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Sitarist Ravi Shankar was influential world musician

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By The Washington Post
Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, 6:12 p.m.
 

Ravi Shankar, the Grammy Award-winning Indian sitar virtuoso who became the world's leading representative of South Asian music, exerted a major influence on popular music in the 1960s and was the father of the jazz-pop musician Norah Jones, died Tuesday at a hospital near his home in Encinitas, Calif.

The musician had undergone heart valve replacement surgery last week, his family said. He was 92.

Shankar, who began his performing career as a young dancer, toured extensively as a musician after learning sitar from one of India's great musicians. The skill with which he played the traditional Indian stringed instrument inspired several pop and rock bands in the 1960s to incorporate the sitar, most notably the Beatles with its songs “Norwegian Wood” and “Within You, Without You.”

Shankar took his music to the stages of Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington. The London and New York philharmonic orchestras performed his concerto compositions for sitar and orchestra. During the height of the countercultural music revolution of the 1960s, he also was in the lineups at the Woodstock music festival in Upstate New York and the Monterey Pop Festival in California.

In 1971, Shankar and Beatles guitarist George Harrison organized and played at a fundraising concert to aid the war and famine victims of Bangladesh, giving birth to the modern megastar benefit concert.

Besides Harrison, who was his best-known disciple, Shankar's musical collaborators over the years included jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Philip Glass, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. He composed music for film, radio and stage, including the score for Richard Attenborough's movie “Gandhi” (1982) and director Satyajit Ray's acclaimed “Apu Trilogy” in the 1950s.

Shankar's association with the Beatles made him a household name in the West and created “an avalanche of such experiments in the rock and pop world,” South Asian music authority Gerry Farrell once wrote. But first and foremost, Shankar remained an Indian classical musician who kept the core aesthetics of his ancient art intact in the face of social, artistic and commercial shifts during the 20th century.

One reason Shankar's music had such influence over audiences and musicians was the otherworldly quality of its tones and rhythms; the sitar produces more tones than a guitar and is based on a different theory of music. He became appalled at how this aspect of Indian music was integrated into what he called the vulgarity of rock theatrics and the association of his art with drug use.

At the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California, Shankar refused to be in the same evening's lineup with Jimi Hendrix because of the way the rock guitarist was using his instrument. Hendrix made sexual motions on stage with his guitar and then lit it on fire as a finale.

“People went gaga for it, they loved it,” Shankar told the London Guardian in 2008. “But for me, the burning of the guitar was the greatest sacrilege possible. I just ran out of there. I told them that even if I had to pay some kind of compensation to get out of playing the festival, I just couldn't do it.”

He added: “I was extremely unhappy about the superficiality of it all, especially the wrong information that Dr. Timothy Leary and others were propagating — that everyone in India takes drugs. It was a hodgepodge of Kama Sutra, Tantra, yoga, hash and LSD, while the true spiritual quality of our music was almost completely lost.”

Nonetheless, the spirit of Shankar's music was not lost on jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Coltrane, who in midlife had a religious conversion that included the study of Hinduism, was fascinated by the tonal and rhythmic aspects of Indian music in general and by Shankar in particular. He even named his son Ravi after Shankar. (Ravi Coltrane became a prominent saxophonist.)

John Coltrane arranged to take lessons from Shankar, but the jazz musician died in 1967 a few weeks before he was to begin studying at Shankar's music center in Los Angeles.

Because of the influence Shankar exerted on musicians of all styles and nationalities, George Harrison called the sitarist the “godfather of world music.” In fact, Shankar was the father of three musicians: his son Shubhendra, an Indian classical musician and painter, who died in 1992; Anoushka, who often performed duets with her father; and Norah Jones, an eight-time Grammy Award-winner best known for her composition and performances of jazzy popular songs.

Shankar counted three Grammys among his honors. His album “West Meets East,” with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, won the 1967 award for best chamber music performance. Shankar shared the 1972 award for album of the year for “The Concert for Bangladesh,” which also featured Harrison, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Shankar's “Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000” won the 2001 award for best world music album.

Shankar had a notoriously complicated private life. His marriage to Annapurna Devi ended in divorce and strained his relationship with her family. He entered into a relationship with dancer Kamala Shastri that lasted from the late 1960s to early 1980s, and he began an affair with the married Sukanya Rajan, who played the tanpura at his concerts and was 31 years his junior.

In the course of his touring, Shankar began a relationship with concert promoter Sue Jones, and the couple, in 1979, had a daughter, Geethali Nora Jones Shankar, better known as Norah Jones. Shankar had little role in raising his daughter, who failed to thank her father when she won multiple Grammys for “Come Away With Me” in 2003. They were reported to have reconciled in later years.

 

 
 


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