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Unlikely rock star: New exhibit sheds light on the career and legacy of Ravi Shankar

Among the items on display at the South Asia Institute are hundreds of LPs showcasing decades of work as well as artfully designed concert posters and promo materials, and his last sitar.

Ravi Shankar. Photo by Alan Kozlowski
Ravi Shankar
Alan Kozlowski Photo

Ravi Shankar is perhaps best-known as the “Godfather of World Music” — what good friend and “disciple” George Harrison of the Beatles once termed the sitar master and cultivator of Indian classical music.

In a new exhibition at Chicago’s recently-opened South Asia Institute, observers will learn so much more about the instrumentalist and humanitarian whose passion for sharing music lives on nearly 10 years after his death in 2012.

“It really is a love letter to Ravi,” says co-curator Brian Keigher, a Chicago native and longtime producer/promoter for events like Chicago’s World Music Festival.

In addition to one of Shankar’s prized sitars on display, the 100-plus pieces of ephemera that make up “Ravi Shankar: Ragamala To Rockstar,” running through March 5, are solely from Keigher’s extensive collection. It’s the largest collection outside of the Ravi Shankar Foundation and the first Shankar retrospective in the United States.

Sukanya Shankar and her husband Ravi Shankar are shown in this undated photo.
Sukanya Shankar and her husband Ravi Shankar are shown in this undated photo.

It comes in the wake of events that had been planned throughout 2020 in honor Shankar’s centennial.

“We had so many things planned for his 100th birthday, including concerts, but the pandemic happened,” says his wife of 40 years, Sukanya Shankar. “But it’ll be an ongoing thing, these exhibitions. You can never finish with Ravi Shankar.”

Among the items on display are hundreds of LPs as well as artfully designed concert posters and promo materials for Shankar’s appearances at Woodstock, the Monterey International Pop Festival and the Concert for Bangladesh.

Shankar is noted as the only musician to have performed at all three of the late 1960s/early 1970s events, after enchanting figureheads like George Harrison (who Sukanya says was like a son to Ravi), David Crosby, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane.

Ravi Shankar’s beloved sitar is on display in the exhibit “Ravi Shankar: Ragamala To Rockstar.”
Ravi Shankar’s beloved sitar is on display in the exhibit “Ravi Shankar: Ragamala To Rockstar.”
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

There are also rare photographs of a boyhood Ravi, giving a glimpse of him as a dancer in his elder brother Uday Shankar’s traveling Hindu Music and Dance troupe. Shankar’s debut in Chicago was in a 1933 appearance with the group at Chicago Symphony Center.

“Every time I connected with Ravi, he’d always talk about his love for the Symphony Center, Studs Terkel and even Chicago winters,” says Keigher, who made sure there was a “wall of Chicago” in the exhibition.

Keigher worked alongside one of Shankar’s longtime students, sitarist Gaurav Mazumdar. Mazumdar, who is based in Wisconsin and gives sitar lessons across the Midwest, met Shankar in 1985.

“He did so much to bridge the gap between East and West and gave music to anyone who came to him,” says Mazumdar, remembering living with Shankar for seven years so he could learn the craft. To pay it forward, Mazumdar will be giving sitar workshops as part of the multi-disciplinary programming the South Asia Institute has planned over the course of the exhibit (full details and dates are on the Institute’s website).

Album covers, posters and art prints spanning the career of Ravi Shankar are featured in “Ravi Shankar: Ragamala To Rockstar” at the South Asia Institute.
Album covers, posters and art prints spanning the career of Ravi Shankar are featured in “Ravi Shankar: Ragamala To Rockstar” at the South Asia Institute.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

That giving nature is a sweet facet Sukanya also remembers about her husband. “It was his whole philosophy. He never charged for his music. His disciples lived with him. In fact, he’d pay them a stipend,” she recalls. “I asked him once, ‘Why are you paying them?’ And he said, ‘They’re all young musicians. If I didn’t give them money for their pockets, they’d all have to go earn something and it would take away from their music.’ He deeply affected people. Once you met him, you never forgot him.”

Of course, Shankar was also a very “strict” teacher according to Mazumdar, and Sukanya even recalls the first time she met her future husband, when she played the tambura in his 1972 show at Royal Albert Hall, and he cut her long fingernails out of fear it would affect her playing and disturb his show.

“But that’s just who he was. Music was a constant night and day. He slept very little, about three hours a night. But the rest of the time he was like a livewire. Even at 92 he was like that,” says Sukanya, also mother to their musician daughter Anoushka (his other daughter is, of course, Norah Jones), hoping that young people who come to the exhibit can be inspired to see what hard work and dedication can achieve.

For the founders of the South Asia Institute, husband-and-wife Afzal and Shireen Ahmad who established the collaborative center in Motor Row in the fall of 2019, hope the exhibit provides the chance to learn more about the culture and heritage of South Asia through one of its biggest gateway figures.

“Inclusivity is one of the biggest things — just looking at the people he’s worked and collaborated with, it’s clear,” says Shireen. Afzal adds, “Ravi made such a difference in this world. And his philosophy is the same as our philosophy, to be an inviting place to sit down together. It’s the same bridge-building we are trying to do.”

Brian Keigher, co-curator of “Ravi Shankar: Ragmala to Rockstar,” stands alongside a collection of Shankar’s vinyls during a media preview of the retrospective of Shankar at the South Asia Institute in the South Loop.
Brian Keigher, co-curator of “Ravi Shankar: Ragmala to Rockstar,” stands alongside a collection of Shankar’s vinyls during a media preview of the retrospective of Shankar at the South Asia Institute in the South Loop.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times