Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Global Pandit's Lessons

George Harrison (left) and Ravi Shankar (right) were greeted
at the White House by President Gerald Ford on Dec. 13, 1974.

This hasn't been a good time for music legends.

Last week, jazz great Dave Brubeck died, and yesterday it was sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

Both men were in their early 90s so their deaths were not unanticipated. Yet their passing leaves a tremendous void in music.

I saw Shankar perform once.

It was nearly 40 years ago. My father, a college professor, was on sabbatical in Nashville, and Ravi Shankar came to the Vanderbilt campus and performed there with his entourage one evening.

My father, a fan of Shankar's music, took the whole family to see him. I was too young at the time to appreciate a whole evening's worth of the sitar player's music, but I knew who he was. He was an inspiration to George Harrison before and after the Beatles broke up, and he rubbed elbows with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a classical musician my father admired.

He influenced other genres, too, but his roots were in traditional Indian music. His Western audiences were seldom well versed in it — I remember giggling when I watched "Concert for Bangladesh" and the audience, not knowing what it had just heard, applauded when Shankar and his colleagues finished warming up.

"Thank you," Shankar said. "If you liked the tuning so much, I hope you'll enjoy the playing more."

In such a gentle, good–humored way, he taught his audiences about the music of his native land.

In India, he was called Pandit, which means teacher — or, more accurately, scholar — but I never felt he was seen as a teacher in this country. At least, not as a traditional teacher. His manner was too informal, too relaxed. Too inclusive.

He wanted all his listeners to understand the deeper meanings behind Indian music, and he was frustrated in the 1960s and 1970s when, following his introduction to American audiences through Harrison and the Beatles, he found his concerts being attended largely by drug–using counterculture types.

Still, the world was his classroom. His lessons may have been understated, but they had staying power. Teaching others about Indian music was something he long wanted to do.

"The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer," writes Allan Kozinn in the New York Times.

He taught Western listeners all the time, whether it was through his concerts or his recordings — including his score for "Gandhi" — or his actual work with students.

Sadly, many modern listeners may only know Shankar as the father of Norah Jones, also a musician who has done her father one better by winning a Grammy — nine of 'em, in fact.

I'd like to think much of her success was due to the education she received at the University of North Texas — where I got my master's degree — but I know most of it is in the genes.

That may not be such a bad legacy, though. Jones continues to attract listeners, and, in turn, they learn who her father was. That knowledge may inspire some to learn more about his life.

And the pandit's lessons continue.