Ravi Shankar – legendary sitar player, composer, teacher and, in recent years, far and away India’s most outstanding ambassador of music, is awarded the 1998 Polar Music Prize for nearly six decades of achievement as a brilliant performer and explorer of his country’s art music and at the same time a leading representative and communicator to western civilisation of the musical traditions of the Orient. Through innumerable concert tours, gramophone recordings and joint projects in large parts of the world, Ravi Shankar has done more than anybody else to build bridges of growing understanding and interest between Eastern and Western music.

“Music transcends all languages and barriers and is the most beautiful communicative skill one can have. Music makes us all experience different emotions or the Navarasa as we call it. Different types of music, whether it is vocal or instrumental, Eastern or Western, Classical or Pop or folk from any part of the world can all be spiritual if it has the power to stir the soul of a person and transcend time for the moment.”

Ravi Shankar , 2009
Chapter: Childhood

Childhood

Ravi Shankar was born Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury on April 7, 1920 in Varanasi, India. His father, Shyam Shankar, was a scholar and employed as a diwan (minister) by the Maharajah of Jahlawar, but worked during most of Ravi’s childhood as a lawyer in London. Ravi rarely saw his father during this period and was raised by his mother, Hemangini Devi, at home in Varanasi.

Varanasi along the Ganges River, where Ravi Shankar was born and spent the first ten years of his life. Varanasi, also commonly known as Benares, is India's oldest city and regarded as a holy city by both Hindus and Buddhists. (Photo: Steve Evans, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: Teenage Tours

Teenage Touring

At an early age Ravi Shankar started to tour with his brother, choreographer Uday Shankar’s dance troupe around India and Europe.

Shankar-Uday_Shankar,_1930s
Ravi’s brother Uday Shankar (1900-1977). (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ravi first went to Paris with the troupe at the age of ten and by the time he was 13 he had become a full time member of the group, touring and learning to dance and play various Indian instruments. During the 1930s Ravi continued to tour around Europe and America, travels that introduced him to Western classical music, jazz, cinema and customs.

Shankar-Rockefeller_Center,_December_1933
Ravi Shankar performed in New York with his brother Uday’s dance troupe in 1938. This photo of the Rockefeller Center is from 1933. (Photo: Samuel Herman Gottscho, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1930, at the age of ten, Ravi Shankar came to Paris with the dance troupe of his brother.

Shankar-La_Tour_Eiffel_en_1937_contrast
The Eiffel tower. (Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Gallica/Wikimedia Commons)

 

Chapter: Musical Studies

Musical Studies

Shankar-Ustad_Alauddin_Khan_Full_1
Alauddin Khan, Ravi Shankar’s teacher from 1938 to 1944. Source: Wikimedia

Ravi Shankar gave up his dancing career in 1938 to go to Maihar and study Indian classical music – as the pupil of the lead musician for the Maihar court, Alauddin Khan. The story is that Ravi’s brother Uday heard Khan at a music conference in Kolkata and convinced the Maharaja of Maihar to allow Khan to become his group’s soloist for a tour of Europe in 1935. Young Ravi was sporadically trained by Khan on tour and Khan offered Shankar training to become a serious musician – under the condition that he abandon touring and come to Maihar. Also, Shankar’s parents had died by the time he returned from a European tour and touring the West had become difficult due to political conflicts that would lead to World War II.

Shankar-Sitar3
Sitar, Ravi Shankar style Av Sathyadeep, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Chapter: Theatre, Radio, Films

Theatre, radio and music for films

Ravi Shankar began giving public recitals in 1939 and came out of training in 1944. Until 1948 he based himself in Bombay and gave programs all over India. He toured and wrote for films and ballets. He began to record music for HMV India and worked as a music director for All India Radio (AIR) in New Delhi from 1949 to 1956. He formed the Indian National Orchestra at AIR and composed for it, experimenting with a combination of Western instruments and classical Indian instrumentation. Beginning in the mid -1950s he composed music for the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray which became internationally acclaimed.

