Indian musician Ravi Shankar (1920–2012) was best known for introducing the sitar to Western audiences. He collaborated with Western classical virtuosos such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composer Philip Glass, thereby popularizing the classical music of India. After meeting George Harrison of the Beatles, he became a reluctant figure in the psychedelic music scene. He used his new fame to refocus on composing and performing his signature music, winning awards for his recordings and numerous honors for his musical ambassadorship.
Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar was born Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury in Benares (now Varanasi), in Britishruled India, on April 7, 1920. His parents were of the Brahmin caste, the highest of four main castes or class divisions of Indian society. By the time Shankar was born, his father, Shyam Shankar Chowdury, an eminent lawyer, had moved to London, leaving Shankar's mother, Hemangini Devi, to raise their children with relatives in Benares. Shankar was the youngest of their seven sons, five of whom survived childhood. Shyam Shankar settled into London life, married an Englishwoman, and became an amateur impresario, organizing Indian cultural events in Great Britain. In 1920, oldest son Uday, then 20 years old, went to live with him and enrolled in a London art school. Shyam's youngest son Ravi would meet him for the first time in 1922, when he was eight years old.
Thus in 1924, at age ten, Shankar accompanied his older brother to Paris, where Uday's dance troupe, Compagnie de Danse Musique Hindous (“Hindu Dance Music Company”) was performing. At that time, Paris was an international cultural center that attracted artists, writers, and performers from around the world. Shankar absorbed this cosmopolitan lifestyle, attended Paris schools, and met the likes of American expatriate author Gertrude Stein, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, American jazz singer Cole Porter, and many more arts luminaries of the day.
By age 13, Shankar was a performing member of the Compagnie de Danse Musique Hindous, dancing, playing several instruments, and learning the traditional music of his culture. In the mid-1930s, when he was in his early 20s, the troupe toured extensively in India and the United States. There he was exposed to Western culture in the form of classical music, jazz, and cinema. Shankar was now fluent in French and had mastered Western customs. Traveling with the troupe on that tour was an eminent sitar virtuoso, Allauddin Khan, who taught him the basics of sitar and several other stringed instruments. Impressed with the young man's musicianship, Khan invited Shankar to study formally as his disciple upon his return to India.
It was difficult for young Ravi Shankar to leave behind the exciting lifestyle of a traveling, working musician and dancer; he knew that studying under a master teacher in the traditional style would be rigorous by comparison. However, he wanted to master his art, and besides, the political situation in Europe was deteriorating as the region moved closer to World War II. Soon the nations of Europe, Asia, and the United States would be in pitched battle and the colorful French urban culture he had grown to love would disappear.
Shankar had absorbed much during his years in Europe and on tour. He had seen audiences respond to the music and dance of India, and he felt drawn to keep the connection going. The years with the Compagnie de Danse Musique Hindous continued to influence his playing, composition, and collaborations, and it inspired him to create a cross-cultural, musical bridge between East and West.
When Shankar returned to India in 1938, he was 24 and his parents were both deceased. Moving to Allauddin Khan's village, he adopted the tradition of the gurukul or masterdisciple relationship by living with Khan's family and studying music alongside his teacher's son and daughter, Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurna Devi, both virtuosos in the making. Able to play 200 different instruments, Khan was also a strict teacher: Lessons might start before dawn and last beyond dusk. His students received an intensive musical education in the North Indian Hindustani tradition of raga (the basis for melody) and tala (the basis for time and rhythm). There were three musical styles conveyed: dhrupad, the most ancient, religious style; dhamar, a lighter, more romantic style; and khyal, a modern, improvisational style. Khan's students mastered these building blocks of Indian music as well as vocal composition and proficiency on several instruments before gravitating to the instrument they played best.
Shankar's debut performance on sitar was in 1939, in a duet with Ali Akbar Khan, who played sarod. He was just a year into his seven-year discipleship with Ali Akbar's father and both young men were destined to be world music luminaries. They would share many stages over the years and they would also be brothers-in-law. Shankar married Khan's daughter Annapurna Devi in 1941, and they had a son a year later. The couple performed together early on in their marriage and Annapurna's skill on sitar was superb, possibly surpassing his own. However, she gave up performing in order to take care of her family and her home, raising their son, Shubendra, and becoming a reclusive yet sought-after teacher. The marriage failed after a few years.
The early 1950s brought many opportunities and connections Shankar's way. A colleague at AIR introduced him to violin virtuoso Menuhin, who invited the sitar player to New York City for a special performance of Indian music, the trip underwritten by the Ford Foundation. Shankar was soon inspired to resign from AIR and tour Europe and the United States, viewing this as an opportunity to educate Western audiences about Indian music.
Shankar never looked back. His trademark style grew to combine aspects of South Indian music with the Northern tradition he had learned, blending ancient and modern modes. He recorded his first full album, Three Ragas, in London and released it in 1956. Opportunities abounded, with performances for the United Nations and UNESCO, along with visits to Australia and the Soviet Union, which was still under communist governance. Shankar made his reputation in the classical-music community by playing for small audiences around the world and forming friendships with Western colleagues through cross-cultural collaborations.
Shankar's first U.S. tour in 1961 set the stage for future fame when he met Richard Bock of World Pacific Records. He would record many albums for World Pacific over the next decade, and at their studio, in 1965, he met the members of the popular rock group the Byrds and inspired them to incorporate Eastern sounds into their work. Bandmates David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and others introduced Shankar to guitarist George Harrison of the Beatles, leading not only to a true friendship and teacher-student bond, but a skyrocket to fame for the Indian musician.
Harrison was deeply touched by Shankar and his music and brought his fellow Beatles to meet Shankar at his home in India. Harrison was on a spiritual search and asked many questions involving music and spirituality, and after Shankar taught him to play the sitar, Harrison added its sound to his arrangement for the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” Fellow Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr followed suit by adding the exotic instrument to their arrangements. When word of the association between Shankar and the Beatles hit the news, he became a pop star and was surrounded by hippies with long hair and love beads.
While he appreciated his newfound popularity, Shankar was deeply disappointed with the youth culture surrounding it. Young people approached him as a guru, which he would refuse. He also believed that the rampant drug use connected with popular music confounded the real talent he saw in some young musicians. He appreciated the fame and adulation of fans, but he was revolted by the drug use and sexual behavior at occurred during his performances.
Shankar particularly detested the way some rock musicians treated their instruments, smashing them on stage to make an impression. The tradition of music in India, he emphasized, was a sacred one, and instruments were to be respected and cared for. Continuing his role as musical emissary, Shankar appeared at important popular music festivals in the United States, including Canada's Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, held in rural New York in August 1969. He arrived at the Montreal Pop Festival to find the act before him kicking their instruments and burning their guitars. He left, cancelling his set.
Amid his dismay at rock-music culture, Harrison proved a steadfast student, friend, and colleague. In 1971, he collaborated with Shankar on benefit performances for the struggling new nation of Bangladesh, which had been partitioned from India, and helped produce a major multiple CD release for Shankar's 75th birthday. Harrison also edited the Indian musician's autobiography, published in 1968 as My Life and Music.
During the 1970s, Shankar taught at several U.S. universities and became chair of the department of Indian music at the California Institute of the Arts. The London Symphony invited him to compose a concerto for sitar and orchestra, and the resulting live album won a Grammy Award. Shankar toured extensively with his ensemble, and his venues included the White House. Although Shankar suffered a heart attack midway through the decade, this only temporarily slowed him down.
Shankar continued touring in the 1980s, but also composed music for the motion picture Gandhi, which won him an Academy Award. He composed a second concerto, “Raga Mala,” which would share its name with the title of his second autobiography, released in 1997. Along with his musical activities, Shankar was appointed by then–Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to the higher house of the Indian parliament, where he served from 1986 to 1992.
Shubendra Shankar, Shankar's son with his first wife, learned to play sitar from his father and often accompanied him at concerts, until his premature death from pneumonia in 1992. His oldest daughter, Geetali Norah Shankar, was born in 1979, from a relationship with New York City concert promoter Sue Jones. Known as Nora Jones, she moved with her mother to Texas and became a multiplatinum jazz and pop artist. Shankar married again in 1989, fathering Anoushka Shankar with his wife Sukanya Rajan in 1981. Anoushka became his sitar disciple, coproducing award-winning CDs and accompanying Shankar on stage for the rest of his life. She also became a Grammywinning world-music artist in her own right.
Shankar's final years were filled with family, concerts, and highly regarded recordings. He received many honors and awards in India and abroad and eventually settled in Encinitas, California, with wife Sukanya and daughter Anoushka. He continued composing concertos for his daughter, who performed one of his compositions at the 2002 memorial for George Harrison. In 2010, Anoushka performed Shankar's first symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the work conducted by another student of his students, David Murphy.
Shankar, Ravi, My Music, My Life, Simon & Schuster, 1968.
Shankar, Ravi, Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar, Genesis Publications, 1997.
World and I, March 2002, Iris Brooks, “Ravi Shankar, Godfather of World Music,” p. 75.
Telegraph online (London, England), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ (December 15, 2009), Dean Nelson, “Ravi Shankar Resented the Beatles for Making Him a Pop Star”; (April 7, 2011), Cameron Macphail, “Pandit Ravi Shankar, the Indian Virtuoso Who Introduced the Beatles to the Sitar.”❑