Ravi Shankar, Indian sitarist, dies at 92

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Ravi Shankar, Indian sitarist, dies at 92
Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitarist and composer whose collaborations with Western classical musicians as well as rock stars helped foster a worldwide appreciation of India's traditional music, died Tuesday in a hospital near his home in Southern California. He was 92.

Shankar had suffered from upper respiratory and heart ailments in the last year and underwent heart-valve replacement surgery last Thursday, his family said in a statement.

Shankar, a soft-spoken, eloquent man whose performance style embodied a virtuosity that transcended musical languages, was trained in both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Although Western audiences were often mystified by the odd sounds and shapes of the instruments when he began touring in Europe and the United States in the early 1950s, Shankar and his ensemble gradually built a large following for Indian music.

His instrument, the sitar, has a small rounded body and a long neck with a resonating gourd at the top. It has six melody strings and 25 sympathetic strings (which are not played but resonate freely as the other strings are plucked). Sitar performances are partly improvised, but the improvisations are strictly governed by a repertory of ragas (melodic patterns representing specific moods, times of day, seasons of the year or events) and talas (intricate rhythmic patterns) that date back several millenniums.
Shankar's quest for a Western audience was helped in 1965 when George Harrison of the Beatles began to study the sitar with him. But Harrison was not the first Western musician to seek Shankar's guidance. In 1952 he met and began performing with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he made three recordings for EMI: "West Meets East" (1967), "West Meets East, Vol. 2" (1968) and "Improvisations: East Meets West" (1977).

Shankar loved to mix the music of different cultures. He collaborated with the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, who had become fascinated with Indian music and philosophy in the early '60s. Coltrane met with Shankar several times from 1964 to 1966 to learn the basics of ragas, talas and Indian improvisation techniques. Coltrane named his son Ravi after Shankar.

Shankar also collaborated with several prominent Japanese musicians - Hozan Yamamoto, a shakuhachi player, and Susumu Miyashita, a koto player - on "East Greets East," a 1978 recording in which Indian and Japanese influences intermingled.

In addition to his frequent tours as a sitarist Shankar was a prolific composer of film music (including the score for Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" in 1982), ballets, electronic works and concertos for sitar and Western orchestras.

In 1988 his seven-movement "Swar Milan" was performed at the Palace of Culture in Moscow by an ensemble of 140 musicians, including the Russian Folk Ensemble, members of the Moscow Philharmonic and the Ministry of Culture Chorus, as well as Shankar's own group of Indian musicians. And in 1990 he collaborated with the Minimalist composer Philip Glass - who had worked as his assistant on the film score for "Chappaqua" in the late 1960s - on "Passages," a recording of works he and Glass composed for each other.

"I have always had an instinct for doing new things," Shankar said in 1985. "Call it good or bad, I love to experiment."

Ravi Shankar, whose formal name was Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, India, to a family of musicians and dancers. His older brother Uday directed a touring Indian dance troupe, which Ravi joined when he was 10. Within five years he had become one of the company's star soloists. He also discovered that he had a facility with the sitar and the sarod, another stringed instrument, as well as the flute and the tabla, an Indian drum.

The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer.

"My brother had a house in Paris," he recalled in one interview. "To it came many Western classical musicians. These musicians all made the same point: 'Indian music,' they said, 'is beautiful when we hear it with the dancers. On its own it is repetitious and monotonous.' 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. And at the same time sorry for them. Indian music was so rich and varied and deep. These people hadn't penetrated even the outer skin."

Shankar soon found, however, that as a young, self-taught musician he had not penetrated very deeply either. In 1936 an Indian court musician, Allaudin Khan, joined the company for a year and set Shankar on a different path.

"He was the first person frank enough to tell me that I had talent but that I was wasting it - that I was going nowhere, doing nothing," Shankar said. "Everyone else was full of praise, but he killed my ego and made me humble."

When Shankar asked Khan to teach him, he was told that he could learn to play the sitar only after he decided to give up the worldly life he was leading and devote himself fully to his studies. In 1937 Shankar gave up dancing, sold his Western clothes and returned to India to become a musician.

"I surrendered myself to the old way," he said, "and let me tell you, it was difficult for me to go from places like New York and Chicago to a remote village full of mosquitoes, bedbugs, lizards and snakes, with frogs croaking all night. I was just like a Western young man. But I overcame all that."

After studying with Khan for seven years and marrying his daughter, Annapurna, also a sitarist, Shankar began his performing career in India. In the 1940s he started bringing Eastern and Western currents together in ballet scores and incidental music for films, including Satyajit Ray's "Apu" trilogy, in the late 1950s. In 1949 he was appointed music director of All India Radio. There he formed the National Orchestra, an ensemble of both Indian and Western classical instruments.

Shankar became increasingly interested in touring outside India in the early 1950s. His appetite was whetted further when he undertook a tour of the Soviet Union in 1954 and was invited to perform in London and New York. But it wasn't until 1956 that he began spending long periods outside India. That year, he left his position at All India Radio and undertook tours of Europe and the United States.

Through his recitals, as well as recordings on the Columbia and World Pacific labels, Shankar built a Western following for the sitar. Interest in the instrument exploded in 1965, when Harrison encountered a sitar on the set of "Help!," the Beatles' second film. Intrigued by the instrument's complexity, he learned its rudiments and used it on a Beatles recording, "Norwegian Wood," that year.

The Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Byrds and other rock groups quickly followed suit, although few went as far as Harrison, who recorded several songs that appeared on Beatles albums with Indian musicians, rather than his band mates. By the summer of 1967 the sitar was in vogue in the rock world.

At first Shankar reveled in the attention his connection with popular culture brought him, and he performed for huge audiences at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969. He also performed, with the tabla virtuoso Alla Rakha and the sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, at an all-star concert at Madison Square Garden in 1971 that Harrison organized to help Shankar raise money for the victims of political upheaval in Bangladesh.

Shankar eventually came to regard his participation in rock festivals as a mistake. Looking back at that era, he said he deplored the use of his music, which has its roots in an ancient spiritual tradition, as a backdrop for drug taking.

"On one hand," he said in a 1985 interview, ="I was lucky to have been there at a time when society was changing. And although much of the hippie movement seemed superficial, there was also a lot of sincerity in it, and a tremendous amount of energy. What disturbed me, though, was the use of drugs and the mixing of drugs with our music. And I was hurt by the idea that our classical music was treated as a fad - something that is very common in Western countries.

"People would come to my concerts stoned, and they would sit in the audience drinking Coke and making out with their girlfriends. I found it very humiliating, and there were many times I picked up my sitar and walked away.

"I tried to make the young people sit properly and listen. I assured them that if they wanted to be high, I could make them feel high through the music, without drugs, if they'd only give me a chance. It was a terrible experience at the time.

"But you know, many of those young people still come to our concerts. 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."

He maintained his friendship and working relationship with Harrison, who released a recording of a 1972 performance by Shankar on the Beatles' Apple label and produced a recording in a more popular style - short, bright-edged songs with vocals, rather than expansive instrumental improvisations - by Shankar Family and Friends (who included Harrison, listed in the credits as Hari Georgeson, as well as the bassist Klaus Voorman, the pianist Nicky Hopkins, the organist Billy Preston and the flutist Tom Scott) on his own Dark Horse label in 1974. That year, Shankar toured the United States with Harrison. They last worked together in 1997, when Harrison produced Shankar's "Chants of India" CD for EMI.

Shankar continued to be regarded in the West as the most eloquent spokesman for his country's music. But his popularity abroad and his experiments with Western musical sounds and styles drew criticism among traditionalists in India.

"In India I have been called a destroyer," he said in 1981. "But that is only because they mixed my identity as a performer and as a composer. As a composer I have tried everything, even electronic music and avant-garde. But as a performer I am, believe me, getting more classical and more orthodox, jealously protecting the heritage that I have learned."

Shankar was a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, from 1986 to 1992.

He taught extensively in the United States. In the late 1960s he founded a school of Indian music, the Kinnara School, in Los Angeles. He was a visiting professor at City College in New York in 1967. Recordings of his City College lectures were the basis for "Learning Indian Music," a set of cassettes that explain the basics of the style. Shankar was the subject of a documentary film, "Raga: A Journey Into the Soul of India," in 1971, and published two autobiographies: "My Life, My Music" in 1969 and "Raga Mala" in 1997.

In 2010 the Ravi Shankar Foundation started a record label using a variation of the name of his collaboration with Menuhin, East Meets West Music, which began by reissuing some of his historic recordings and films, including "Raga."

Shankar's first marriage, to Annapurna Devi, ended in the late 1960s. They had a son, Shubhendra Shankar, who died in 1992. He also had long relationships with Kamala Shastri, a dancer; and Sue Jones, a concert producer, with whom he had a daughter, the singer Norah Jones, in 1979; as well as Sukanya Rajan, whom he married in 1989.
 
Shankar and Rajan had a daughter, the sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar, in 1981. He is survived by his wife and two daughters as well as three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

"If I've accomplished anything in these past 30 years," Shankar said in the 1985 interview, "it's that I have been able to open the door to our music in the West. I enjoy seeing other Indian musicians - old and young - coming to Europe and America and having some success. I'm happy to have contributed to that.

"Of course now there is a whole new generation out there, so we have to start all over again. To a degree their interest in India has been kindled by 'Gandhi,' 'Passage to India' and 'The Jewel in the Crown.' What we have to do now is convey to them an awareness of the richness and diversity of our culture."

© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: December 12, 2012 11:34 IST

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