Ravi Shankar - Biography

By J Poet


Ravi Shankar introduced the classical music of India to western audiences in 1956 at a series of concerts in New York City arranged by his friend Yehudi Menuhin. He also made one of the first world music albums with Menuhin, West Meets East (1967 Angel). It won a Best Chamber Music Performance Grammy. In the 60s, American and British rock fans discovered Shankar thanks to his friendship with George Harrison. Shankar performed at three of the most famous concerts of the 60s - The Monterey Pop Festival, The Concert for Bangladesh and The Woodstock Festival. In the 60s he was a superstar, but soon grew wary of the spotlight and returned to performing classical music in non-rock venues. He still tours and plays regularly, his fingers supple and his improvisations still masterful as he approaches his 89th birthday. His career has been marked by its versatility; in addition to playing classical Indian music he’s also a noted composer who has written classical Indian and Western music, as well as pieces in the fields of jazz, pop, new age and electronica.


Shankar was born in Benares, India, in 1920, the youngest son in an upper class family. He was a great dancer as a child. At age 10 he went to Paris to live with his older brother Uday Shankar. Uday led a troupe of dancers and musicians and Ravi was soon a star dancer in the ensemble. He toured Europe and the United States with Uday and attended school in Paris. In 1935, sarod master Ustad Allauddin Khan joined the troupe and Shankar fell under the spell of his music. Khan said he would teach Shankar sitar, but only if he quit the troupe and came to live with Khan in Maihar.


In 1936, Shankar began his apprenticeship, practicing for 12 hours a day, only sleeping five hours a night. He also prayed and meditated with his guru. After seven and a half years of study, Shankar began his concert career and was an immediate success. He married Khan’s daughter, Annapurna, and founded Vadya Vrinda, the Indian National Orchestra at All-India Radio. Shankar conducted most of their concerts for the next seven years and wrote 200 compositions for the orchestra including Homage to Mahatma Gandhi (2004 Edge.) He also began writing music for films and scored Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece Pather Panchali in 1955.


In 1952, the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin came to India and met Shankar. When he heard Shankar play he was captivated and invited him to play in New York City. Shankar had previous commitments and sent sarod master Ali Akbar Khan in his place. In 1956, Shankar made his New York debut and was met with critical and public adoration. Folk musicians, jazz players and bohemians lionized him and he toured college campuses and small concert halls. Within two years he was headlining Carnegie Hall.


Shankar’s first American album Ravi Shankar, India's Master Musician (1958 World Pacific, 2000 Angel) got raves for its fiery improvisations and driving rhythms. He followed up with Improvisations (1962 World Pacific, 1999 Angel), a jazz fusion date with Gary Peacock and Bud Shank, Portrait of Genius (1964 World Pacific), and Ragas and Talas (1964 World Pacific, 2000 Angel). Menuhin arranged a recording contract for Shankar with his label, Angel, the classical division of Capitol Records. Together they made Menuhin Meets Shankar (1966 Angel, 1999 Angel), West Meets East (1967 Angel, 1999 Angel), and West Meets East, Vol. 2 (1967 Angel, 1999 Angel.) West Meets East won a Best Chamber Music Performance Grammy in 1967.


Around 1963, Shankar met George Harrison, and taught him to play rudimentary sitar. The instrument showed up on Rubber Soul (1965 Capitol) and Harrison invited Shankar to play with him at a Hollywood Bowl concert. The Beatles connection made Shankar a pop star. He album sales skyrocketed and he was invited to play at the Monterey Pop Festival. Shankar’s performance was released as Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967 Angel, 1998 Angel.) Shankar was not pleased with the scent of marijuana that often filled the venues he played, and asked people to approach his music with a more spiritual attitude. Shankar continued making classical Indian albums for American labels including A Morning Raga, An Evening Raga (1968 Angel), Ravi Shankar in New York (1968 World Pacific) a live performance, Ravi Shankar (1968 Capitol) and Six Ragas (1968 Capitol.)


In 1970, Shankar played the Woodstock Festival and released Ravi Shankar at the Woodstock Festival (1970 World Pacific.) He also took part in the The Concert for Bangladesh concert and album, The Concert for Bangladesh (1971 Apple, 2001 Capitol.) The album won an Album of the Year Grammy, but dealing with the pressure of the touring that followed, and the alleged financial improprieties, led Shankar to a nervous breakdown. He retired from touring for several years and when he returned, he played only classical music venues.


In 1971, Shankar wrote his first piece fusing Western and Indian classical music Concerto #1 for Sitar and Orchestra (1971 Angel) and made the album Shankar Family and Friends (1974 Dark Horse/A&M) with George Harrison for his Dark Horse label. It included Shankar’s score for the ballet “Dream, Nightmare & Dawn.” He also made Raga Parameshwari (1976 Capitol), East Greets East (1978 Deutsche Grammophon), which included music he wrote for a collaboration with Japanese musicians Susumu Miyashita (koto) and Hozan Yakamoto (shakuhachi), and Raga Mala (1982 Angel) his second concerto for sitar and orchestra.


In 1982, Shankar composed the score for the Academy Award winning motion picture Ghandi (1982 RCA.) His music was nominated for a Best Film Score Oscar. In the 80s, Shankar opened an American branch of his Kinnara School of Indian Music in L.A., headed the department of Indian Music at the California Institute of Art and taught at the City College of New York. In 1987, he made his first new age/electronica album, Tana Mara (1987 Private Music), a meditative instrumental suite. In 1988 he staged “Swar Milan” in Moscow with 140 musicians and singers from the Russian Folk Ensemble, the Chamber Orchestra of the Moscow Philharmonic, the Government Chorus from the Ministry of Culture, and his own Indian ensemble. It was recorded live for Inside the Kremlin (1989 Private Music.)


Shankar collaborated with Philip Glass in 1990 for Passages (Private Music), which included three compositions from each composer. He also wrote another ballet, “Ghyanshyam: The Broken Branch,” about a dancer struggling with drug addiction. He composed Farewell, My Friend (1992 EMI India) in honor of his friend Satyajit Ray, who died that year. Concert for Peace: Royal Albert Hall (1995 Moment) is a live date from 1993 with Zakir Hussain that was released to celebrate Shankar’s 75th birthday.


Shankar started cutting back on concert appearances in the late 90s, saying he was going to concentrate on teaching, but he continued making masterful albums. Mantram: Chant of India (1997 Angel) is an album of devotional chants produced by George Harrison, who gives the music a deep, spiritual flow, From India (1997 World of Music) is a duet recording with sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, and Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000 (2001 Angel), allegedly Shankar’s last American concert before retiring. Circle took home the Best World Music Album Gammy in 2002.


In the new millennium, Shankar has been tending to his Ravi Shankar Centre in New Delhi, a school for traditional Indian music. His daughter Anoushka is his star pupil and a rising star of the sitar. Shankar has recorded hundreds of classical albums for Indian and American labels, always with a high level of musicianship. There are also countless reissues of his seminal albums, so check carefully before buying. Shankar’s won countless awards in his career including Best Musical Direction for Pather Panchali at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955; a Silver Bear Prize for Best Film Score for Kabuliwala in 1957; an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2001; an honorary member of American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002; and the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor, in 1999. In 2007 he released Flowers Of India, followed by Collaborations-recorded with George Harrison (2010), and Living Room Sessions Part 1 in 2012. Shankar passed away at the age of 92 in December of 2012.


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