Ravi Shankar, the world’s most famous sitar player, died yesterday at the age of 92. Shankar is credited with popularizing classical Indian music, largely through his work with The Beatles’ George Harrison.
His extraordinary musical journey took him from the banks of the sacred River Ganges in British India to the legendary Monterey and Woodstock festivals, where he played alongside the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
At the height of his fame in the 1960s, when he was the darling of the hippie movement, he was described as “the most famous Indian musician on the planet” and his influence continues through his daughter, US singer Norah Jones.
Shankar taught Harrison to play the sitar and collaborated with him on several projects. The Beatles called him “the godfather of world music.”
Ravi Shankar was born into a high-caste Bengali family in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in northern India on April 7, 1920.
He began his career at a young age, touring Europe with his brother Uday’s dance troupe, but returned to India in the late 1930s to study the sitar under the renowned musician Allaudin Khan.
Shankar started to attract attention outside India after being introduced to violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the early 1950s, leading to tours of Europe and the US, as well as his first long-play album, Three Ragas.
Among the major names in contemporary music influenced by him were The Byrds, whose 1965 track Eight Miles High bears the hallmark of Shankar’s sitar playing.
In the same year, Harrison used a sitar he had bought on a whim on the song Norwegian Wood.
Harrison met Shankar in London in 1966 and later traveled to India, where the maestro taught him how to play the plucked instrument.
Awards and collaborations with other top artists followed Shankar wherever he went. He composed three sitar concertos and worked with top conductors like Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta and the composer Philip Glass.
The first of his three Grammy awards came in 1967 for his collaborative album with Menuhin, West Meets East. The second came in 1972 for his Concert for Bangladesh album, while the third in 2001 was for his Full Circle concert at Carnegie Hall in New York.
He was nominated for an Oscar in 1982 for his work on the film Gandhi, was a recipient of both India and France’s highest civilian honors, and was awarded an honorary knighthood in Britain.
Shankar, who also sat in the Indian upper house of parliament, once said his greatest achievement was helping Western audiences better understand Indian classical music.
However, he said Indian audiences did not always approve of his association with Western rock stars and he was also uncomfortable with the fame it brought him.
“When I started working with George Harrison I became like a pop star myself,” he told the Guardian newspaper last year. “Everywhere I went, I was recognized. I didn’t like that at all.”