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The Sitar Virtuoso and Cultural Ambassador to the West
1920 – 2012
“The Godfather of World Music”
- George Harrison, the lead guitarist of ‘The Beatles’-
Pandit Ravi Shankar
The Sitar Virtuoso and Cultural
Ambassador to the West
1920 – 2012
Ravi Shankar was born on April 7, 1920 in Varanasi (Benares), India. He was born to a very much
cultured Brahmin family of Bengalis as the youngest of seven boys. His Bengali birth name was Robindro
Shaunkor Chowdhury. His father, Shyam Shankar was an eminent barrister. He was employed as a
“diwan” (minister) by the Maharaja of Jhalawar. His mother was Hemangini Devi who later worked as a
lawyer in London. Shyam Shankar went to study at Oxford and re-married a British lady there while Ravi
Shankar’s mother Devi raised Shankar in Varanasi. Shyam Shankar did not meet his son Ravi until he
was eight years old.
In 1930, at the age of age of ten, Ravi went to Paris with his eldest brother Uday Shankar who was a self-
trained dancer and renowned choreographer. Uday is also regarded as the pioneer of modern dance in
India. Ravi also had two other brothers named Rajendra (Raju) and Davendra (Debendra), also very well
Around 1935-1936, Ustad Allauddin Khan (Baba Allauddin Khan) joined Uday's troupe as its principal
soloist. Ustad was a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and one of the most renowned Indian classical
music Gurus of the 20
century. He became Ravi’s mentor, music teacher and spiritual life-guide for
many years. Ravi studied under Allauddin Khan for six years and went to Mumbai, India thereafter. In
1938, Shankar gave up his career as a dancer and went to learn the sitar with Allauddin Khan, a very
tough teacher in Maihar in Satna District in the Madhya Pradesh of India.
Ravi Shankar’s eldest brother Uday Shankar in the film "Kalpana", 1948
In 1954, at the age of 34, Ravi gave a recital in the Soviet Union and debuted in the United States and
Western Europe in 1956. By this time, the name Ravi Shankar was becoming more and more recognized
internationally. In “George Harrison and Ravi Shankar”, the Beatles Interview, Shankar says,
“I felt like it was my duty of most to bring it to the West and make them understand the greatness of our
music, and that’s how I started in 1946, ten years before I met George, and I was already performing all over
Europe, but it was more or less like a classical musician, but it was something else when George and we got
connected in ’66. It was like wild fire, you know… and all the younger generation…they re-discovered me…
and it was something which I couldn’t believe what was happening!”
Between 1955 and 1959, Satyajit Ray, an Indian Bengali motion-picture director, writer, and illustrator
directed three Bengali films named “The Apu Trilogy”. The films were “Pather Panchali” (Song of the
Little Road), “Aparajito” (The Unvanquished) and “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu). The trilogy is
recognized as one of the greatest film trilogies ever made. And Ravi hit the international headlines by
composing the original music for the trilogy. He won the Grand Prix known as the Golden Palm or
Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
The trilogy became winners at a number of international film festivals:
Cannes Film Festival, France
Venice Film Festival, Italy
Berlin International Film Festival, Germany
London Film Festival, the UK
Edinburgh International Film Festival
San Francisco International Film Festival
Vancouver International Film Festival
Bodil Awards, Denmark and
British Academy Film Awards, the UK. (There are more to the list.)
In 1962, at the age of 42, he founded the Kinnara School of Music in Bombay and in 1967 in Los
Angeles, USA. In 1964, he received his doctorate from Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts
which was introduced to the public by Walt Disney in a fundraiser at the Hollywood premiere of Mary
Poppins). Ravi wrote concertos for sitar and orchestra, composed for ballets and films in India,
Canada, Europe and the United States.
In 1965, David Crosby of the American rock-band “Byrds” introduced to George Harrison the
works of Ravi Shankar. George Harrison was the lead guitarist of The Beatles.
In 1966, Harrison became a student of Ravi and studied the sitar with him. He even played the
instrument on the Beatles' track "Norwegian Wood." This track has since been described as
among the first world music recordings.
David Crosby George Harrison of “The Beatles”
In 1967, he made his first appearance to the western world at the Monterey International Pop
Festival. It was the world’s first widely promoted and heavily attended rock festival. This three-
day concert event was held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, California and
attracted an estimated 55,000 total attendees with up to 90,000 people present at the event's
peak at midnight on Sunday.
In August 1969, at the age of 49, Ravi performed at the Woodstock Festival, held in Bethel, a
town in Sullivan County, New York, USA. This was the most celebrated legendary rock concert
and festival ever held in history. Some say that this festival showed the counterculture of the
1960’s and the "hippie era". (The festival was called "Woodstock", because it was supposed to be
in the town of Woodstock, in Ulster County.)
Hippies at the Woodstock Festival A section of Crowd on the first day
In the same year (in1969), Ravi wrote an autobiography named “My Life, My Music”. In 1970,
Ravi became the head of the department of Indian music of Cal Arts. He also taught at the City
College of New York and the University of California, Los Angeles and The Ali Akbar College of
Music in Calcutta, India. During the 70’s, he worked together with George Harrison.
In 1971, at the request of Ravi, George Harrison organized a major charity concert named “The
Concert for Bangladesh” to raise money to aid the starving refugees during the Bangladesh
Liberation War. The concert took place in Madison Square Garden and featured performers
such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. This is considered to be the first major modern charity
concert and its proceeds went to the UNICEF organization.
In 1973 and early 1974, Shankar and George started touring America. Ravi’s sister-in-law
Lakshmi Shankar (Ravi Shankar’s brother Rajendra’s wife) also joined them. They recorded an
album named SHANKA FAMILY & FRIENDS on Dark Horse Records. This was released on 20
September 1974 (UK) and 7 October 1974 (US).
In November 1974, at the age of 54, Ravi Shankar suffered a heart attack while touring in
Chicago and missed a portion of their tour. By this time, he was very weak due to the
demanding schedule. During his absence, Lakshmi Shankar conducted the touring orchestra.
They even visited the White House at the invitation of the son of the then U.S. President Gerald
In 1981, Ravi released his second concerto “Raga Mala” (Garlands of Raga) conducted by the
Indian conductor of Western classical music Zubin Mehta. In 1982, he earned an Oscar
nomination for writing a score for the biographical film Gandhi (Box Office $52,767,889) which
has won seven Academy Awards.
Ravi Shankar’s frequent Tabla-player Qureshi Alla Rakha Khan performing in 1988
George Harrison with Ravi Shankar, 1967 Ravi Shankar at the Woodstock Festival, 1969
From 12 May 1986 to 11 May 1992, nominated by the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, he
served as a member of the Rajya Sabha (Council States), the upper chamber of the Parliament of
India. In 1987, he experimented and composed with adding electronic music to his traditional
In 1989, he celebrated his 50
year of concertizing. He composed a music theatre (dance
drama) named “Ghanashyam” (Broken Branch) in which a Kathak dancer succumbs to drugs. In
1990, he worked with Philip Glass, one of the most prolific and distinguished composers of the
20th Century, and released an album named “Passages” which reached a peak position of
number three on Billboard's Top World Music Albums chart. However, this earned Ravi some
criticism from Indian traditionalists for not being a ‘classical purist’.
In response, Shankar has said,
"I have experimented with non-Indian instruments, even electronic gadgets. My experiences were based on
Indian ragas. When people discuss tradition, they don't know what they are talking about. Over centuries,
classical music has undergone addition, beautification, and improvement — always sticking to its
traditional basis. Today, the difference is that the changes are faster."
In 1992, at the age of 72, Ravi Shankar underwent an angioplasty due to his heart problems. In
1999, after 30 years of the publishing of his first biography, he wrote a second autobiography
named “Raga Mala”. This was edited and introduced by his long term friend George Harrison.
Ravi Shankar is the legendary, Hindustani classical music composer and sitarist and teacher. He
is also known as “the Godfather of World Music.” He is best known for his success in
popularizing the sitar. In India, one can currently buy Pandit Ravi Shankar Model Sitars, either
single or double gourd.
Ravi Shankar received India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999. He has been
honoured with more than 14 doctorates from all over the world. He also received “Commandeur
de la Legion d'Honneur”, the highest French civilian award, Honorary Knight Commander of
the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth and three Grammy Awards. He is also the
founder of the National Orchestra of India.
Ravi Shankar says he found it hard to say no for free
love. "Whatever happened, it was spontaneous. The
spontaneity was always there; it gave me and others a
lot of happiness for some time, but it brought sorrow
also," Ravi Shankar said commenting on his love life in
The Times daily. In his autobiography, Raga Mala, he
said: "I felt I could be in love with different women in
different places. It was like having a girl in every port -
and sometimes there was more than one!"
Ravi Shankar’s Personal Life
Ravi Shankar’s private life looks very complicated. There have been several long-term relationships with
At the age of 21, Ravi marries Annapurna Devi in 1941
Eldest son Shubhendra Shankar is born to Devi in 1942
Separates from Devi the 1940’s (ends in divorce in 1982)
Dancer Kamala Shastri becomes his main companion in the late 1940’s
In the 1950’s and 60’s, information regarding his private life is not available (?)
(Becomes the Director of Music at All India Radio from 1949–56)
Starts to live with Kamala Shastri as ‘man and wife’ from 1967
At 52, he meets 18-year-old Sukanya Rajan the tanpura player in 1972
Sukanya was married, but they fall in love in 1978
While continuing with Kamala and Sukanya, Ravi starts another affair with the New York
concert producer Sue Jones in 1979
Ravi Divides his affection for both Kamala and Sue in the first two years
Daughter Geethali Norah Jones Shankar was born to Sue Jones in 1979
Daughter Anoushka is born to Sukanya in 1981
Kamala Shastri decides to leave in 1981
Ravi continues to live with Sue Jones until 1986
In 1989, at the age of 69, Shankar marries Sukanya
Ravi Shankar maintained his residences in both India and the United States. He never completed
retirement until he died at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, San Diego on December 11
, 2012. He
had been suffering from upper-respiratory and heart issues over the past year. He was admitted to
hospital to undergo heart-valve replacement surgery on Thursday 6
. “His body was not able to
withstand the strain of the surgery. We were at his side when he passed away. His spirit and his legacy
will live on forever in our hearts and in his music.” says his family.
Ravi Shankar passed away on
December 11, 2012, near his home in
southern California at the age of 92.
An official statement was issued on
his death on 11
December 2012 by
the ‘Ravi Shankar Foundation and
East Meets Wes Music’.
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