Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar bridged India and the West
Labeled 'the godfather of world music' by Beatle George Harrison, Ravi Shankar helped millions of Westerners — classical, jazz, and rock lovers — discover the centuries-old traditions of Indian music.
As captured in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary, some nodded along and smiled; Jimi Hendrix listened carefully. Others dozed, or chatted. A few hippies danced wildly, as if they couldn't tell — or didn't care about — the difference between Shankar's raga and a Jefferson Airplane jam. But as the performance accelerated from isolated strains to a pace that could exhaust the speediest rock star, eyes opened, minds expanded and Shankar and his fellow musicians left to a long standing ovation.
Labeled "the godfather of world music" by Beatle George Harrison, Shankar helped millions of Westerners — classical, jazz and rock lovers — discover the centuries-old traditions of Indian music. From Harrison to John Coltrane, from Yehudi Menuhin to Andre Previn, he bridged, sometimes unsteadily, the musical gap between East and West, between what Shankar noted as the classical East's emphasis on melody and rhythm and the classical West's foundation of "harmony, counterpoint, chords, modulation and other basics."
"Indian music was the original 'world music' — appealing to a generation of educated, middle-class Western listeners," said producer Joe Boyd, who has worked with everyone from Pink Floyd to Nazakat & Salamat Ali. "Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were the first musicians to reach that audience in a profound way that transcended cultural boundaries."
Shankar died Tuesday at age 92. A statement on his website said he died in San Diego, near his Southern California home with his wife and a daughter by his side. The musician's foundation issued a statement saying that he had suffered upper respiratory and heart problems and had undergone heart-valve replacement surgery last week.
"My Dad's music touched millions of people," his daughter, musician Norah Jones, said in a statement. "He will be greatly missed by me and music lovers everywhere."
Through Shankar and his bond with Harrison, countless rock acts absorbed Eastern sounds, including the Beatles, the Byrds, Aerosmith and R.E.M. Shankar also became a conscience for all popular musicians when he helped pioneer the rock benefit show with the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh, where featured acts included Harrison, Ringo Starr and Bob Dylan. His last musical performance was with his other daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar Wright, on Nov. 4 in Long Beach, Calif. The multiple Grammy winner received a lifetime achievement honor Wednesday from the Recording Academy.
"It's one of the biggest losses for the music world," said Kartic Seshadri, a Shankar protege, sitar virtuoso and music professor at the University of California, San Diego. "There's nothing more to be said."
As early as the 1950s, Shankar began collaborating with and teaching some of the greats of Western music, including violinist Menuhin and jazz saxophonist Coltrane. He played well-received shows in concert halls in Europe and the United States, but faced a constant struggle. Shankar was amused after he and colleague Ustad Ali Akbar Khan were greeted with admiring applause when they opened the Concert for Bangladesh by twanging their sitar and sarod for a minute and a half.
"If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more," he told the confused crowd, and then launched into his set.
He might never have inspired the Bangladesh concert or played Monterey, where other breakthrough performers included Hendrix and Janis Joplin, if not for the curiosity of Harrison while on the set of the Beatles' 1965 movie "Help!" The plot featured the Beatles, four of the West's most famous faces, being hounded by an Eastern cult that coveted one of Starr's rings. During filming, Harrison noticed a sitar, a long-necked string instrument that uses a bulbous gourd for its resonating chamber and resembles a giant lute.
He developed a crude facility and played the instrument, with Western tuning, on Lennon's "Norwegian Wood." The Rolling Stones soon used a sitar on the hit single "Paint it Black" and the Byrds used raga-influenced guitar on "Eight Miles High." Meanwhile, Harrison sought out Shankar, already a musical icon in India, to teach him to use it properly. According to Byrds leader Roger McGuinn, he told Harrison about Shankar during an acid trip in Los Angeles, at, of all places, Zsa Zsa Gabor's mansion.
Harrison and Shankar spent weeks together, starting the lessons at Harrison's house in England and then moving to a houseboat in Kashmir and later to California. Harrison, who died in 2001, revered Shankar as a father figure and cited him as a noble and selfless contrast to the devouring rock music world.
Gaining confidence with the sitar, Harrison recorded the Indian-inspired song "Love You To" on the Beatles' landmark 1966 album "Revolver," helping spark the raga-rock phase of '60s music and making Shankar a favorite at Western concerts. He not only played at Monterey, where Beatle Paul McCartney was on the festival's board of directors, but was featured on the opening day of Woodstock.
In some ways, he was an ideal hippie hero, with his long musical sets, bright clothing and his aura of higher consciousness. But Shankar, a serious, disciplined traditionalist who had played Carnegie Hall, objected to the drug use and rebelliousness of the young culture.
"I was shocked to see people dressing so flamboyantly. They were all stoned. To me, it was a new world," Shankar told Rolling Stone of the Monterey festival.
In 1971, moved by the nightmare of millions of refugees fleeing into India to escape the war in Bangladesh, Shankar reached out to Harrison. In what Shankar later described as "one of the most moving and intense musical experiences of the century," the pair organized two benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden. The concert, which led to an album and a film, raised millions of dollars for UNICEF, although some money went missing and legal battles ensued. But a new tradition had started and benefit shows continue to this day, from the 1985 Live Aid concert to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia to Wednesday's 12-12-12 concert for Sandy victims.
Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury was born April 7, 1920, in the Indian city of Varanasi.
At the age of 10, he moved to Paris to join the world famous dance troupe of his brother Uday. Over the next eight years, Shankar traveled with the troupe across Europe, America and Asia, and later credited his early immersion in foreign cultures with making him such an effective ambassador for Indian music.
During one tour, renowned musician Baba Allaudin Khan joined the troupe, took Shankar under his wing and eventually became his teacher through 7 1/2 years of isolated, rigorous study of the sitar.
"Khan told me you have to leave everything else and do one thing properly," Shankar told The Associated Press.
In the 1950s, Shankar began gaining fame throughout India. He held the influential position of music director for All India Radio in New Delhi and wrote the scores for several popular films, including Satyajit Ray's celebrated "Apu" trilogy. He began writing compositions for orchestras, blending clarinets and other foreign instruments into traditional Indian music.
And he became a de facto tutor for Westerners fascinated by India's musical traditions.
He gave lessons to Coltrane, who named his son Ravi in Shankar's honor, and became close friends with 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, a member of the Byrds in the '60s, said in the book "The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi."
Shankar's personal life, however, was troubled.
His 1941 marriage to Baba Allaudin Khan's daughter, Annapurna Devi, ended in divorce. Though he had a decades-long relationship with dancer Kamala Shastri that ended in 1981, he had relationships with several other women in the 1970s.
In 1979, he fathered Norah Jones with New York concert promoter Sue Jones, and in 1981, Sukanya Rajan, who played the tanpura at his concerts, gave birth to his daughter Anoushka.
He grew estranged from Sue Jones in the 80s and didn't see Norah for a decade, though they later re-established contact.
He married Rajan in 1989 and trained young Anoushka as his heir on the sitar. In recent years, father and daughter toured the world together.
The statement she and her mother released said, "Although it is a time for sorrow and sadness, it is also a time for all of us to give thanks and to be grateful that we were able to have him as part of our lives."
While Norah Jones became a star and won five Grammy awards in 2003, Anoushka Shankar was nominated for a Grammy of her own.
Shankar himself won three Grammy awards and was nominated for an Oscar for his musical score for the epic movie "Gandhi."
"How does one put the spiritual significance of music on paper?" Shankar once asked. "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. It makes one get goose-bumps in the body and mind and equates the highest mental orgasm and the release of grateful tears!"