Ravi Shankar, RIP
Ravi Shankar was often called "the Godfather of World Music," but even that considerable title was too limited for the sitar legend, who passed away Tuesday in San Diego at the age of 92. The multiple-Grammy-winner was both a master of Hindustani classical music and a game-changing risk-taker who readily delved into pop, rock, jazz and Western classical. He was also a film composer and a politician, a student and a teacher, a friend of The Beatles and the founder of his own musical family dynasty. And he was, indeed, one of the first "world music" stars, introducing listeners around the globe to the sounds of the sitar and the revered traditions of Indian classical music, knocking down musical borders everywhere he went in the process.
Shankar was born in 1920, the child of an attorney and the brother of dancer Uday Shankar. When he was 10, he moved with his brother's dance troupe to Paris -- the first step in a life-long international journey. There, he studied with sarod master Allauddin Khan and began training in Indian classical music. Upon moving back to India in 1944, he worked as a composer for ballet and film, as a musical director for radio and, of course, as a recording musician. He quickly developed a reputation as a young prodigy who had mastered the raga, but was also interested in testing new waters, including collaboration with Western musicians.
Shankar's most famous musical partnership, of course, was with The Beatles' George Harrison, who moved to India temporarily to study with him. His work with Harrison instigated a period in which Shankar was revered by rock musicians and fans in the countercultural era, and he famously played virtuosic sets at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and at Woodstock in 1969. But Shankar had a prolific, fascinating history of collaboration that ranged from the longstanding partnership he began with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the 1950s to his work with John Coltrane to his recent contemporary collaboration with Philip Glass. His most significant collaborations, however, may have been more familial, as his children went on to become famous musicians in their own right: Daughter Anoushka, whom Ravi taught to play sitar, is a renowned Indian classical musician, while his other daughter is jazz-pop star Norah Jones.
Shankar's passion extended beyond music. His efforts as a humanitarian (including the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh he and Harrison organized) were also legendary. And he went on to serve as a member of India's upper house of parliament from 1986 to 1992. He also taught at numerous universities around the world, at one point chairing California Institute of the Arts' Indian music department.
But it's his work as a musical and cultural ambassador, of course, that make the loss of this great musician so profound. For Shankar, music and especially the raga were incredibly powerful practices meant to be treated with respect. He ultimately grew frustrated, for instance, with the countercultural distortion of Indian culture and Hindustani classical music, and refused to play on the same bill at Monterey with Jimi Hendrix because of Hendrix's habit of lighting his guitar on fire. But Shankar's respect for tradition also made considerable room for innovation, allowing him not only to forever change the scope of both Hindustani classical and "world" music, but also to help audiences around the world fall in love with the beautiful musical traditions he himself loved.