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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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.