World famous Indian sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar died Tuesday, Dec. 11, at the age of 92. He'd been suffering from heart problems and had underwent heart valve replacement surgery last week.
Shankar was, in many ways, American celebrities' first token cultural element. Despite having been a prominent name in Indian music for more than a decade already, Shankar earned his fame in the Western world in 1965 when The Beatles' George Harrison began to study the sitar under Shankar's guidance. Harrison once described the sitar master as the "godfather of world music."
More than being the leading name in sitar playing (and, for most Westerners, the only name), he was also a brilliant composer.
He seemed to be on a constant mission to learn and meld together various musical cultures. During the next five decades, that quest would lead Shankar to record with nearly everyone, and Harrison soon became little more than another name on the very long list of Shankar's musical collaborations.
He made recordings with jazz legend John Coltrane, who would become so enthralled with Ravi that he'd later name his son after him. He'd also go on to collaborate with other musicians more famous in other cultures, from Japanese artists such as Hozan Yamamoto (shakuhachi player) to members of the Russian Folk Ensemble and the Moscow Philharmonic (to perform his seven-movement "Swar Milan").
One of his more interesting combinations would come when he'd collaborate with Philip Glass on 1990's Passages. Why was it significant? Glass had once worked as Shankar's assistant and was now on the verge of becoming one of modern day's most famous composers. Passages is made up of songs the two composers wrote for the other to perform. Glass and Shankar formed a (well-deserved) mutual admiration society.
Ravi Shankar's musical career didn't start off with someone laying a sitar in his hands. Instead, it began when, at age 10, he joined his brother's Indian dance troupe. By age 15, he was their lead soloist and from his work with the troupe, he discovered the need to expose the Western world to Indian music.
To better show the world to Indian music, he had to first understand it better himself. He gave up dancing, sold all his worldly possessions, and began sitting under the tutelage of Indian court musician Allauddin Khan. After five years of studying under Khan, he finally began performing and then after more than 10 years, he began to tour the world again.
From there, it was only a matter of time before he'd catch the attention of musicians such as George Harrison and John Coltrane. It was their interest in and obsession with Ravi Shankar that would propel him (and Indian music) to international fame and appreciation.
Shankar is survived by his wife, Sukanya Rajan, two daughters, Anoushka Shankar (sitar virtuoso) and Norah Jones (yes, that Norah Jones), three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
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