In January 2020, London’s Royal Festival Hall staged the opera Sukanya to open a yearlong festival in honour of its composer, Ravi Shankar. First staged posthumously in 2017, it is his last work, described by the Evening Standard as ‘a perfect tribute to mark Shankar’s centenary year’.

An opera by Ravi Shankar, India’s sitar maestro? Improbable as it sounds, this was a logical destination for him, the culmination of a trailblazing life spent bringing East and West together under the spell of Indian music.

In fact he had been writing for western orchestras, albeit sporadically, for 40 years. For 25 years before that, he had pioneered the very concept of Indian orchestral compositions – and this was the springboard for his ventures into western forms.

West meets East

Shankar imagined two classical-music mountain peaks: Indian and western, while his goal was to secure for his own nation’s music the international respect and appreciation it deserved, achieving this through sensational performances at Monterey Pop and Woodstock, or teaching sitar to The Beatles’ George Harrison who acclaimed him the ‘Godfather of World Music’. But over time Shankar also became intrigued by the idea of bridging those two musical summits, and his attempts to do so created some of the boldest and most brilliant music of his long career.

In some ways the two systems seem incompatible. Western music prioritises harmony, chords and counterpoint while Indian music is fundamentally a solo form in which a single melody is explored modally through the framework of precise melodic forms (ragas) and intricate rhythmic cycles (talas). It also employs microtones and ornamentation to a greater degree than western music.

Although Indian music can be written down, it usually isn’t – many of its elements are too nuanced to be scored and an emphasis is placed on improvisation. ‘The melodic character of Indian music and the harmonic character of western music are like oil and water. They will not mix,’ Shankar once said. But, he added, ‘Nor should there be any fear that one will harm the other. If anything, the study of both sharpens our musical awareness.’ A handwritten memorandum by Shankar from 1961, entitled ‘My Dream’, is all the more remarkable given India’s lack of an orchestral tradition. ‘The greatest ambition of mine from childhood,’ he wrote, ‘is to compose and create the ideal Indian orchestra.’

Shankar’s training was entirely within the Indian system, but his fascination with western classical music dated from his youth. Born in the Indian city of Varanasi, between the ages of ten and 18 he toured Europe, America and Asia as a dancer and musician in the family dance troupe led by his brother, Uday Shankar. In Paris, where young Ravi lived for four years, his education included concerts by the conductor Arturo Toscanini, the cellist Pablo Casals and the reigning gods of the violin, Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. Whenever the guitarist Andrés Segovia visited the Shankars’ Paris home, Ravi would sit on his lap.

The troupe’s music was provided by a group of Indian instrumentalists, including Ravi, when he wasn’t dancing. Many western musicians were perplexed by it, but after the 19-year-old Britten saw a performance in 1933 he wrote in his diary, ‘I haven’t seen anything for ages which has thrilled me more.’ For Ravi this music was another formative influence. It showed him that Indian music could be arranged for ensembles while preserving its character. At 18 he gave up dance and returned to India to train in music, specialising in the sitar. His orchestral dream was reinforced by the experiments of his music guru, Allauddin Khan, whose Maihar Band played Indian instruments, mostly in unison.

In 1945-46, aged 25, Shankar began to fulfil his aspiration by composing for the stage and screen. Caught up in the wave of national feeling as India approached independence, he made a point of using only Indian instruments. In 1949 he became music director for All India Radio. The role included conducting an ensemble of Indian instruments, which in 1952 he relaunched as the National Orchestra, or Vadya Vrinda, adding clarinets and western strings to produce a fuller sound, but still playing Indian music. As radio made him a national star, his orchestral works became famous within India, and he mounted stage shows comprising Indian ballet, orchestral and choral music. In his film scores – demand for which surged after he composed the music for Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy – he tended to work with small ensembles and was particularly innovative.

Colleagues and influences

After taking Indian music overseas in the mid-1950s he began to influence jazz (John Coltrane learned from him) and western music’s newest genre: minimalism. Terry Riley’s first encounter with non-western music came at a Shankar concert, while Philip Glass discovered the rhythms of Indian music after a time as Shankar’s film score assistant. Today he names Ravi as one of his two most important teachers.

