Sitar master Ravi Shankar—who introduced Indian music to Western pop fans at a time when the term “world music” was still just a twinkle in Robert Christgau’s eye—has died at the age of 92.
Born Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, Shankar first left India when he was 10, as part of his brother Uday’s dance troupe. Ravi was a gifted enough dancer to become one of the troupe’s star soloists while still a teenager, mastering several instruments on the side. He would later relay his frustration with Europeans who were only interested in Indian music as accompaniment for dancing: “They talked as if Indian music were an ethnic phenomenon, just another museum piece. Even when they were being decent and kind, I was furious.” In 1936 he met an older musician, Allaudin Khan, who agreed to help the self-taught Shankar deepen his skills at the sitar, provided Shankar would return to India and renounce worldly things. The next year, Shankar abandoned his dance career and did as he was told, focusing wholly on his musical studies. (He would eventually marry his tutor’s daughter, Annapurna.)
Shankar’s music was first introduced to many Western audiences through his film work. In the 1950s, he composed the scores for Satyajit Ray’s "Apu Trilogy" (Pather Panchali, Aparjito, and The World Of Apu), as well as many other Indian movies. Around the same time, he made his first tours of the United States and Europe, tutoring and collaborating with such artists as John Coltrane (who named his son after Shankar), Yehudi Menuhin (with whom he recorded a series of albums in the ‘60s and ‘70s), Hozan Yamamoto and Susumu Miyashita (with whom he cut the 1978 album East Greets East), Jean -Pierre Rampal, Andre Previn, Zubin Mehta, and Philip Glass.
Shankar's most important contact, in terms of bringing his work to the attention of Western audiences, was George Harrison. Harrison was himself a self-taught sitar player, using the instrument on Beatles songs such as “Norwegian Wood.” The exotic sound started a trend, and while all of The Beatles went through phases of dabbling in Indian culture, it was Harrison who jumped in with both feet.
In 1966, Harrison sought out Shankar, who spent six weeks tutoring him in the sitar. That same year, Shankar appeared—along with such counterculture luminaries as Ornette Coleman, William S. Buroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, and Swami Satchidananda—in Conrad Rooks’ autobiographical film Chappaqua, which Shankar scored. In 1967, Shankar appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival, playing a performance that takes up a pretty good-sized chunk of the classic documentary Monterey Pop. In 1968, he scored the Hollywood movie Charly, and also published an autobiography, My Music, My Life. This heady, prolific period was capped by an appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
In 1971, Shankar and Harrison organized and performed at the biggest rock-star charity benefit of the era, a two-part event known as the Concert For Bangladesh, which was recorded in a best-selling album and another performance film of the same name. The two would continue to record and tour together through the years, but by this time Shankar had soured on counterculture audiences who, he came to believe, didn't really understand his music and simply took it up as a novelty that paired well with their marijuana buzz. In one oft-repeated story, Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan opened the Concert For Bangladesh by coming onstage and making random noises with their instruments for a minute and a half. When they stopped, they received a round of applause. Shankar then told the crowd he was glad they’d gotten such a kick out of hearing them tuning up and hoped they’d also enjoy the music.
In 1982, Shankar composed the score for the film Gandhi. He continued to record and teach, working with Harrison for the last time on the 1997 album Chants Of India, which Harrison produced. He was the father of the sitar player Anoushka Shankar, as well as singer Norah Jones. (Jones, who was estranged from her father for most of her life, has issued a statement reading, " My Dad’s music touched millions of people. He will be greatly missed by me and music lovers everywhere.") In later years, Shankar eventually made peace with the young audiences who had discovered him in the ‘60s and still attend his concerts, saying, “They have matured, they are free from drugs, and they have a better attitude. And this makes me happy that I went through all that. I have come full circle.”