PANDIT RAVI SHANKAR: This sitar maestro was one of India’s most influential and prolific virtuosos during the 20th century. A lifelong champion of the fusion genre that conjoined eastern and western styles, the Bharat Ratna awardee will remain an immense source of inspiration for musicians globally.
On April 7, 1920, an infant born in Varanasi to Shyam Shankar, a lawyer who practised in London and Sanskrit scholar, as well as Hemangini Devi, was named Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury. His father got married a second time and saw young Ravi, as he was called, only after he had turned eight.
Aged 10, Ravi visited Paris with a dance troup named Compagnie de Danse et Musique Hindou that was led by his brother Uday Shankar. Within a few years, he became a member of the group. During that stint, he mastered the art of dancing and began playing several musical instruments with great finesse.
Around that time, Allauddin Khan, a prominent musician of that era who joined the group as a soloist, began guiding Shankar who, too, rapidly grew as a musician. He left his brother’s group and joined Khan in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, in 1938.
In Maihar, Shankar steeped himself solely in music and attained a great degree of virtuosity in indigenous instruments including the sitar and surbahar. He also underwent extensive training in ragas and classical music styles such as the dhrupad, dhamar and khayal.
His first public performance, in 1939, was a duet with Ali Akbar Khan that was handsomely applauded by the audience. By 1944, Shankar completed his training under Khan and left for to Mumbai in the quest for employment. There he began working at the Indian People’s Theatre Association as a composer of music for ballet.
In London, he recorded his first LP album, titled Three Ragas, in 1956 and after a couple of years, was invited to perform at the 10th anniversary celebrations of the United Nations and at the Unesco music festival in Paris.
His extensive tours of Europe and the Americas since the mid 1950s, during which he taught performed and collaborated with some great artists such as violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin and Beatles guitarist George Harrison, was instrumental in increasing the popularity of Indian classical music manifold across the world manifold. In fact, his association with Harrison and an entire generation of musicians in the western world also contributed a great deal to the use of Indian instruments in Western pop music.
He also performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, the year he won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East in collaboration with Menuhin.
Shankar also composed music for the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy
He also taught music at the City College of New York, the University of California and Los Angeles and served as a guest lecturer in many other universities. In 1989, he composed a dance drama titled Ghanashyam and, a year later, released an album titled Passage in collaboration with renowned composer Philip Glass.
The Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra, one of Shankar’s most brilliant works, was composed in
1970 in an invitation by the London Symphony Orchestra. He played the sitar in the concert conducted by Andre Previn.
Awards & Achievements
Ravi Shankar won the Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury during the 1957 Berlin International Film Festival for composing the music for the movie Kabuliwala.
The maestro won four Grammy Award in all, the first of which was in 1967 for Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East; the second in 1972 for The Concert for Bangladesh; the third in 2000 for Best World Music Album for Full Circle — Carnegie Hall 2000 and was also awarded the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award posthumously in 2013.
After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, Shankar, who then was the music director in All India Radio, composed an ingenious melodic theme as homage to the great leader. The new raga, which he named Mohankauns, was based on the name Gandhi, and comprised three sargam notes — Ga (third), Ni (seventh) and Dha (sixth).
In 1955, internationally acclaimed violinist Yehudi Menuhin had asked Ravi Shankar to perform classical music in New York. Pandit Shankar, however, declined the offer due to personal reasons.
Since 1961, he toured Europe, USA and Australia and became the first Indian to compose music for non-Indian films A year later, he established the Kinnara School of Music in Mumbai.
Shankar recomposed music for the patriotic song Sare Jahan Se Achcha and composed music for the 1982 Hollywood movie Gandhi, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
In 2001, he was conferred the title of honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for services to music. He was also awarded France’s highest civilian honour — Knight of the Legion of Honor.