Ravi Shankar died last week at the age of 92. A sitar virtuoso and composer, Shankar built a following for Indian music in the West. He received a multitude of awards: three Grammys, the UNESCO International Music Council music award, the highest national honors in India, an honorary Knighthood – Commander of the Order of the British Empire – from Elizabeth II, to name only a few. Still, it was clear from watching Shankar play that he played for the passion of the music, not the recognition it brought him. From the outside looking in, Shankar led a fulfilled life in every sense – he found what he loved, a first step which many of us never even manage; pursued it successfully; and made it his life.
Born into a family of musicians and dancers, Shankar joined his oldest brother’s dance troupe and became a star soloist. Discovering the sitar, he became a self-taught musician with an apparent natural talent. However, an Indian court musician, Allaudin Khan, who joined the troupe in 1936, put Shankar’s talent in perspective, telling him it was wasted. Khan agreed to teach Shankar if he was willing fully commit to learning. Shankar gave up his life of travel with the dance troupe and moved to a remove village in India. “I surrendered myself to the old way,” he said in an interview that appeared in The New York Times, “and let me tell you, it was difficult for me to go from places like New York and Chicago to a remote village full of mosquitoes, bedbugs, lizards and snakes, with frogs croaking all night. I was just like a Western young man. But I overcame all that.”
Shankar ultimately did integrate Indian music with the West but only after stepping away from his existing success, a step many of us would be hesitant to make. Fulfillment involves risk and choices that others may perceive as setbacks. Nevertheless, there is no story of success without triumph over adversity.