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Ravi Shankar, who has died aged 92 in San Diego, was the Indian maestro who put the sitar on the musical map. George Harrison called him “the godfather of world music” and it was Shankar’s vision that brought the sounds of the raga into western consciousness, thus bridging the gap between eastern and western music for the first time. In a long career he was still winning awards in 2002 when his album Full Circle/Live at Carnegie Hall (2000) achieved a Grammy for best album in the world music category. Shankar’s distinction as a sitar player was his brilliant virtuosity, creativity and vast range of musicianship. In the west, certainly, his name is also synonymous with the music of India.Shankar was born in the holy city of Benares, now better known as Varanasi. The youngest of five sons, his family were Bengali Brahmins from Jessore, now in Bangladesh, and much influenced by the reformist ideas propagated by writers such as Rabindranath Tagore. The Shankars were part of what became known as the Indian Renaissance. Ravi’s father was a Sanskrit scholar who became chief minister of Jhalawar state.
His passion for music began when he first heard Vedic chants as a child in Benares. But his first commitment was to dance. His eldest brother, Uday, was a dancer who had worked with Anna Pavlova before setting up a music and dance company to perform Indian dance in the west. Ravi, along with his mother and brothers, moved to Paris in 1930 to be with him, and Ravi became the youngest member of the company, specialising in cameo dance roles. For two years, he went to a Catholic school leading the life of a French school boy. (His fluency in French became a prized possession.)
In Paris he heard western classical music for the first time. He loved the guitar artistry of Andrés Segovia and the singing of Feodor Chaliapin. Opera, too, enchanted him. However, back in India, he set his heart on becoming a sitarist after listening with rapture to the melodious playing of an older boy. He resolved to learn from the famous sitar teacher and performer Ustad Inayat Khan, the father of the celebrated sitarist Vilayat Khan and the sarodist Imrat Khan, but on the day of the initiation ceremony Shankar fell ill with typhoid.
Later, aged 18, he was apprenticed to Ustad Allauddin Khan, a disciple of Wazir Khan, who was a direct descendent of the legendary Tansen, the chief musician of the Mughal emperor Akbar. For seven years Allauddin Khan was Shankar’s musical mentor and through this connection Shankar inherited a great tradition of classical music. In his autobiography, My Music, My Life (1969), Shankar says that Baba, as he called his teacher, made his pupils practise for hours on end and often resorted to severe corporal punishment. However, on only one occasion did Baba smack him on the hands. (Later, although the marriage did not last, Shankar married Allaudin Khan’s daughter Annapurna, herself an accomplished musician.)
Shankar gave his first concert in 1939, and in 1940 began playing recitals with Allauddin Khan’s son the sarodist Ali Akbar Khan on All India Radio. It was in Mumbai in the mid-40s that Shankar first made an impression. He wrote the music scores for two notable Indian films, Dharti ke Lal (Children of the Earth, 1946) and Neecha Nagar (The City Below, 1946), and composed for the Indian People’s Theatre Association. During 1946-47 he was involved with producing and composing music for a ballet titled The Discovery of India, which was based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s celebrated book of the same name. He later founded and became the musical director of All India Radio’s first National Orchestra and was sent on foreign cultural tours by the Indian government.
His energy was amazing. In between his arduous performing schedule, he composed the music for Satyajit Ray’s classic Apu Trilogy (the films were made over a period of four years from 1955-59). He also composed a concerto for the sitar (1971), performed by the LSO and conducted by André Previn, with Shankar playing the sitar.
In the early 60s Shankar made his first study of jazz and Indian classical music in Improvisations. He went on to teach Indian music to John Coltrane and Don Ellis. His piece Rich á La Rakha was composed for Buddy Rich and Alla Rakha. Then, in 1966, he met George Harrison and Paul McCartney at a friend’s house in London. A few days later, he gave George his first sitar lesson at the Beatle’s home in Surrey. Later that year, George and his wife, Pattie, went to India and the guitarist underwent an intensive period of sitar tuition. From this partnership came Shankar Family & Friends (1974)
Shankar also created a musical partnership with Yehudi Menuhin. They had met in 1951 when Menuhin was visiting India, though Shankar vividly recalled having seen the violinist at rehearsals when they were boys in Paris in the 30s. The men played for each other and became friends. In 1967, they played for the UN general assembly at a human rights day celebration. They also recorded three albums together, the first of which won a Grammy award.
Performances at the great 60s pop festivals – Monterey, Concert for Bangladesh and Woodstock – brought Shankar even more firmly into the west’s popular gaze and saw him established as a pioneer of cross-over sounds. His Kinnara School of Music functioned both in Bombay and Los Angeles. In his 70th year celebration concert at the Royal Albert Hall, he performed with Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Marielle Nordmann and his old-time partner, the tabla wizard Alla Rakha, the father of the renowned musician Zakir Hussain. His long association with Alla Rakha was mutually satisfying and artistically enriching.
He had many friends and admirers. Yet, in India especially, there were classical musicians who were envious of his international success and criticised his association with popular icons in the west. Though his technique was faultless, the spiteful accused him of showmanship. His genius, of course, lay in a combination of gravitas and gaiety. There have not been many musicians who could get on famously with both the Beatles and Menuhin. Indeed, Shankar not only transcended culture, race and geography but also had no difficulty with the generation gap and the phenomenon of class. The children of the flower-power generation turned a deaf ear to their elders but listened most intently to the stranger on the shore.
Showered with citations and awards, the Indian republic made him a Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) and Britain made him an honorary knight. In the US he received several doctorates and was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In later years he divided his time between Encinitas, California, and Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, where the Ravi Shankar Institute of Music and the Performing Arts, fully functional by 2003, was the culmination of his lifelong dream. Housed in an elegant pink granite building, it attracts students from all over the world.
He is survived by his second wife, Sukanya, and their daughter Anoushka who, diligently tutored by her father, is a well-known sitar player. He also leaves a daughter, Norah Jones, the Emmy award-winning singer, from an earlier relationship with the concert producer Sue Jones. Shubhendra, his son from his first marriage, predeceased him.
Ravi Shankar, musician and composer, born 7 April 1920; died 11 December 2012
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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