Like his grandfather and father before him, Sharma built, tuned and fixed instruments for the virtuoso, who introduced millions of Westerners to the sitar and the centuries-old tradition of Indian classical music. For years, he traveled around the world with him, and late in the maestro’s life he even created a smaller version of the instrument that he could play with ease.
Shankar, described as “the godfather of world music” by Beatle George Harrison, died Tuesday in San Diego, California, at age 92. A day later, the multiple Grammy winner received a lifetime achievement honor Wednesday from the Recording Academy.
Shankar “was music and music was him,” Sharma said Thursday, surrounded by display cases full of gleaming string instruments in his tiny shop in the crowded lanes of central Delhi. Pictures of two other Beatles _ John Lennon and Paul McCartney _ playing the sitar in his shop hang on the walls.
Sharma’s grandfather started the business, Rikhi Ram’s Music, in 1920 in the northern city of Lahore, now in Pakistan. He met a young Ravi Shankar at a concert there in the 1940s, but the men began working together in the 1950s, following the India-Pakistan partition and the relocation of the shop to New Delhi.
Around that time, Shankar started working with and teaching legendary Western musicians including violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. But it was Shankar’s relationship with Harrison that shot him to global stardom in the 1960s.
“When I opened my eyes there was him. Music was just him,” he said.
Sharma created what he calls the “studio sitar,” a smaller version of the sitar. But holding the instrument was still difficult. So Sharma popped out to a Home Depot near Shankar’s San Diego-area home and bought some supplies to build a detachable stand.
The musician was thrilled. Sharma says he told him, “Your father was a brilliant sitar maker, but you are a genius.”
Now, as Sharma mourns the giant of Indian music, he also worries about the future of the art. He sees traditional Indian instruments gradually losing their place in their own country to zippy, electronic Bollywood music.
“We are losing the originality and the core of our Indian music,” the 44-year-old said.
At the same time, Shankar’s work as a global ambassador of music has borne fruit, Sharma said: “Because the music has gone to the West, we’re getting lots of new musical aspirants from the Western countries.”