Ravi Shankar: 1920-2012

The world famous sitar player and composer dies at the age of 92.

Ravi Shankar, who has died at the age of 92 after undergoing surgery last week, was known as the sitar player who introduced classical Indian music to many parts of the world. Throughout his ascent to a world music superstar, he played and promoted the sitar.

During his musical career, he won several Grammy Awards and introduced the Beatles to Indian sounds which had a profound impact on their music. George Harrison called him the “godfather of world music”. After working with Harrison in 1966, the composer was labelled the ‘fifth Beatle’ in India and in a Guardian interview last year, the humble musician said he didn’t like being recognised. “I became like a pop star myself.”

But fame and success in the west followed his collaboration with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1967 on their critically acclaimed album, West Meets East, which won a grammy award the follwing year.

Ravindra Shankar – in Bengali, Robindro Shaunkar – Chowdhury was born in April 1920 in the holy city of Benares, now Varanasi. He was the youngest of five boys born to a Bengali Brahmins family who came from Jessore, now in Bangladesh. His father, a successful lawyer, stayed in India when the family moved to Paris to follow Ravi’s eldest brother who set up a classical Indian dance troupe to give performances in the west. The musician joined his brother’s group after his mother and brothers moved in 1930. Although he began as a dancer, he gradually became more interested in music.

Tributes have been pouring in for the musician. A.R Rahman, the Grammy-winning composer, said "Indian Classical Music has lost its chief ambassador … May God bless his soul." Indian prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh said he was a "national treasure and global ambassador of India's cultural heritage...The nation joins me to pay tributes to his unsurpassable genius, his art and his humility”.

Only five weeks ago the sitar player was performing, often accompanied by his daughter Anoushka. Music flowed through the family’s veins - another of his daughters from a previous relationship is Norah Jones, the American folk and jazz singer. Speaking about his death, Norah told Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy her father’s music “touched millions of people. He will be greatly missed by me and music lovers everywhere”.

Indian musician Ravi Shankar salutes the audience as he performs on June 4 2008 during a concert at London's Barbican centre. Photograph: Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis