He brought Indian classical music to the world, collaborating with Yehudi Menuhin and The Beatles.
Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar has died at the age of 92, after undergoing heart surgery on December 11. Through his mastery of the instrument, his vision and pioneering collaborations with musicians ranging from Yehudi Menuhin to The Beatles, Shankar brought the sitar, classical music and ragas of the subcontinent to prominence on the world stage. As both performer and composer, he was one of the earliest exponents in the west of music from his native India.
Ravindra Shankar, often referred to as “Pandit” (teacher/master) was born in 1920 in the holy city of Benares (now Varanasi), where he was steeped in the local dance traditions and Vedic chants. He came from a cosmopolitan family of Bengali Brahmins: his father was a Sanskrit scholar and his eldest brother, Uday, ran a dance company in Paris, working with ballerina Anna Pavlova and other luminaries. The family relocated to Paris in 1930, with Ravi becoming the youngest dancer in the troupe. It is here that he heard western classical music for the first time, including the guitar of Andrés Segovia, but he was lured back to India at the age of 18 to be apprenticed to master sitar player Allauddin Khan, chief then court musician of the Maharaja.
Shankar underwent seven and a half years of intensive training with “Baba”, as he called Khan, marrying his guru’s daughter. (They later separated.) He gave his first solo concert in 1939 and became highly regarded as an innovator with a unique style, drawing on South Indian classical traditions to elaborate on the intricate raga scales, even adding several of his own ragas to the Hindustani system. Shankar also revolutionised sitar technique and the instrument itself, developing a new right-hand plectrum technique and elaborating the bass octave.
In the 1940s Shankar turned his hand to composing for film: he wrote the scores for Dharti ke Lal (1946) and Neecha Nagar (The City Below). He also founded All India Radio’s first National Orchestra. The sitarist always looked for opportunities to use sitar in jazz and classical contexts, including a concerto which he first performed in the 1970s with the London Symphony Orchestra and André Previn. On his 1961 album Improvisations, Shankar applies the long-form, freewheeling structures of his native idiom to jazz, subsequently teaching Indian music to John Coltrane and other jazz greats.
Shankar’s prodigious command of the sitar led him to another virtuoso, when British violinist Yehudi Menuhin was visiting India in 1951. They went on to record three albums together, with their first effort, East Meets West, earning a Grammy Award in 1967. The partnership became a lifelong friendship; the Indian maestro celebrated his 70th birthday in a Royal Albert Hall concert with Menuhin, flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal and harpist Marielle Nordmann and Rakha.
Shankar first met Paul McCartney and George Harrison of The Beatles in 1966 in London, with the latter taking up the sitar and visiting India that year. The instrument subsequently featured on Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, firmly establishing Shankar as a cultural and crossover icon, especially within the flower-power and hippie movement. Harrison dubbed him “the godfather of world music”.
In 1999, Shankar was named a Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), and the following year became a Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur in France. In later life he divided his time between California and New Delhi, where he founded the Ravi Shankar Institute of Music and the Performing Arts. He will be recipient of a posthumous Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammys. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared the great musician as a “global ambassador of India’s cultural heritage.”
Shankar is survived by his second wife Sukanya, their daughter Anoushka (a sitarist and recording artist) and another daughter, pop/jazz singer-pianist Norah Jones.