A love letter to Ravi Shankar

“What Andrés Segovia is to the guitar, what Pablo Casals is to the cello, Ravi Shankar is to the sitar. The master. The one who could be said to have revolutionized the instrument. That’s how Chicago legend Studs Terkel started a radio show in 1983 that Shankar appeared on. Among other topics, the two luminaries of their respective crafts discussed the 1982 film by Richard Attenborough Gandhifor which Shankar and George Fenton composed the music and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score (they lost to John Williams, however, for AND the extra-terrestrial).

Film buffs are likely to know Shankar from his collaborations with directors such as Attenborough and Indian masters Satyajit Ray (Shankar composed the music for the Apu trilogy) and Mrinal Sen (Genesis), and, less sibling, for composing the scores of Conrad Rooks’ cult classic Chappaqua and Ralph Nelson Charly.

An exhibition at the South Asia Institute, which opened in late 2019, just months before the onset of the pandemic, and which, in line with its mission, is dedicated to cultivating the art and culture of South Asia and its Diaspora, features framed record covers for soundtrack albums of these and other films Shankar has scored. Titled “Ravi Shankar: Ragamala to Rockstar,” the exhibit includes many other artifacts from said rockstar’s life and career, helping to shed new light on Shankar for those who know or don’t know this classical music virtuoso from the North India, once dubbed “the godfather of world music” by Beatle and his friend George Harrison.

“He was a giant,” echoes Afzal Ahmad, president and co-founder of the South Asia Institute. “[Shankar] worked with various well-known artists, [like] the Beatles . . . It has a very broad appeal. Very well recognized. A highly respected person. He was one of those guys who built bridges to interact with others. But he never really changed his style of play. He kept it very pure. It was [a] North Indian, Hindustani style game.

Ahmad co-founded the South Asia Institute with his wife, Shireen, who serves as the organization’s vice president. Much of the artwork currently on display on the building’s second floor comes from the couple’s personal collection. The masterful canvases, which vary in style from traditional to avant-garde, provide an interesting backdrop for the events held in this part of the Institute.

Courtesy of Jonathan Costello

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a concert given by Grammy-nominated sitar player Gaurav Mazumdar, a protege of Shankar. Mazumdar (who lived with his guru for several years) performed a series of ragas, with Hindole Majumdar accompanying him on the tabla (hand drums). The Ragas themselves are as seductive as they are sublime: the Encyclopedia Britannica defines them as a “melodic framework,” but in the aforementioned interview with Terkel, Shankar expanded on that definition saying, “We specifically use the word raga for the melodic forms that we have. It is very difficult to explain a raga exactly. It’s not a scale, and it’s not just a key or a melody or a song. But it is something very specific.

This was the sixth of several events in support of the exhibit. For the opening in November, Shankar’s wife, Sukanya, appeared in conversation with Mazumdar and another of the exhibit’s curators, Brian Keigher, who is also a friend of the Shankar family. (Some of them are stars in their own right: The Shankars’ daughter Anoushka followed in her father’s footsteps and became a sitarist, and singer Norah Jones is her half-sister from one of Shankar’s previous relationships. Shankar.)

Just as Shankar has provided the music for several films, several films have been made about the music legend. Three of them have already been screened as part of the exhibition program: Howard Worth’s 1971 documentary, Raga: a journey into the soul of India (narrated by Shankar and originally released by the Beatles’ Apple Records film subsidiary), and two relatively short works, that of Alan Kozlowski Sangeet Ratna (2013) and Stuart Cooper’s 1974 concert film Indian Music Festival by Ravi Shankar.

The last screening of the film accompanying the exhibition takes place on Saturday January 29 at 4 p.m. Shot in 2011 (just over a year before Shankar’s death), Kozlowski’s film Tenth Decade: Living in Escondido is a simple concert film. But when the subject is Ravi Shankar and the music is as good as it gets, it doesn’t take much more. When seen near so many Shankar-related ephemera and in the presence of people passionate about the musician, one can get the impression that the late master is actually present.

Passion was also the driving force behind the exhibition itself. Everything on display belongs to Keigher, a Chicago native who now lives in Boston and has been producing Indian classical music concerts and programs for over 25 years. He was the world music buyer for Chicago’s Tower Records and later the program coordinator for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs; he recently retired as artistic director of the World Music Institute. He also co-founded and organized Ragamala, an annual celebration of the music he loves so much and whose eighth edition took place on the opening night of the exhibition.

“It’s a love letter to Ravi and all he’s done,” Keigher says of the exhibit. “Being able to get Ravi’s wife out and officially open it has been a blessing, and [to] make her see things she’s never seen [seen] before . . . It was really nice to be able to do it properly and then do it in my hometown. And then being able to do it and really show what [the South Asia Institute cofounders] have built, with this new organization and this new institution, which I think is very vital to Chicago. . . there is nothing like it in the city.

A focal point of the exhibit is one of Shankar’s sitars, which was custom-made for him and features in several of the photos on display – he even played it during some of his visits to the Chicago Symphony Center. The rest of the exhibit is made up of pictures, posters, advertisements, books, newspaper and magazine clippings, albums, as well as a large screen on which images of Shankar are projected in continued ; it all helps illuminate the trajectory of the maestro’s career, beginning with his involvement as a child in his brother’s traveling dance troupe.

Poster by Jan Steward

The ephemera surrounding Shankar’s legacy as a pop culture icon are of particular interest to museum visitors. As one sign states, “Shankar was the only musician to perform at the three most famous music festivals of the decade.[:] Monterey International Pop Festival, Woodstock, and the Concert for Bangladesh. With the latter, “he helped create the all-star benefit concert of modern times”, intended, at the time, to raise awareness of the horrible famine that was then raging in Bangladesh. This event grew out of his close friendship with Harrison, who also showed up to support the opening of Shankar’s Kinnara School of Music in Los Angeles.

Shankar achieved a unique level of success – throughout the exhibition his name appeared on posters with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead (it’s a who’s who of famous musicians , including The Who) – and he took the opportunity to uplift other Indian musicians and even purveyors of other Indian art forms. Yet for helping to bring these characters to Western audiences, Shankar has at times been criticized in his home country.

“He was really one of the first to kick down the door,” Keigher says. “But I love that he kicked down the door and tried to bring so many other Indian artists and art forms with him. That says a lot about him as a character. Very generous and very humble in many ways.

The feeling of wanting to connect people, to each other and to other modes of creativity, is at the heart of the exhibition. “The main reason for choosing him was the fact that 50 years ago there was a man who was building bridges between people through his music, very similar to our mission here and what we want to do”, explains Shireen, “[building bridges] through art, music and literature. . . pass on our heritage.

Co-curators of the exhibition Gaurav Mazumdar and Brian Keigher. Courtesy of Ludvig Peres

On Saturday, February 19 at 4 p.m., the South Asia Institute will host the final event related to the exhibition, a virtual discussion between Chicago-based music writer Aaron Cohen and Oliver Craske, author of the extremely comprehensive biography on Shankar, Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar. The exhibition runs until Saturday, March 5. The South Asia Institute is open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with free admission every Friday. Tickets are available on the institute’s website.