Composer, scholar, teacher and worldwide performer, Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away Tuesday at the Scripps Hospital, in La Jolla, near San Diego, California. He had been admitted on December 6th with breathing difficulties. Shankar was 92.
Perhaps more than any other artist of the 20th century, his performances around the world gained global acceptance for Hindustani music. His collaborations with non-Indian musicians, spanning over half a century, made him an early crossover figure. Shankar was one of the first musicians of the foremost rank whose role in emerging post World War II culture not only created what became known as “world music,” it helped make that label a powerful one.
Shankar first became a celebrity in the late 1960s, when Beatle George Harrison studied Hindustani music with the master in London, Kashmir and India. Harrison had earlier used a sitar, retuned to typical Western tuning, in his song, Norwegian Wood. After studying with Shankar, Harrison wrote Within You, Without You, for the Sgt. Pepper album.
Though the master’s collaboration with Harrison was his most famous, he worked with many of the world’s finest musicians:
[Shankar] became a de facto tutor for Westerners fascinated by India’s musical traditions.
He gave lessons to [John] Coltrane, who named his son Ravi in Shankar’s honor, and became close friends with [Yehudi] Menuhin, recording the acclaimed “West Meets East” album with him. He also collaborated with flutist Jean Pierre Rampal, composer Philip Glass and conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta.
“Any player on any instrument with any ears would be deeply moved by Ravi Shankar. If you love music, it would be impossible not to be,” singer David Crosby, whose band The Byrds was inspired by Shankar’s music, said in the book “The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi.”
A man with a long, complex love life, he fathered both Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, winners of almost a score of Grammies.
He inspired one of the first mega-benefit concerts in modern music history, the August, 1971 Concerts for Bangla Desh. Here is a shortened version of the opening set of the concert, which later also featured Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and the band Badfinger. In this segment, the musicians are Ravi Shankar on sitar, Ali Akbhar Khan on Sarod, Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura, and Alla Rakha on tablas:
At the time of the concerts for Bagladesh, I was a music director and producer at a Seattle radio station, KRAB FM, that played more music from around the world than any other in the United States, and studying sitar with Dr. Robert Jangaard, who had been taught by Ali Akbar Khan, at the latter’s school in San Rafael, California. On the air, we not only played chamber works of north Indian music that Khan’s and Shankar’s so fully exemplified, we had a large collection of the latter’s music from his many film scores.
It was through doing research on Shankar’s film music that I first came into contact with the name of Philip Glass, who had yet to become discovered, let alone famous. Glass, in a 1972 interview for KRAB radio conducted by Michael Wiater with the minimalist composer, stated that his work with Shankar on a film score while studying in Paris in 1966 changed his life in a profound way. Wikipedia relates the transformation: