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Article updated: 12/13/2012 5:30 AM

Indian community celebrates Shankar's legacy

By Melissa Silverberg

As both the local Indian community and music lovers around the world mourn the death of Ravi Shankar, the iconic master of the sitar is being remembered as the "godfather" of Indian classical music and an ambassador who built bridges between cultures worldwide.

Shankar, 92, died on Tuesday, but members of the suburban Indian community said his legacy of music and collaboration, crafted over decades, will continue to be influential in the future.

"What he did for Indian arts in the world is probably unmatched. Plus, he did it in a time when the world knew very little about India," said Anuradha Behari, who lives in Burr Ridge and helps organize the annual Eyes on India Arts Festival in Chicago. She added that, as Shankar's popularity rose, he opened the door for the rest of the world to see and understand India though music and arts.

Popular in India for many years, Shankar began collaborating with Western musicians in the 1950s, including violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

His close relationship with George Harrison of The Beatles shot Shankar to global stardom in the 1960s.

Harrison had grown fascinated with the sitar, a long-necked, string instrument that uses a bulbous gourd for its resonating chamber and resembles a giant lute. Harrison played the instrument, with a Western tuning, on the song "Norwegian Wood," but soon sought out Shankar, already a musical icon in India, to mentor him.

Shankar soon found himself playing with some of the top rock musicians of the era, including a four-hour set at the Monterey Pop Festival and the opening day of Woodstock.

Being associated with hippie culture was difficult to reconcile with Shankar's reputation at home.

In a 1998 interview with the Daily Herald, he said he was "being condemned."

"The main worry was in my country. They thought I'm a goner, they though I'm just selling my music, commercializing, becoming a hippie," Shankar told former Daily Herald music critic Mark Guarino. In truth, he was shocked at the drugs surrounding the hippie culture, something he strongly disagreed with.

Over the years it was Shankar's collaboration with different kinds of people and music around the world that stood out, said Madan Kulkarni, who owns the Meadows Club in Rolling Meadows. Kulkarni, active in the Indian arts and cultural scene, helped organize a few of Shankar's concerts and met him occasionally.

"He was a phenomenal human being and a phenomenal performer, but his biggest contribution was acting as that bridge between East and West," Kulkarni said. "Music makes people come together. It is this huge unifying factor in the world, the only thing that travels from country to country without passports and visas. It is the most common language understood by everyone."

Though Shankar was 92, Kulkarni said his death was still a shock, one of those things you never expect to really happen.

"You know these kinds of things are inevitable, but there is a feeling of comfort that this person of immense talent is on this earth somewhere and it is a new feeling to get used to that he is no longer here," he said.

Shankar's musical legacy also lives on in two daughters, both with their own successful musical careers -- Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar.

Shankar himself won three Grammy Awards and was nominated for an Oscar for his musical score for the movie "Gandhi." He also pioneered the concept of the rock benefit with the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh.

The spiritual approach to music was more important to Shankar than commercial success though.

"I try to give to my music the spiritual quality, very deep in the soul, which does something even if you are not realizing it or analyzing it -- that's the duty of the music," he told Guarino in 1998. "Now, the approach is different. It's money for money. You always read how many million copies sold, that's the new thing."

Shankar played in Chicago several times, including at Orchestra Hall. Although Shankar could not attend, the annual World Music Festival in Chicago dedicated a showcase to his 90th birthday in 2010, said Carlos C. Torolero, program coordinator for the event.

"He was obviously an ambassador, not only for Indian classical music, but for Indian culture," Torolero said. "I think most people identify him with The Beatles, but he's so much more than that. He was a consummate professional and an amazing musician."

Kulkarni said down the line there may be events or music festivals to mark Shankar's death, but right now many are focused on celebrating his life.

"His soul has departed from here to go to another world, maybe he has a lot of contributions to make there too," Kulkarni said. "He had all the frailties of a human being, but his abilities as a musician were truly superhuman, and that is what made him special."

Ÿ The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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