“The melodic character of Indian music and the harmonic character of Western music are like oil and water. They will not mix…Nor should there be any fear that one will harm the other.”

— Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, 1967, The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, Oliver Craske

Four years after that declaration, Ravi Shankar did go on to mix oil and water. He composed, performed and later recorded Concerto No. 1 for Sitar and Orchestra, commissioned and conducted by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The 40-minute concerto landed like a creative bombshell, setting a sitar recital of four ragas across four movements and within the grand sweep of a full western orchestra. Bongos and timpani replaced the tabla and two harps and the strings served as tanpura.

The work often echoes his compositions for All India Radio’s vadya vrinda and films. And it throws up some tenacious earworms: the sweet build-up of Raga Khamaj, the sprightly bongo, the swelling strings and the velvety French horns and oboes.

Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No. 1: I. Raga Khamaj.

“I was all of eight when I first heard the work and I remember being floored by its sheer sweep – it was Indian music and beyond,” said Shubhendra Rao, a shishya, who first played the sitar concerto in 2016 with the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra. “It had the raga and tala structures of a traditional performance – alap-jod-jhaala, sawal jawabs, tihais – but coloured with different tonalities. It was as if he had visualised the entire landscape of this music before he sat to write it.”

The concerto was not to be his most evolved or sophisticated East-West experiment. Musicians and connoisseurs put his second concerto that followed 10 years later as a work of greater complexity and confidence. In 2009, he wrote a third concerto. And two years before his death, he pulled off a symphony and started work on an opera. But Concerto No. 1 holds a singular place in the history of music-making and not just because it was charming.

The concerto made what was unthinkable the done thing. Its scale and ambition led the way for what we now call world music. If you were to draw up a list of contemporary Indian instrumentalists who shun collaborations with western musicians today, you would likely draw a blank.

“I myself prefer the challenge of his second concerto, but the first one was really a snapshot of a moment in history,” said daughter Anoushka Shankar. “It was the first time we were seeing raga music across an orchestral arrangement, creating a composite soundscape.” Anoushka Shankar first played the concerto with her father, then in frail health, in 1997 and has since played it over a dozen times.

Ravi Shankar performs with daughter Anoushka Shankar in Kolkata in February 2009. Credit: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters.

Today, at East-West events, cultural and political, the concerto is often staged as a musical foreground, played mostly by sitarists of the Maihar gharana but also those outside. Last weekend alone, there were three performances of the music by Connecticut-based Hartford Symphony Orchestra featuring sitar player Anupama Bhagwat.

“It was an ingeniously put together work, a traditional sitar performance riding a full western orchestra,” said ethnomusicologist Stephen Slawek, professor at University of Texas, Austin, and a senior disciple of Ravi Shankar. “And it was beautiful appealing music if you could forget academic ideas about what the orchestra or the sitar should sound like.”

The work sent purists into a tizzy, but Capitol Records famously claimed that it “sold like a pop record”, hitting number 6 on Billboard’s classical LP charts in 1972.

Stephen Slawek learns from Ravi Shankar in 1989. Courtesy: Stephen Slawek.

For all its sweeping ambition, the concerto was not an incidental work of a lone genius. It was the culmination of decades of experimentation in Indian music, and not just by Shankar. The attempts were sometimes interesting, sometimes gawky, but always courageous for pushing at the barriers of tradition.

What Concerto No. 1 did was turn many fundamental conventions of both music systems on their heads, making it a challenge for western as well as Indian musicians. Slawek recalls taking over the complex bongo parts when Shankar played the concerto at Kansas in 1985 because the assigned percussionist simply could not evoke the tabla effects.

For sitar soloists too, it was a challenging ask. Between the four movements, the music demanded three changes in pitch, a common practice in western music structures but not Indian. This was particularly hard in a fretted instrument like the sitar. “It took a while, logistically and mentally, to deal with the transposition of the pitch which, in our music, is not just fixed for a concert but often for a lifetime,” recalled Rao, who took six weeks to ready for the Bilbao performance.

Shubhendra Rao, a shishya of Ravi Shankar, plays the sitar concerto with the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra in 2016.

The concerto turned an essentially solo art into an ensemble work, limiting the room for improvisation, which is the heart of Indian classical music. Harder still, few Indian musicians are trained to read notated scores, a problem many classically trained Hindi film composers faced when dealing with orchestral works. “When you play an orchestrated work, you have to do exactly what you are expected to,” said Bhagwat. “I had to memorise the lot by listening and playing along because we don’t read music except to mark cues or make notes.”

