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
Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.