Ravi Shankar, often addressed by the Hindu title of ‘Pandit’ or master, was one of the foremost enigmatic personas in the Indian musical scene. He was born in 1920 in the ancient city of Varanasi, India and grew up as a part of his brother’s dance troupe. During his early life, he also served as All-India Radio’s director and then, was involved in several tours within India and America, that involved multiple collaborations with stalwarts like The Beatles’ George Harrison and the great Philip Glass. Ravi Shankar left behind a rich legacy when he passed away in 2012 in California.
Born in an Indian Bengali household, Shankar was 10 when he left Varanasi for Paris, with his elder brother, Uday. They were both associated with the Compagnie de Danse Musique Hindous, a popular dance troupe, where the younger sibling was first introduced to the nuances and rhythm of traditional Indian dance forms. Almost simultaneously, the upcoming maestro was absorbing the styles and ways of Western genres. This bicultural influence was evident in many of his works over the years, facilitating a deep reverence among Westerners for Indian musical pieces, bringing in the type of attention that Shankar had hoped to cultivate.
Shankar’s exposure to Western music was primarily through his association with George Harrison, and an exceptional musical show at Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. This concert also brought forward the likes of Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix to the majority of American audiences. The great John Coltrane took significance assistance and advice from the Indian master to break free from the restrictions of Western musical boundaries, as he sought the spiritual essence of Indian classical themes. This went on to have far-reaching effects such as when Coltrane’s son was named Ravi. Also, the saxophonist Bud Shank, known for his films and jazz, was involved in Ravi Shankar’s debut collaboration with a jazz group.
It was under another master, the supremely talented Allaudin Khan, that Shankar learnt much of his art. The two met at a conference in the year 1934 and this followed years of guidance and training passed down to the soon to be master. The instrument that Shankar became really adept at and which, one day would become his signature, was the sitar. He learnt much from Khan about tolerance and open-mindedness for other societies and people and in about 6 years, his sitar training was complete. This was followed by Shankar leaving for Mumbai, where he composed ballet music till the year 1946.
He was also the musical director of All India Radio in New Delhi until 1956 and simultaneously, during this time, he was composing and carrying out performances for Yehudi Menuhin, a violinist. Their collaboration produced the albums West Meets East (1967), which won the Grammy Award, West Meets East, Vol. 2 (1968) and finally, Improvisations: West Meets East (1976).
The 1954 saw Shankar perform in the Soviet Union, with subsequent performances in America and Western Europe in the year 1956. He also became extremely popular in India and gained world fame when he composed the score for Oscar winning director Satyajit Ray's “Apu Trilogy” movies. The first of the three movies, Pather Panchali, was the winner of an Oscar and Palme d'Or in 1955. Shankar also performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969, and in between, in 1967, helped George Harrison learn the sitar, which the Beatles star used for "Norwegian Wood."
The Los Angeles based World Pacific Records, were responsible for both recording and then releasing Shankar's many albums, including the much appreciated Three Ragas (1956), which was a tour de force, impressing many who were looking to sample the vibrance of Indian music. Such was Shankar’s influence that musicians outside India had already started to use the sitar in their work with examples being "See My Friends" by the Kinks and "Heart Full of Soul" by the Yardbirds. When David Crosby, who had already developed a strong admiration for the sitar and Shankar himself, met the Indian star in 1965 at World Pacific's studios, he was inspired to compose "Why?” in 1966. This was an exercise in converting Indian raga into psychedelic rock.
The Bangladesh war of 1971 caused tremendous famine and suffering, when Ravi Shankar and George Harrison brought together a musical concert for the country. The event happened in Madison Square Garden with A-Listers such as Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan contributing to it, along with the original duo. The proceeds of this show were sent to UNICEF in service to Bangladeshi refugees. This recording went on to win a Grammy in 1973. Although he was rumored to be a hippy because he stuck around with his friend Harrison, the man was actually an active critic of marijuana use.
Shankar said that Ragas were extremely hard to explain in words but elaborated that they are distinctly different from music in the Middle Eastern countries. The subtle variations in notes or the omission of a dissonant note, and other minute differences make each unique from the other. Ravi Shankar’s fame grew further when in 1982, he scored the soundtrack for Richard Attenborough's “Gandhi”, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. The year 1987 saw Shankar experiment with mixing traditional and electronic music, and in 1990 he worked with Philip Glass to produce Passages.
In his personal life, Ravi Shankar married Annapurna Devi, who was herself a gifted sitarist. A biography was written and published by her in 2005 that stated Shankar made her promise not to perform publicly, causing much controversy. In the 1940s, he began a relationship with dancer Kamala Shastri and then finally broke it off for his affair with Sue Jones, whom he married and had a daughter with. The daughter is the famed Norah Jones, a singer with nine Grammys under her belt. Then, he broke off the marriage and married Sukanya Rajan in the year 1989. This union bore a daughter, Anoushka Shankar, who has had many collaborations with her father behind the sitar.
Ravi Shankar’s plethora of awards and recognition include honorary degrees, three Grammy wins and two additional posthumous wins. He also received a membership to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His death in 2012 was mourned the world over and was due to a reported respiratory and heart issues.