Western classical music circles were equally miffed at the “misuse” of its traditions, baulking at the little room given to the use of harmony and counterpoint. Some of the brickbats were brutal, pointing to the between and betwixt nature of the work. According to Craske, Andre Previn described it as “absolute, total, utter shit…I knew it was nonsense”.

But for all that, the concerto had arrived at a moment when music scene was ripe for a multicultural experiment, the late 1960s to early ’70s. Conversations between different forms had already begun with Shankar’s 1967 collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin. And Indian music had long shed its status as exotica in the 1930s and ’40s. As Slawek points out in his essay titled ‘The Urge to Merge’ in a 2015 anthology, “From Ravi Shankar’s East Meets West albums with Yehudi Menuhin and, later, Jean-Pierre Rampal, to his 1971 Concerto No. I for Sitar and Orchestra, to Ali Akbar Khan’s recording Karuna Supreme with jazz saxophonist John Handy, to Ali Akbar’s eldest son’s experiments fusing rock with Hindustani music in his band Shanti, to the emergence of Shakti, mixing jazz-rock with North and South Indian music, the notion of cultural mixing through music was very much on the scene in the early 1970s.”

Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin’s ‘West Meets East’.

Just a year before the concerto, Ananda Shankar, son of Uday Shankar, had managed to infuriate his uncle and then guru Ravi Shankar by fusing the sitar with rock and electronic music, says Slawek in his essay. It was clear that Indian musicians of the decade were struggling to draw the line between what was acceptable and what a sacrilege.

Running through these experiments was a throughline that could be traced to older raga-bound instrumental ensembles in India. According to leading tabla player and music scholar Aneesh Pradhan, as far back as the 1870s, the Parsi Gayak Uttejak Mandali, a club to promote music among Parsi families, had begun hosting instrumental ensembles. He also points to the orchestral dance music accompanying Uday Shankar and his dance troupe in their performances in India and the West in the 1930s. Composed by music director Vishnudas Shirali, these pieces set to ragas featured multiple Indian instruments, including a teenaged Ravi Shankar on the sitar.

Another influence that possibly contributed to the concerto was Shankar’s guru Allaudin Khan, a genius who was adept at playing many instruments and led the famous Maihar Band. Then there was his stint at the All India Radio and of course his stunning work for films such as Anuradha and Godan. They all bear the stamp of his distinct musicality, as does the concerto. “There are particular patterns in all he does, and certainly there are influences of his earlier exposure to dance music, Shirali’s works,” said Slawek.

By the time the concerto arrived, Ravi Shankar had already played at pop music venues like Monterey and Woodstock, and begun his highly visible association with the Beatles.

Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No. 1: II. Raga Sindhi Bhairavi.

Slawek believes the concerto could also have been a considered career move to rebut the criticism of having “sold out”. It kept raga music centre stage, and though the composition walked the edge, it was never transgressive, he argues in his essay.

India’s classical circles had anyway been huffy about Ravi Shankar’s experiments, worried about their potential to chip away at a tradition they sought to cocoon. “…I definitely didn’t like that duet with Mr. Yehudi Menuhin, ‘East Meets West’,” sitarist Nikhil Banerjee had remarked on his guru brother’s experiments in an extensive 1985 interview with music consultant Ira Landgarten. “No, I’ve heard Yehudi Menuhin many times; in Western music he’s a different giant, but when he’s playing some Indian music it is just like a child. For a stunt, it’s OK, but I really disagree, I don’t like this idea. You cannot mix up everything! It is not possible.”

Anoushka Shankar believes that these responses were typical of those who feared changes in what they believed to be fragile traditions. “But what was radical then is the norm now,” she pointed out.

None of this affected audience responses. Slawek recalls that every time he played for the concerto, listeners were rivetted. It was in 1977 that he had first heard Ravi Shankar play the concerto in Honolulu and again in Austin 1983.

Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No. 1: III. Raga Adana.

“He had used my sitar to play with the Austin Symphony Orchestra and showed me how to set it for the concerto in the green room. It was a moving experience that showed me the sheer depth of his musicality,” recalled Slawek, who treasures a “certificate” from Shankar that he could play his orchestral pieces on the sitar.

For someone from outside the Maihar school, such as Bhagwat, a disciple of Bimalendu Mukherjee of the Imdadkhani gharana, the challenges are many more. “It was a personal challenge for me to play for this concerto,” she said. “The instrument Maihar musicians is distinct as is their style of playing. But what the concerto shows us is how to work with other music systems without sounding shallow, as a lot of fusion work now does.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.