It is almost a century since the narrator of E M Forster’s A Passage to India dismissed Indian music as a ‘maze of noises, none harsh or unpleasant, none intelligible’. Today the sound of a raga is more familiar to the Western ear, if still not completely appreciated. If anyone is responsible for that change, it is Ravi Shankar, the virtuoso sitar player who for a while in the 1960s and 1970s was the most famous Indian on the planet.
With commendable insight and clarity, Oliver Craske has unravelled the remarkable story of Shankar’s global musical ascendancy. The son of an absentee Brahmin lawyer, Shankar was born in 1920 and brought up in the holy city of Benares by his mother and a mysterious guardian called Mr Biswas. At the age of ten he joined his older brother Uday’s travelling dance troupe, which was famous enough to tour in Europe. On one such trip, he claimed to have lost his virginity, aged fourteen.
Initially a dancer, over time young Ravi began doubling up as a musician, coming under the influence of the revered multi-instrumentalist Allauddin Khan, who inspired him to give up dance and study the sitar as his shishya (disciple) in the princely state of Maihar. After a gruelling six-year pupillage, during