Shankar’s earliest champions in the west included Britten and Yehudi Menuhin, both of whom had been inspired by hearing him play sitar privately in Delhi. Menuhin even asked Britten to compose a sitar-violin duet for him and Shankar, but Britten declined, unconvinced by the idea of an Indo-western mixture. Instead Menuhin commissioned a piece for the 1966 Bath Festival from German composer Peter Feuchtwanger. The rehearsals proved instructive for Shankar – Feuchtwanger’s composition, an attempt to write in the Indian raga Tilang, sounded strange to Shankar who rewrote most of the piece, to Feuchtwanger’s annoyance.

Shankar’s revamp of the Bath piece, in which sitar and violin trade riffs in his characteristic call-and-response style, appeared on the album West Meets East which topped the Billboard classical charts for six months in 1967, even as he was being hailed as a hero by the rock scene. It was the first great collaboration between virtuosos from different traditions. Although Menuhin’s parts sound improvised, they were in fact written out by Shankar. And it set the pattern for all of Shankar’s subsequent collaborations: they took place on his own turf.

Menuhin played Indian music; Shankar did not play Bartók. Shankar and Menuhin recorded two sequel albums on the success of West Meets East, with flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal joining them for the third volume. It also led to a commission from André Previn, the LSO’s new conductor, to write the first ever sitar concerto, premiered in 1971. For Shankar this was a natural progression after his work with Indian orchestras. In the concerto’s orchestral passages – studded with improvised sitar solos that he played himself – there are fleeting echoes of Copland’s Hoedown and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, but essentially Shankar uses the orchestra to play Indian music. The piece has an apparent simplicity owing to its minimal counterpoint and harmony (some critics protested that it was insubstantial) but rhythmically the piece is complex and does have its subtle charms.

Performing the sitar concertos

Shankar’s mainstay remained his performance, writing and teaching of Indian music, and a decade passed before he returned to the western concerto form. This time the commission came from his friend Zubin Mehta at the New York Phil. Mehta, who loves spicy food, encouraged him to be more ambitious. ‘Make it difficult,’ he told him. ‘Like hot chilli.’ So Shankar employed rhythmic cycles of 6, 6½, 7½, 8, 10, 13½, 14 and 16 beats, sometimes overlapping, and a total of 30 different ragas. It was a triumph, full of drama and lyricism. After its 1981 premiere, the New York Times compared its ‘climax of virtuosity’ to another New Yorkborn orchestral crossover by a composer-performer: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But Shankar found the sitar part increasingly demanding, and after a decade he stopped playing his Second Concerto. In fact, owing to its difficulty, he was for years the only person to play it.

Twenty-eight years passed before he wrote his Third Sitar Concerto. In the interim he wrote several chamber pieces including perhaps his most interesting collaboration: the album Passages (1990), co-written with Glass in a historic fulfilment of their first meeting. For this they exchanged musical ideas and went away to arrange and record each other’s work. The results are fascinating and seductive. There were also East-West ensemble suites such as Arpan (2002), his tribute to Harrison, and Sanmelan (2004) for the Dartington Festival, the first of his collaborations with conductor David Murphy.

When Shankar’s second daughter Anoushka, who had learned solely from her father, emerged as a solo sitarist in her own right, he began composing with her in mind: in 1999 he wrote a sitar-cello duet that she played with Mstislav Rostropovich, and in 2007 a sitar-violin duet for her and Joshua Bell. Ultimately it was Anoushka who revived his concertos by taking over his role as soloist; she has established the Second Concerto as his most popular orchestral work. Anoushka was also the soloist for the premieres of his Third Concerto and the Symphony, whose counterpoint and harmony show Ravi Shankar at his most questing. Before his death at the age of 92 he spent his last two years working with Murphy on Sukanya. His thirst for new frontiers of musical exploration was unquenchable to the last.

Oliver Craske’s Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar is published by Faber & Faber.

This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of BBC Music Magazine.