Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar may be known for bringing the raga to the West, but he also leaves behind a legacy of social and political engagement within India and throughout the world.
“Ravi Shankar was a shining example of India’s composite culture and was a vocal critic of groups who were seeking to divide and define us on communal lines,” says Ram Rahman, a founding member of the artist activist collective SAHMAT.
As Ravi Shankar’s early musical career took shape, so did his alignment with progressive politics: “He was an important part of the great moment of the progressive movement in the 1940s,” says the SAHMAT statement.
The maestro penned musical scores for films like “Dharti Ke Lal,” about the Bengal famine, and Chetan Anand’s “Neecha Nagar”, a pioneering effort in socially realistic cinema a decade before scoring the soundtrack for Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed “Pather Panchali”.
Ravi Shankar also composed music for the communist-affiliated Indian People’s Theatre Association which “had a huge impact in shaping modernism in the arts,” according to the statement.
In 1971, he and Harrison pioneered the rock for relief format— now so commonplace as to be almost cliché — with the “Concert for Bangladesh” held in New York to raise money for refugees fleeing from the civil war in East Pakistan to India. Shankar’s brother-in-law Ali Akbar Khan, along with rockers Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr joined the benefit; together, the Eastern and Western musicians raised millions of dollars for UNICEF.
With the clouds of communalism darkening the horizon in the years before the Babri Masjid demolition, he was a critic of groups seeking to divide the country on religious lines, taking part in SAHMAT’s “Artists against Communalism” programmes in Delhi and Bombay in 1991 and 1992.
Describing himself as a “sensitive musician”, he expressed his anguish at the increasing communal divide: “This discordant cacophony has to stop. It is the duty of all of us to try our best in our own way to bring back harmony amongst our people.”