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How Ravi Shankar Paved the Way for the Concert for Sandy Relief

Should we thank or blame Ravi Shankar? About 41 years before his death this week, at age 92, Shankar told his famous protégé, George Harrison, about the devastation brought to his fellow Bengalis through disasters both natural and political in the area then newly established as Bangladesh. Shankar had an idea to organize a concert to benefit Bengali refugees, and he asked Harrison to help, as Harrison explained in the song he wrote about the occasion, “Bangladesh.” “My friend came to me sadness in his eyes/He told me that he wanted help before his country dies,” Harrison sang. “Bangladesh, Bangladesh, such a great disaster/I don’t understand, but it sure looks like a mess.”

The Concert for Bangladesh, organized hastily under Harrison’s leadership and held in Madison Square Garden in New York in August 1971, presented what was at the time an unprecedented assemblage of big-name rock stars: Harrison, in his first major appearance since the breakup of the Beatles; Ringo Starr, whose presence made the event the first semi-reunion of the not-yet grave-cold group; Eric Clapton; Leon Russell, at the height of his popularity; Billy Preston; Badfinger; and the super-coup of a surprise guest, Bob Dylan, who had just begun to reemerge from seclusion after his now-mythic motorcycle accident. The show, the documentary film of the event, and the double-album of the music (produced by Phil Spector and luxuriously packaged with an exquisitely commodifying cover photo of an emaciated Bengali child) together succeeded in engendering broad public sympathy for the Bangladesh cause—at the cost of commercializing their condition as a brand of chicly exotic victimhood. It also established the model for the big all-star rock benefit concert, the latest of which took place this Wednesday night, again in Madison Square Garden, and had as its climax a set by a former Beatle, Paul McCartney.

In 1971, Ravi Shankar led off the Concert for Bangladesh, playing the sitar with a small group of fellow masters of Indian classical music. The musicians quieted down after a few moments on their instruments, and the crowd applauded. “Thank you,” Shankar said. “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll like the playing more.” The moment briefly exposed the fragility of Shankar’s status in the pop world after Harrison discovered the sitar, started studying with Shankar, and brought elements of Indian music into the Beatles’ repertoire. Taken as exotica, a novelty of a piece with both the Cagean tape loops on John Lennon’s “Revolution 9” and the music-hall clarinets on McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the sound of the sitar was, for a time in the LSD era, mixed up with all things thought of as weird and druggy. Harrison, in an interview on The Dick Cavett Show, astutely groused about the hippie mainstream’s inclination to associate Shankar and his music with the drug culture. “It’s really a problem,” Harrison said. “It’s a problem for Ravi.” After the ’70s, Shankar tried hard to shake that association by performing almost exclusively in formal settings, almost solely with other Indian classical musicians.

It is just a coincidence that the Concert for Sandy Relief, the gargantuan spawn of the Concert for Bangladesh, was staged the day after Shankar’s death. The cause was worthy, even if other causes could also benefit from the mobilization of so much talent. There is no reason to doubt the good intentions of any of the stars whose played—McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Alicia Keys, the Who, Roger Waters, the surviving members of Nirvana (reunited memorably with McCartney), and a great many more. It’s to their credit that they did the show and helped bring in the reported $30 million in ticket revenue to go towards relief from the destruction of Hurricane Sandy.

The event’s failing, though, was obvious and inexplicable: its fixation on old white men, many of them from England. There was something unsettling in the message—inadvertent, no doubt, but real nonetheless—that, in the face of crisis, relief should come from old, white men. As I watched the concert, I wondered what Ravi Shankar, as a Bengali, would have thought about that, and I missed him.