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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear