Ravi Shankar, whose name is preceded by the honorific Pandit; was one of the most renowned proponents of the Indian musical instrument and influenced musicians and general public alike, around the world. He had toured the United States extensively and taught music at American Universities while staying in the US for more than 3 decades. He started the Raga Rock trend and his music on sitar was used by rock groups like The Rolling Stones. He had given music to such classic movies as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, for which he was nominated for the Oscar Awards.
He has won several awards from different organizations of the world, including three Grammy awards. In 2013, he was posthumously nominated along with his daughter Anoushka for the Best World Music Album. He was also member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Parliament of India, from 1986 to 1992. He has been awarded by the Government of India with the highest civilian honour, Padma Bhushan (1967), Padma Vibhushan (1981), and the Bharat Ratna in 1999.
Childhood and Early Life
Pandit Ravi Shankar was born on 7 April 1920 in Benares, the capital of the Benares state in British Raj. He belonged to a Bengali family who had migrated from East Bengal, which is now Bangladesh. He was the youngest among his seven brothers. Only four of his brothers lived beyond infancy.
His father Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, was a respected lawyer and politician; who had earlier served as Dewan of Jhalawar, Rajasthan. His mother Hemangini Devi was from Ghazipur district and daughter of a landlord.
His father went to London to work as a lawyer and later re-married and settled there. His mother raised Ravi Shankar in Benares where he attended the Bengalitola High School. He shortened his first name to Ravi.
When he was ten years old, Ravi went to Paris with the dance group of his brother Uday Shankar who had become a choreographer. When he was 13, he became a part of the group. He played several instruments and learnt to dance. He accompanied the group on tours. In the early and mid 1930’s, Uday’s dance group toured Europe and the United States; and Ravi used the opportunity to become familiar with western culture.
In 1935, Uday invited the famous musician Allauddin Khan, who belonged to the court of the state of Maihar, to join his group’s Europe tour. Khan offered Shankar training during the tour and asked him to join him at Maihar.
Initial Training in India
In 1938, Shankar gave up on dancing and stayed in Maihar to learn music from Allauddin Khan. He learned with Khan’s children Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurna Devi.
Shankar learned Sitar and Surbahar, learned Ragas, musical styles like Dhrupad, Dhamar, and Khyal. He also learnt to play other instruments like Rudra Veena, Rubab, and Sursingar.
In December 1939, he had his debut public performance, a jugalbandi or duet with Ali Akbar Khan on Sarod.
Few Highlights of His Early Career in India
- In 1944, Shankar completed his seven-year long training under Allauddin Khan and moved to Mumbai to join the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), and composed music for ballets during 1945-46.
- Ravi Shankar recomposed the music for the national song “Sare Jahan Se Achcha”.
- He recorded music for HMV India and worked as a music director in All India Radio (AIR), New Delhi from 1949 to 1956.
- He founded the Indian National Orchestra at AIR and composed for it using Western and Indian musical instruments.
- In 1950, he composed the music for the internationally acclaimed Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray.
- He became a music director for many Hindi movies including Godaan and Anuradha.
Timeline of Interesting Facts on His International performances during 1956 – 69
- Shankar met the Western violinist Yehudi Menuhin during his first visit to India in 1952. In 1954, Shankar performed in the Soviet Union. In 1955, Menuhin invited Shankar to perform in New York City to showcase Indian classical music, sponsored by the Ford Foundation.
- In 1956, Shankar resigned from AIR to tour the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. He released his first LP album Three Ragas in London.
- In 1958, he performed in the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the United Nations and UNESCO music festival in Paris.
- In 1961, he toured Europe, U.S. and Australia, and became the first Indian to compose music for non-Indian films.
- In 1962, he founded the Kinnara School of Music in Mumbai.
- During the 1950-60 Shankar’s albums were recorded by Richard Bock’s World Pacific Records. There he befriended George Harrison of the Beatles.
- In 1967, Shankar performed at the Monterey Pop Festival and his albums of the recording reached #43 in the US Billboard chart.
- He also won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East, in collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin.
- In 1968, he published his autobiography – My Music, My Life.
- He also composed the score for the film Charly.
- In 1969, he performed the Woodstock Festival.
- In 1970, Shankar taught music at City College of New York, at UCLA.
- He also composed for a concert at the London Symphony Orchestra.
- In 1971, he performed at the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York. The live album became very popular and he won another Grammy Award.
- Till 1980, Shankar taught music and toured throughout US.
- In 1981, he performed in a concert Raga Mala, which was conducted by Zubin Mehta.
- In 1982, Shankar was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Music Score for the movie Gandhi.
- In 1988, he performed in Moscow along with the Russian Folk Ensemble and the Moscow Philharmonic.
- In 1986, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the then PM Rajiv Gandhi.
- In 1989, he composed the dance drama Ghanashyam.
- In 1990, he released an album, Passages, in collaboration with composer Philip Glass under the project of Peter Baumann of the band Tangerine Dream.
- He also wrote another autobiography, Raga Mala.
- He taught his daughter Anoushka to play Sitar and in 1997, performed with her for the BBC at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham England.
- In 2000, he won his third Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000.
- In 2002, he performed for a concert in memory of the Beatles guitarist George Harrison at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Anoushka released a book on him, Bapi: Love of My Life.
- In 2008, he again toured Europe.
- In 2010, he performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for concert billed as first Symphony by Ravi Shankar.
In 1941, Shankar married Allauddin Khan’s daughter Roshanara Khan aka Annapurna Devi. The couple had a son, Shubhendra Shankar, who was a also a musician and died in 1992.
In 1962, Shankar separated from Devi had a relationship with Kamala Shastri, a dancer, which lasted till 1981.
He had an affair with Sue Jones in New York and they were together till 1986. The couple had a daughter Norah Jones in 1979. Norah Jones became a renowned musician and has won eight Grammy Awards in 2003.
In 1989, he married Sukanya Rajan in Hyderabad, with whom he earlier had a daughter Anoushka Shankar, who was born in 1981.
On 4th November 2012, Ravi Shankar performed his final concert, with daughter Anoushka, at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California.
On 6th December 2012, Ravi Shankar was admitted to a hospital in San Diego, California after he complained of breathing difficulties. While undergoing heart valve replacement surgery, he died on 11 December 2012.
Pandit Ravi Shankar was one of the best-known proponents of the sitar. He was known as the most Famous Indian Musician in the World. He popularized Indian music in Europe and America through his performances and teaching. His legendary friendship with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Beatles guitarist George Harrison helped popularize the use of Indian instruments in pop music in America. An indefatigable musician, he continued to perform till the end.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah