Best known for his success in popularizing the sitar and introducing Indian music to other music genres, Ravi Shankar was born Robindra Shankar Chowdhury in India in 1920.
Shankar lived in India until the age of 10 when he left to Paris, France with his older brother, Uday Shankar. Uday was a member of a dance troupe called the Compagnie de Danse et Musique Hindou (Company of Hindu Dance and Music). Paris had a very powerful influence upon the young Ravi Shankar. Not only did he continue his education in Paris and learned more about the Western culture, but more importantly he was exposed to Indian music and dance through his brother’s troupe. These combined skills would one day make him one of the best Indian musicians of all time.
It was in 1938 that he moved back to India to begin his formal training. He studied with sitar maestro Ustad Allauddin Khan. He spent a number of years learning the sitar under his tutelage. In 1944, after he finished his apprenticeship, he set out to pursue a professional career. He toured and wrote for films and ballet. He also worked for the All India Radio as a musical director and he continued to travel back and forth between India and the West.
His mainstream success however, did not come until 1966. That year, George Harrison of The Beatles became his student. This association catapulted Ravi Shankar to international fame, which led to performances at Monterey Pop, Woodstock, as well as numerous recordings. By the end of the 1960’s, Shankar had won the enduring admiration of an entire generation.
Not surprisingly, Shankar’s growing popularity earned him an invitation to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. On October 25th, 1970 Ravi Shankar appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first and only time. That night, Ed Sullivan introduced the sitar virtuoso by saying, “Whoever would have dreamed that our rock generation would flip over to the ancient classical music of India. Well the man who cast the spell is Ravi Shankar.” Then, Shankar went on to play “Tilak Shyam” accompanied by two other Indian musicians playing the tanpura (lute) and the tabla (Indian percussion instrument). All of the musicians sat on the floor while playing.
After his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, from the 1970’s to the early 21st century, Shankar’s fame, recognition and achievement continued to grow steadily. His partnership with George Harrison proved to be even more significant in 1971 when they both organized the “Concert for Bangladesh” that took place in Madison Square Garden to raise funds for UNICEF to help Bangladeshi refugees. Other accomplishments in Shankar’s career include 14 honorary degrees, two Grammy Awards and an Academy Award nomination.
Shankar continued to tour and perform live into the 2000’s. His final concert took place in Bangalore, southwest India, in February 2012, where he shared the stage with his daughter, Anoushka. A few months later, on December 11th 2012 Ravi Shankar passed away at age 92. Shankar is survived by two daughters who are musicians in their own right, sitar player Anoushka Shankar and Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Norah Jones.
Ravi Shankar’s wealth of talent helped infuse Indian culture into the world’s forever-changing music scene. He is unquestionably one of the best known contemporary Indian musicians of our time.
“Ravi Shankar is the Godfather of World Music.” – George Harrison