But he soon became disillusioned.
“I was extremely unhappy about the superficiality of it all, especially the wrong information that Dr Timothy Leary and others were propagating — that everyone in India takes drugs. It was a hodgepodge of Kama Sutra, Tantra, yoga, hash and LSD, while the true spiritual quality of our music was almost completely lost.”
The focus on Shankar’s celebrity friends and admirers, the flower-power years, has too often obscured the hard-nosed musicianship of the man. As is still evident in his performances, he is a sitar player of stunning virtuosity, whose silky, delicate style often explodes into improvisational rushes more dynamic than those of any rock guitarist. His collaborations with Menuhin — duets that feel a little like an east/west variation of Duelling Banjos — rank as some of the most poignant cultural fusions ever written. In India, his compositions have entered into one of the most forbidding musical canons on earth.
He has been a major force for innovation in Indian music. “He has given a new shape and definition to this instrument over the course of the 20th century,” says his daughter Anoushka. “He added the bass string that is quite common now. He created the modern notation system for Indian music. The tabla player was never really an important factor until my father made percussion a central part. A lot of what people now consider Indian music can be traced back to him.”
Born in 1920 in the holy city of Benares on the Ganges, Shankar began his career at the age of 10, touring the world with his brother Uday’s dance troupe — the first to take traditional Indian dance to the west. Shankar might have ended up a dancer were it not for the master instrumentalist Ustad Allauddin Khan, who played with the group. “He used to scold me, saying: ‘You will be nothing. You will be jack of all and master of none.’ And that shocked me.” When the war halted touring, Shankar spent seven years studying sitar with Khan in a remote north Indian village, before emerging in the late 1940s and 1950s to become one of India’s most celebrated musicians.
He established himself in the west by hitting the road. Starting out in tiny venues in the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Poland, he was soon packing out the Albert and Carnegie halls. Coltrane approached him to ask for lessons, and began to incorporate Indian instruments into his jazz. “He was getting ready to come to me for six weeks of study when he died [in 1967],” says Shankar.
In the mid-70s, Shankar began to distance himself from the hippy movement — though he seems to have been reluctant to let go of one main principle: free love. During this period, his tangled transatlantic personal life produced two daughters: Norah in 1979, with the American concert producer Sue Jones, and Anoushka in 1981 to his current wife, Sukanya Rajan, whom he pursued while with yet another long-term partner. This all became newsworthy when Norah (Jones) hit the big time in 2002, with her debut album Come Away With Me, and failed to thank her father in her Grammy acceptance speech. “I guess I am not the only person in this position,” Shankar says contritely. “It happens to a lot of musicians, actors, writers who become well known and who travel a lot. You are in different countries and you are lonely.”