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Revisit: Ravi Shankar: A Life in Music



The GRAMMY Museum became the first U.S. museum to celebrate India’s most esteemed musician with the April 29, 2015 opening of Ravi Shankar: A Life In Music. 

Ravi Shankar: A Life In Music was displayed in the Mike Curb Gallery on the Museum’s fourth floor and gave visitors a unique look into the GRAMMY-winning world music icon’s early life, the roots of his musicality and his vast impact on Western music – most notably, The Beatles.

The exhibit told the story of Shankar’s career in chronological order, beginning with the display of a collection of sitars Shankar performed in his formative years, one even dating back to the 1930s. Also on display was a collection of performance attire Shankar wore, including what he referred to as his “dandy” outfit, and an outfit worn by his daughter, Anoushka Shankar, during a performance in the 2000s.

“Ravi was one of a kind. He meant so much to Eastern and Western music and what they could accomplish together,” said Sukanya Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s widow. “He influenced musicians and touched the lives of millions all over the world not only with his incredible virtuosity, but with his ability to be so humble in the midst of such adoration.”

A Life in Music

Ravi Shankar was one of India’s greatest musical virtuosos.  He was renowned for his efforts to introduce Indian music to the West and for his influence on American and British popular music.  He played the sitar, an Indian stringed instrument known for its complexity and intoxicating sound, and was considered a supreme master of it.  But he was also a prolific composer and a cultural ambassador of India, widely hailed for capturing the emotional essence of Indian ragas and talas, and the promise of an enlightened existence through music.

Though he toured the West extensively in the 1950s and debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1961, many Americans first learned of Shankar by way of his friendship and musical association with Beatle George Harrison in the mid-’60s that catapulted him into mainstream pop stardom.  Harrison, fascinated by Indian music and Shankar’s sitar genius, learned to play the sitar and played it on a few select Beatles’ songs.  Shankar also amazed young pop audiences at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock two years later.  Then, in 1971, Shankar and Harrison created the concept of the rock benefit when the two staged the legendary Concert for Bangladesh in New York.

But the allure of Shankar’s mesmerizing performances and recordings soon eclipsed his pop and rock associations.  For years afterward, Shankar performed throughout the United States to sold-out audiences and recorded more than 60 albums.  He won four GRAMMY Awards, and the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.  His daughters, Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, are both accomplished artists in their own right.  Shankar died in 2012 in Encinitas, California.  He was 92 years old.

Early Years

Ravi Shankar was born into an Indian middle class family in 1920 in Varanasi, the holiest of Indian cities.  The youngest of four sons, Shankar was, at first, a dancer.  He traveled to Paris at age 10 as part of an Indian dance troupe led by his elder brother, Uday.  Performances in other European cities followed, giving young Shankar a solid understanding of Western music and dance traditions. Despite his success as a dancer, the hypnotic sounds of Indian classical music and the sitar captivated him, and by the time he was in his mid-20s, he was giving public recitals on the instrument. He also began composing, writing scores for Indian films, ballets, orchestras, and chamber groups.

Shankar began performing in the West in the mid-’50s due largely to his connection to violin virtuoso, Yehudi Menuhin, who he met in 1952 and became lifelong friends and collaborators.  In 1956 he released Three Ragas, his first album to attract attention outside India.  As word of Shankar’s immense talent spread, he broadened his concert tour schedule to include dates in Europe, Asia and the United States.   An acclaimed concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1961 was pivotal in elevating both Shankar and Indian music in the U.S.  Three years later Shankar met the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.  The two musicians planned to record together, but because of Coltrane’s untimely death in 1967, the project never occurred. Shankar made other important connections in the mid 1960s as well, such as when, while scoring Conrad Rooks’ film, Chappaqua, he encountered composer Philip Glass who Rooks’ hired to transpose music into western notation.  The two men eventually collaborated on several projects.

The Sitar

The sitar is one of India’s most well-known instruments.  Central Asian in origin, it was first introduced to American audiences by Ravi Shankar in the ‘60s. The sitar is a complex and difficult stringed instrument to master.  A member of the lute family, the sitar usually contains approximately 17 strings.  Five or so are considered melody strings. One or two are drone strings, which create rhythm. The rest are “sympathetic” or auxiliary strings; they are usually played to achieve certain tonal affects.

The sitar is held at a 45-degree angle by the performing musician who uses finger picks to pluck the strings.  Indian sitar players are often accompanied by tabla (drum) and tampura (a form of lute) players.  The music they make is hypnotic and powerfully expressive.

Ravi Shankar, always an innovator, developed a new notation system for sitar during the 1950s, the period when he was writing scores for film in Bombay and Calcutta while acting as the program director for All Indian Radio.  Shankar used letters from the Latin alphabet (S, R, G, M, P, D, N, S) instead of the traditional Indian syllables sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa, common in the 1940s.  He also introduced special signs for the right hand strokes on plucked instruments.

World Music

Beatle George Harrison once called Ravi Shankar the “Godfather of World Music.”  What he most likely meant by the title was that Shankar was one of the earliest and certainly most important non-Western music virtuosos to introduce non-Western music to Western pop and rock fans.  Though some American classical music followers might have known of Shankar and the intricacies of Indian music prior to the ’60s, Shankar’s ability to draw—and captivate—young listeners in this country was unprecedented.

Thanks to Shankar, the idea of “world music” began to take hold in America, a country whose music tradition is so rich and diverse that it rarely has had the inclination to look beyond its cultural borders to discover and enjoy other music forms.  Today, world music is a viable part of the popular, roots, and classical soundscapes in America.  Music from other cultures enriches us and provides new inspiration to American musicians and composers.  Shankar deserves credit for this transformation.

