Before raga was all the rage

The Dawn of Indian Music in the West

October 27, 2006

This year saw the 50th anniversary of the first solo concert played in the West by the Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. His debut took place at Friends House in London, headquarters of the Quaker movement. At the time, very few people in the West knew anything about Indian music.

Today that has changed. Through the trailblazing efforts of Shankar and others, Indian classical music gained a solid audience in the West that has outlasted the bursting of the Sixties "sitar explosion" bubble, while Indian ragas, rhythms and instrumentation are now commonplace in the fields of pop, jazz, electronica and fusion.

Shankar's arrival occurred a year after what Peter Lavezzoli, in this timely historical survey, terms the "dawn" year, when Indian music broke through in the West. In 1955, Ali Akbar Khan performed at New York's Museum of Modern Art in a small festival of Indian arts at which Satyajit Ray's landmark first film, Pather Panchali , also had its world premiere. On the same trip, Khan also appeared on Alistair Cooke's Omnibus TV programme and recorded an influential LP, having been given supportive introductions in all these endeavours by Yehudi Menuhin. Khan's outstanding musicianship was a revelation in America.

Ironically, Shankar had been the original recipient of Menuhin's invitation to appear in New York, but his first marriage was in crisis at the time and he felt unable to leave India. He suggested his place be taken by Khan, India's rising young master of the sarod. Menuhin's response came back by telegram: "Who is Ali Akbar Khan and what is sarod?"

The anecdote reflects unfairly on Menuhin, who was to become a true connoisseur, but it is remarkable that at a time when his passion for Indian music (and yoga) was only in its infancy he was already its highest profile authority in the West - a situation that speaks volumes about how different things were then.

The pioneers of 1955-56 had some forerunners. Hazrat Inayat Khan gave concerts in the US and Europe as early as 1911, but he was better known as a proponent of Sufism; as a musician he fell short of the highest standard.

Then, in the 1930s, an acclaimed troupe of Indian dancers and musicians led by Uday Shankar, elder brother of Ravi (who was there as a teenage dancer), were presented in major Western theatres. The troupe even recorded an album in the US in 1937.

But it was not until the 1950s that leading classical musicians from India started to appear in the West as soloists. The first was probably Vilayat Khan, the only sitar player to rival Shankar's prestige in India, who gave a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1951. However, although he toured successfully across Europe, he did not set foot in America until 1978. And while Ali Akbar Khan has achieved great international renown, he was initially a reluctant ambassador - by his own admission he had to be practically pushed on to the aeroplane by his friends in 1955, and after his return he concentrated his attentions on his music college in Calcutta.

So it was Shankar who led the way in popularising Indian music abroad after 1956. As a performer, he was the equal of his two compatriots (although opinions on this vary, notoriously so), but he possessed palpable charisma, a greater missionary drive and more sophisticated presentation skills, speaking fluent English and French. "Neither Ali Akbar Khan nor Vilayat Khan," comments Lavezzoli, "had the desire nor temperament to engage the unconverted".

Following Menuhin, other significant supporters were enchanted by Indian music, among them John Coltrane, LaMonte Young and Philip Glass. Then, famously, pop musicians noticed too. And it was of course Shankar's friendship with George Harrison, which initially developed amid the full glare of Beatlemania, that really put Indian music in the spotlight.

Lavezzoli, who originally set out to write a book on Shankar before widening its scope, describes him as "quite possibly the most influential musician of the past century... the first person to mainstream a non-Western musical tradition in the West".

One of the book's strengths is that it embraces the whole footprint of Indian music, including, for example, the electronic dance music that has been influenced by it since the 1990s - Lavezzoli covers the likes of Talvin Singh, Bill Laswell and the MIDIval PunditZ (although, oddly, not Nitin Sawhney). But the ubiquity of Indian sounds has its downside.

Raga-infused fusion has become the dominant form and so, except for the top stars, it is a struggle to earn a living in India today from classical music alone. Shankar, who is now 86, observes that "we have reached a dangerous crossroads, and the danger is the survival of our music".

Lavezzoli is sure-footed in his discussions of music theory and practice, and the interviews with key figures, reproduced - as in his previous book on Duke Ellington - in conversation format, are useful resources. At times, with so much material to cover, the argument can be submerged beneath historical narrative, and rather dense typesetting reinforces this impression. Lavezzoli asserts that this book is not intended as a work of scholarship (there are no notes), yet it assumes some familiarity with the terminology and theory of Indian music. A more accessible, popular account of an extraordinary phenomenon would also be welcome. But this book does fill a noticeable gap on the shelves of university and public libraries and is required reading for serious Indian music enthusiasts.

Oliver Craske is a writer and publishers' editor, who edited Ravi Shankar's autobiography Raga Mala .

The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi

Author - Peter Lavezzoli
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 456
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 8264 1815 5

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