Indian Sun by Oliver Craske review – a virtuosic portrait of Ravi Shankar

<span>Photograph: Express Newspapers/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Forever photographed sitting cross-legged and clutching his sitar, with incense burning, Ravi Shankar has been credited with almost single-handedly spreading the age-long traditions of Indian classical music to the western world. He is renowned for his punishing work ethic and collaborations with George Harrison, Philip Glass and Yehudi Menuhin. This first authorised biography is the product of 25 years’ research and interviews. For fans of Shankar and Indian classical, Oliver Craske’s mighty work will surely be a delight.

It details Shankar’s career from a childhood spent performing as a dancer in his older brother Uday’s troupe to his tentative beginnings as a sitar soloist, training under guru Allauddin Khan. His fame soared during the hippy movement of the 1960s and he spent his twilight years as a recognised composer and Indian cultural ambassador. Craske has a deep understanding of the complex and nuanced traditions of Indian classical and emphasises throughout that “it is crucial to retain the Indian perspective”. He focuses not just on the virtuosic showmanship of speed and accuracy but rather “the very serene part of the music, the spiritual, devotional and soothing part”, as Shankar said.

As such, newcomers to Indian classical will be greatly helped by Craske’s explanations of the streams of improvisation and fiendish rhythmic cycles of playing as well as his insights into raga song structure. At his 1967 Monterey pop festival appearance, watched by Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, Shankar believed his listeners felt “a certain peace”. It was hippy gold, and he recalls the standing ovations: “endless, grateful applause, tears of joy, flowing flower petals, and, if you were looking for it, a religious experience”.

Outside of his music, Shankar lived an eventful and at times scandalous life. With more than 180 girlfriends over the years, and three children, there was always ripe material for tabloid speculation.

After losing his virginity in his early teens while touring Europe with his brother’s troupe, Shankar went on to marry Khan’s daughter, Annapurna, with whom he fathered his son, Shubho. Decades of separation, affairs and absent parenting followed. There are reports of Shankar’s calculated attempts to catch Annapurna having an affair in order to sue for divorce, as well as demands placed on her to halt her own promising musical career in order to serve him. Meanwhile, Shankar’s absence from Shubho’s life seems to verge on the abusive: he was continually disappointed by his son’s progress on the sitar, disapproved of his marriage because his wife was not Indian, and appears unsympathetic following Shubho’s suicide attempt in his late 20s.

Craske reasons that Shankar’s absence as a parent was the result of his own father’s unreliability when he was a boy. He also makes reference to two periods of sexual abuse Shankar experienced when he was a child. “I have received so much love, but my loneliness has not disappeared,” Shankar said in 1977. “Somehow I got it by inheritance, and I’m carrying it all the time in my life.”

With access to his many hundreds of letters to lovers such as the musician Kamala Chakravarty and photojournalist Marilyn Silverstone, Craske paints a fascinating picture of what Shankar has termed his ensuing “butterfly lifestyle” of promiscuity: “Multiple relationships, all passion, no commitment,” he explains. “Often he used his letters to express erotic desire for Kamala, switching from English to Bengali for the more explicit lines, which he playfully liked to punctuate with a modified exclamation mark in the shape of a phallus.”

In a strong closing section of the book, Craske brings himself into the frame, recounting his meetings with Shankar in his final years and his untangling of his relationship with daughters Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones. Shankar was adamant that Jones’s mother, Sue, did not let him see Jones for part of her childhood, and while Craske sidesteps the veracity of this claim, he does explore their later relationship and the developing bond between the two sisters. “You’re the best sister I never had,” Anoushka says of Norah. Ultimately, as he describes Shankar’s final performances and last days in hospital – surrounded by his family and many proteges – it is hard not to feel the weight of Shankar’s status as Indian artist par excellence, despite his many personal failings.

“Now I am the music,” Shankar said in 2012, months before his death, and it is in his emotional playing that he lives on. Craske does him justice as a performer and composer: Shankar leaves a complex and enduring legacy that will be unpicked further by future disciples of his craft.

Indian Sun is published by Faber.