Sitar maestro and Oscar winner Ravi Shankar, dubbed the “godfather of world music” by George Harrison, who helped popularize North Indian classical music in the West, died today at San Diego’s Scripps Hospital, where he was admitted last week after complaining of shortness of breath. He was 92.
Long before all-star benefit concerts were commonplace fundraising events, Shankar and his friend George Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 to help refugees caught in that territory’s battle to leave Pakistan. He played at that concert and gave memorable perfs at the Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals in the mid-’60s.
Besides his performances, Shankar composed music for films from Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” to Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi.” For the latter film, he shared with George Fenton an Oscar for best original score in 1983.
His many compositions include works combining the sitar with the violin for Yehudi Menuhin, colloborations with Phillip Glass and Harrison.
Shankar’s relationship with Harrison and the Beatles came about through the recording studio the Indian used in London. The Byrds used the same facility and befriended him, and the group began incorporating the sitar into their music; the Beatles followed. Harrison used the sitar in “Norwegian Wood” and set off the raga-rock trend. Sitar was incorporated in Harrison’s “Within You Without You” in the “Sgt. Pepper” album, which won a Grammy.
But long before this connection, Shankar had been performing for Western audiences. Born into a family of seven brothers raised by his single mother after his father moved to London, Shankar toured Europe with his brother Uday and his performing troupe.
In Paris, he met the man who would become his teacher, Allaudin Khan. His parents had died when Shankar returned at age 13 to India, so in the tradition of ancient Indian students, he moved in with his teacher. Among his fellow students were Khan’s own children, Ali Akbar and Roshanara, whom Shankar later married. (She changed her name to the Hindu Annapurna Devi after the 1941 wedding.)
After his training, Shankar moved to Bombay and worked at All India Radio and HMV Records. He also composed music for Ray’s “Apu Trilogy.” But seeing Ali Akbar Khan travel overseas and feeling stifled, Shankar decided to follow in 1956 to tour the U.K. His marriage to Annapurna Devi was already over despite the birth of a son.
The overseas tours brought him worldwide recognition and helped expand his musical horizons. Besides the collaborations with the Beatles, he worked with Menuhin on the album “West Meets East,” which won a Grammy in 1967.
“Ravi Shankar has brought me a precious gift and through him I have added a new dimension to my experience of music,” Menuhin once said. “To me, his genius and his humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart’s.”
During the 1970s Shankar turned to academia, teaching at City College of New York, UCLA and California Institute of the Arts, as well as touring with Harrison. However, he suffered a stroke in 1974 and passed the baton to his sister-in-law Lakshmi. He returned to the touring circuit but was plagued with heart problems, undergoing angioplasty in 1992.
In 1971, seeing the plight of his fellow Bengalis fighting to be free of Pakistan in what would later become Bangla Desh, he turned to Harrison and the two organized the concert, enlisting the aid of other musicians.
To Shankar, spirituality and music went hand in hand. “Different types of music, whether it is vocal or instrumental, Eastern or Western, classical or pop or folk from any part of the world can all be spiritual if it has the power to stir the soul of a person and transcend time for the moment,” he said in a 2007 interview. “It makes one get goosebumps in the body and mind and equates the highest mental orgasm and the release of grateful tears!”
Besides his musical work, Shankar spent a stint in the upper house of the Indian parliament from 1986-92. But he was not really political, though he once said, “It is very important that our government introduces classical music, dance and other art forms on a compulsory basis right from the kindergarten level.”
In keeping with this philosophy he set up a foundation in 1997 to pass on his knowledge of music. The Ravi Shankar Foundation has a center in New Delhi and operates under the ancient Indian system wherein students live onsite and learn and work for their teachers. All his prize money and the coin raised from his perfs were donated to the foundation, which is the repository of all his works.
Despite his heart problems, he kept up a touring schedule while recording albums and publishing “My Music, My Life,” in 1968, “Learning Indian Music: A Systematic Approach” in ’79 and “Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar” in ’97.
Shankar’s main companion for decades was dancer Kamala Shastri. He also had a relationship with New York concert producer Sue Jones, with whom he fathered singer Norah Jones.
Son Shubhendra “Shubho” Shankar, a musician who often toured with Ravi, died in 1992.
In addition to Jones, Ravi Shankar is survived by second wife Sukanya Rajan and their daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar.