Ravi Shankar, who would have turned 94 today, had a deep and enduring friendship with the late violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. Call it a bromance, a love affair, a meeting of the minds, a collaboration—when these two sat down to play together, something extraordinary happened. In 1966 they recorded the first of three albums, “West Meets East,” which won the 1967 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance, and profoundly influenced some of the big pop bands (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones) that were then experimenting with non-Western instruments and composition.
In 1995, Shankar, then 75, and Menuhin, 79, described their friendship in a fascinating interview in the UK’s Independent. Some of Menuhin’s observations seem quaintly dated now (he describes Shankar as having “a true Indian understanding of women”), but their mutual love and respect makes for compelling reading. Said Menuhin of Shankar:
To be a great sitar player like Ravi requires enormous intellectual gifts as well as musical ones. It is perfectly possible for someone who I might describe as having no brain at all to sing so beautifully that whoever listens is utterly enthralled, but it is quite impossible for an idiot to play beautiful Indian music. An untalented sitar player has absolutely nothing to convey to an audience and so the sound he makes is totally boring.
Shankar was equally impressed with his counterpart:
From that very first meeting, I realised that Yehudi was quite different from almost any other Western musician I knew. This is not a criticism, but many Western musicians are very uptight because Western music is very precise. It’s not something you play, as it were, between the lines. Of course, confidence is extremely important for a performer but with a lot of musicians it is their ego, not just their confidence which stands out. Yehudi’s humility is quite extraordinary. It’s one of the things which has always impressed me about him.
Menuhin visited Shankar many times in India, and their families grew close. When Menuhin died suddenly in 1999, Shankar lamented: “The world has lost a great soul, whose passion was music and humanity.” Shankar died in 2012, at the age of 92.
Here’s a short clip of the two maestros playing together. (Says Shankar at 1:25: “There’s such love and friendship between us, which always comes out when we perform together.”)
And you can listen to full recording of “West Meets East” here: