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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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution