December 12, 2012

Indian sitar virtuoso Shankar dies at 92

Ravi Shankar helped millions of classical, jazz and rock lovers discover the centuries-old traditions of Indian music.

Muneeza Naqvi and Ravi Nessman / Associated Press

NEW DELHI — With an instrument perplexing to most Westerners, Ravi Shankar helped connect the world through music. The sitar virtuoso hobnobbed with the Beatles, became a hippie musical icon and spearheaded the first rock benefit concert as he introduced traditional Indian ragas to Western audiences over nearly a century.

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Indian musician Ravi Shankar was a sitar virtuoso who became a hippie musical icon of the 1960s after hobnobbing with the Beatles and who introduced traditional Indian ragas to Western audiences over an eight-decade career.

2005 Associated Press File Photo

From George Harrison to John Coltrane, from Yehudi Menuhin to David Crosby, his connections reflected music's universality, though a gap persisted between Shankar and many Western fans. Sometimes they mistook tuning for tunes, while he stood aghast at displays like Jimi Hendrix's burning guitar.

Shankar died Tuesday at age 92. A statement on his website said he died in San Diego, near his Southern California home with his wife and a daughter by his side. The musician's foundation issued a statement saying that he had suffered upper respiratory and heart problems and had undergone heart-valve replacement surgery last week.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also confirmed Shankar's death and called him a "national treasure."

Labeled "the godfather of world music" by Harrison, Shankar helped millions of classical, jazz and rock lovers discover the centuries-old traditions of Indian music.

"He was legend of legends," Shivkumar Sharma, a noted santoor player who performed with Shankar, told Indian media. "Indian classical was not at all known in the Western world. He was the musician who had that training ... the ability to communicate with the Western audience."

He also pioneered the concept of the rock benefit with the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh. To later generations, he was known as the estranged father of popular American singer Norah Jones.

His last musical performance was with his other daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar Wright, on Nov. 4 in Long Beach, California; his foundation said it was to celebrate his 10th decade of creating music. The multiple Grammy winner learned that he had again been nominated for the award the night before his surgery.

"It's one of the biggest losses for the music world," said Kartic Seshadri, a Shankar protege, sitar virtuoso and music professor at the University of California, San Diego. "There's nothing more to be said."

As early as the 1950s, Shankar began collaborating with and teaching some of the greats of Western music, including violinist Menuhin and jazz saxophonist Coltrane. He played well-received shows in concert halls in Europe and the United States, but faced a constant struggle to bridge the musical gap between the West and the East.

Describing an early Shankar tour in 1957, Time magazine said. "U.S. audiences were receptive but occasionally puzzled."

His close relationship with Harrison, the Beatles lead guitarist, shot Shankar to global stardom in the 1960s.

Harrison had grown fascinated with the sitar, a long-necked string instrument that uses a bulbous gourd for its resonating chamber and resembles a giant lute. He played the instrument, with a Western tuning, on the song "Norwegian Wood," but soon sought out Shankar, already a musical icon in India, to teach him to play it properly.

The pair spent weeks together, starting the lessons at Harrison's house in England and then moving to a houseboat in Kashmir and later to California.

Gaining confidence with the complex instrument, Harrison recorded the Indian-inspired song "Within You Without You" on the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," helping spark the raga-rock phase of 60s music and drawing increasing attention to Shankar and his work.

Shankar's popularity exploded, and he soon found himself playing on bills with some of the top rock musicians of the era. He played a four-hour set at the Monterey Pop Festival and the opening day of Woodstock.

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