Ravi Shankar: In Performance

To attend a Ravi Shankar concert was to watch a maestro at work and to partake in a quasi-spiritual experience through music. At many Shankar performances in the U.S., concertgoers were not so familiar with the subtle complexities of playing the sitar and how the instrument interacted with the other instruments onstage.  But to hear the music meant to enjoy a journey taken both by the listeners and the musicians, and, hopefully, for all to wind up on the same higher plane of consciousness.

Shankar performed cross-legged, keeping the sitar at a 45-degree angle, resting the instrument’s bottom gourd in his lap.  While his fingers moved effortlessly up and down the long neck of the sitar plucking its many strings, Shankar would connect with the rhythms generated by the tabla players and the other instrumentalists onstage.  The result was a celebration of Indian music that wowed the novice and elevated the serious fan.

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison

Ravi Shankar met George Harrison of The Beatles in the mid-’60s when Harrison contacted him about taking sitar lessons.  Fascinated by the instrument and the spiritual elements that ran through Indian music, Harrison had ideas as to how he could incorporate the sitar into Beatles’ music.  The Beatles’ “Love You To,” written, sung and performed by Harrison in 1966, was one of the first pop songs to include a sitar.

“I found he (Harrison) really wanted to learn,” recalled Shankar years later.  “I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene.”

Not everyone in Indian classical music approved of the expansion of Indian music into rock, however limited. Some Indian musicians felt that the music’s spirituality was compromised in the process and that the sitar had no role in pop music.  Despite the detractors, the musical relationship and deep friendship that Harrison and Shankar formed in the ’60s remained true until Harrison’s death in November 2001.

Monterey Pop and Woodstock

Ravi Shankar performed at the two most important American rock festivals of the 1960s: Monterey Pop and Woodstock.  The former took place in June 1967 in Monterey, California.  The official name of the festival was the Monterey International Pop Music Festival.  Though most of the artists hailed from California, particularly San Francisco, acts from Canada, England, South Africa, and India (Shankar) participated in the three-day event.  Shankar’s four-hour performance left many festival-goers shocked by the exotic intensity of his set.

Woodstock occurred in August 1969 in upstate New York.  By this time, Shankar was viewed as a musical member of the counterculture movement, as much for the spiritual nature of his music as the penetrating, hypnotic nature of it.  Though drug use was prevalent at both festivals, Shankar’s music provided an alternative to LSD and other mind-expanding drugs popular at the time.

The Concert for Bangladesh

Held on August 1, 1971 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, The Concert for Bangladesh was the first major rock concert to raise both money and awareness for an international humanitarian crisis.  The concert was created and produced by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar to help those in Bangladesh ravaged by war and poverty.  It was the first of its kind and provided inspiration for Live Aid, Farm Aid, and the many rock and pop benefit concerts and events that would follow.

The Concert for Bangladesh featured Harrison, Shankar and fellow Indian master musician Ali Akbar Khan, as well as Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and others.  The performers played two shows—an afternoon and evening performance—in one day.  In all, $250,000 was raised, an impressive sum, given the uniqueness of the event and the times.  A GRAMMY Award-winning triple album followed, as did a documentary film.  The Concert for Bangladesh is considered one of the high water marks in rock history, helping to give rock its conscience.

Ravi Shankar’s Children

Ravi Shankar had three children: Shubhendra (Shubho) Shankar, born in 1942 by Annapurna Devi; Norah Jones, born in 1979 by Sue Jones; and Anoushka Shankar, born in 1981 by Sukanya Rajan Shankar, who would become his second wife. All three children have well-known and accomplished artistic careers. Though Shubho died suddenly from pneumonia at the age of 50, he learned sitar under the guidance of his mother, Annapurna, and later trained and performed with his father during the ’70s and ’80s.

Jones lived with her father until she was 4 and saw him intermittently until she was 10. She is an accomplished jazz and pop recording artist and a nine-time GRAMMY winner, scoring a remarkable five awards in 2002 with her debut album, Come Away with Me, including Album Of The Year. Though it’s sometimes difficult to hear her father’s direct influence on her music, it is clear that her quest for innovation and creative communication with her audiences is not unlike Shankar’s classic approach to recording and performing.  Jones lives in New York.  She, too, continues to record and perform.

Though she did not live with her father until she was 7, Anoushka is the child who received the most direct training from her father, starting sitar lessons with him when she was 8, and making her professional debut five years later. For years Anoushka performed at her father’s side on concert stages around the world. Anoushka has expanded the field of Indian classical music and sitar performance by incorporating other world music forms such as Spanish flamenco into her music.  A multi-GRAMMY nominee, Anoushka is also an author. Her book, Bapi: The Love of My Life, is a biography/memoir of her father, Ravi. Anoushka resides in London and continues to record and perform.

This outfit (left) was worn by Anoushka Shankar (circa 2000s). Shankar generally wears this traditional form of dress when performing.

A special centennial exhibition, titled Ravi Shankar @100: India’s Global Musician, is on display at The Indian Music Experience Museum, Bangalore, a cultural affiliate of the GRAMMY Museum. The exhibition, celebrating the life of Pandit Ravi Shankar with the support of the Ravi Shankar Foundation, feature his musical instruments, costumes, and photographs along with listening stations and interactives, supported by interpretive graphic panels, that chronicle the life and work of the celebrated artiste. A special feature is an ‘experience zone’ with sound design by GRAMMY® Award-winning producer and compose Ricky Kej.