Indian sitar virtuoso, Beatles muse Ravi Shankar dies at 92

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 12:52pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Ravi Shankar, the sitar player and composer described as the “godfather of world music” by Beatles guitarist George Harrison, has died. He was 92.

Shankar, who first performed internationally as a child, devoted his adult life to Indian classical music. His audience widened after Harrison, who introduced the sitar into rock music by playing the instrument on the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), sought out Shankar’s tutelage.

“It’s with a very heavy heart that I confirm this sad news,” his manager, Earl Blackburn, said in an e-mail on Wednesday.

In 1967, Shankar appeared at the Monterey International Pop Festival, where he was the only artist paid. Two years later, he played at the Woodstock festival. He collabourated with Harrison on the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit to help refugees of what was then East Pakistan.

“Ravi laid down the groundwork for other Indian musicians who were later able to perform all around the world because of him,” Harrison wrote in the introduction of Raga Mala, Shankar’s 1993 autobiography that the former Beatle edited.

Two daughters with musical careers are among Shankar’s survivors: Norah Jones, the Grammy Award-winning singer and pianist, and Anoushka Shankar, also a sitarist.

Ravi Shankar composed the scores for Gandhi, Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film in 1982, and Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, a 1950s series that Time magazine ranked among the 100 best movies ever. He also wrote music for composer Philip Glass, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, as well as Harrison.

Rabindra Shankar Chowdhury was born on April 7, 1920, in the northern Indian city of Benares, also known as Varanasi. He was the youngest of seven sons born to Shyam Shankar Chowdhury and his wife Hemangini. Two of the sons died in childhood.

Shankar’s father, born in what is now Bangladesh, was a government official, a lawyer, an amateur musician. Before Ravi’s birth, Shyam Shankar left his wife to practice law in Kolkata and London.

Uday, the eldest son, moved to London to study art before Shankar was a year old. He then became a dancer and returned to India to form a troupe of dancers and musicians.

The ensemble settled in Paris in 1930 and Shankar moved there with his mother, who had agreed to accompany Uday. He had started playing the sitar and other instruments by then, and performed with the group as a dancer as well as a musician.

Shankar gave up dancing in 1938 to study the sitar with Ustad Allauddin Khan, a musician who had previously toured with the troupe. He began playing the instrument publicly in 1939 and stayed with Khan for six years.

Khan’s daughter, Annapurna, wed Shankar in 1941 through an arranged marriage. Their only child, a son named Shubhendra, was born the following year. Shubhendra, who became a sitarist and painter, died in 1992 of bronchial pneumonia.

After leaving Khan, Shankar spent four years in Bombay, now known as Mumbai. He toured, wrote music for films and dances and recorded for HMV India. He moved to Delhi in 1949 to become musical director at All-India Radio, a government-run network.

The magic in music happens only when the artist serves it with love and joy -- and the listener receives it with the same spirit

During his seven years at All-India, he gave his initial concerts in the Soviet Union. Within a year after leaving, he made solo debuts in Europe and the US and recorded his first album, Three Ragas, for EMI Group. His initial tour of Japan followed in 1958.

As Shankar established himself, he expanded into education. In 1962, he opened the Kinnara School of Music in Mumbai.

Harrison, accompanied by his then-wife Patti, studied with Shankar in India for six weeks in 1966. The Beatle learned about him from singer David Crosby, then of the Byrds, and met Shankar in London.

Shankar’s popularity led to criticism that he had sold out, and he returned to classical venues after touring with Harrison in 1974. Even so, he said he valued the experience.

“I knew I would be able to present the correct perspective of our music to young people all over the world so that they would have a better understanding of it,” he wrote in My Music, My Life, a musical guide and biography that was published in 1968 and updated in 2007.

The discipline that Shankar brought to his playing didn’t extend to his personal life. He instead followed the lead of his father, who married an English woman without divorcing Shankar’s mother. The wedding was legal under Indian law at the time.

“I felt I could be in love with different women in different places,” Shankar wrote in Raga Mala. “It was like having a girl in every port -- and sometimes it was more than one!”

Annapurna separated from him in 1944 after he fell for Kamala Chakravarty, an Indian dancer who then entered into an arranged marriage with another man. Annapurna returned only to walk out again in 1956.

Shankar resumed seeing Chakravarty after her husband died in 1957. The sitarist maintained the relationship even after Annapurna came back a second time. He ended his marriage and moved in with Chakravarty in 1967. They were together until 1981, a year before he was legally divorced from Annapurna.

While living with Chakravarty, he started a 13-year relationship with Sue Jones, a US concert producer and one-time dancer. He broke up with Jones in 1986. Their daughter, born Geetali Norah Jones Shankar, later became known by her middle names.

Shankar also began seeing Sukanya Rajan, who lived in London and accompanied him at a concert there in 1973. She gave birth to Anoushka while married to someone else, and didn’t get divorced until about six years later.

Rajan became Shankar’s second wife in 1989. The couple lived in Delhi and in Encinitas, California, near San Diego.

Shankar won three Grammys, including one for the Concert for Bangladesh live album and another for West Meets East, a 1967 album with Menuhin. The third was awarded for another concert recording, Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000.

India’s government presented him with its highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999. He won Sweden’s Polar Music Prize, a lifetime achievement award, the previous year.

Shankar summed up his musical philosophy with this comment, highlighted on his website: “The magic in music happens only when the artist serves it with love and joy -- and the listener receives it with the same spirit.”