga. His sitar told of joy and sorrow, of lives led and dreams dashed.

The intensity on stage rose as Shankar challenged tabla virtuoso Alla Rakha to match each one of his sitar riffs. I did not just hear a performance that night. I felt it.

Later that evening Shankar and Rakha arrived at our house. I sat in awe through every course of my mother’s dinner.

It was my introduction to the classical music of my homeland. I realized then that I didn’t need to understand the nuances of the notes. Shankar spoke to me in a language that was universal.

“He created an aura of spirituality,” says journalist and musician Partha Banerjee.

“His music transcends the boundaries of race and religion. It is what humanity is all about.”Harrison dubbed Shankar the “godfather of world music.” Many Indians like to think of him as their cultural ambassador to the world.

Had he been born a Westerner, he might have been a household name like Beethoven or Mozart, Banerjee believes.

In later years, Shankar said he was happy to have contributed to bringing the music of India to the West, though he regretted his name forever linked to a 1960s culture of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. The music he played, he said, was sacred.

Hallowed, even.

Not many ordinary Indians I know would eject their Bollywood CDs to listen to Shankar’s sitar. He’s not on top-40 lists.

But Ravi Shankar’s gift went beyond his skills on the strings. He possessed an uncommon ability to reach across cultures. He introduced the traditions of my homeland to my friends in America.

And he did it by touching their souls.

Photos: People we lost in 2012