Ravi Shankar: 1937-1965
A scene from the third of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy of films (1955-1959), internationally acclaimed for its soundtrack
Chapter: International breakthrough

International breakthrough

While working as music director for All India Radio, Ravi Shankar’s international star was on the rise. In 1954 he performed in the Soviet Union. In 1956, he played his debut solo concerts in Western Europe and the U.S. He played for smaller audiences and educated them about Indian music, incorporating ragas from the South Indian Carnatic music in his performances. First album Three Ragas was recorded in London in 1956. From 1961 he toured Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

Ravi Shankar in the 1970's (Photo: Unfinished Side Prod.)
Ravi Shankar and George Harrison (Photo: Unfinished Side Prod.)
The Byrds -Fifth dimension (Photo: Sony Music)

During one of the recordings for Richard Bock’s label World Pacific Records The Byrds recorded at the same studio. They heard Shankar’s music, which led them to incorporate some of the elements in theirs and introducing the genre to their friend George Harrison of The Beatles. Harrison became interested in Indian classical music, bought a sitar and used it to record the song “Norwegian Wood”. This led to Indian music being used by other musicians.

Ravi Shankar makes a US television appearance in 1967 on the show Hollywood Palace hosted by Bing Crosby.
Chapter: Grammies and the pop scene

Grammies and the pop scene

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar met in London in 1966, and Harrison visited India for six weeks to study sitar under Shankar. In 1967 Shankar performed at the Monterey Pop and won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East, a collaboration with violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Shankar-West_Meets_East_1966_album_cover
West Meets East from 1966. The recording was awarded a Grammy in 1967 for Best Chamber Music Performance. EMI Classics

1967 also saw The Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which included “Within You Without You” by George Harrison, a song influenced by Indian classical music. Shankar opened a Western branch of his Kinnara School of Music, first started in Bombay in 1962, in Los Angeles in 1967. He published his autobiography My Music, My Life in 1968 and performed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Ravi Shankar was by now the most famous Indian musician on the planet.

Performance at the Woodstock festival, together with tabla player Alla Rakha, August 1969.
Ravi Shankar performing on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.
Recent interview with Ravi Shankar about the Monterey Festival in 1967, the pop scene of the late '60s and George Harrison - with excerpts from the film Monterey Pop by D.A. Pennebaker (1968)
Chapter: The concert for Bangladesh

The concert for Bangladesh

In the 1970s Ravi Shankar distanced himself from the pop scene and the hippie movement, but he inspired George Harrison to, and joined him for the charity concert for Bangla Desh at Madison Square Garden in New York in August 1971.

Shankar-The_Concert_For_Bangla_Desh
Cover of the live album The concert for Bangla Desh, Sony Music

The concert marked the first time rock musicians collaborated for a common humanitarian cause. The album was a great success and won Shankar his second Grammy Award.

Ravi Shankar 1966-1971
Chapter: Classical, orchestral, east & west

Classical, orchestral, east & west

Ravi Shankar toured and taught for the rest of the 1970’s and the 1980’s and released his second Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra, Raga Mala, conducted by Zubin Mehta, in 1981. His first had been by invitation from London Symphony Orchestra in 1971 and was conducted by André Previn. In 1982 Shankar was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Music Score for his work on Gandhi, but lost to John Williams’ ET.

Shankar-Glass_Passages_albumcove
Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass – Passages RCA Victor

Between 1986 and 1992 he served as a member of the upper chamber of the Parliament of India, Rajya Sabha, after being nominated by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. His interest in cooperation and crossing musical boundaries, especially between east and west, led him to collaborate with contemporary composer Philip Glass, with whom he released the album Passages in 1990.

Ravi Shankar 1982-2000
Chapter: 90s-00s

Recent years

In the mid 90’s Ravi Shankar wrote a second autobiography, Raga Mala, edited and introduced by George Harrison. He released a career compilation, In Celebration, in 1996 and performed between 25 and 40 concerts every year during the late 1990’s. He also taught his daughter, Anoushka Shankar, to play the sitar and they have toured together. His elder daughter is artist and musician Norah Jones. Ravi Shankar won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000, recorded 62 years after his first performance in Carnegie Hall – as a dancer in 1938!

Shankar-Anoushka-Fes_Sacred_Music_Festival
Ravi Shankar with Anoushka Shankar at the World Sacred Music Festival in Fes, Morocco, June 2005. (By Josiehen, via Wikimedia Commons)

His third Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra was performed by his daughter Anoushka and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2009. And Ravi continues to record and occasionally perform, now in his 10th decade. In October 2011, at the age of 91, he invited his long-time tabla accompanist, Tanmoy Bose, to his home in Encinitas, California for an informal recording session. The album The Living Room Sessions, Part 1 was released in 2012.

Speech at the Polar Music Prize Banquet, Grand Hotel
Chapter: The Ceremony

Stockholm May 1998

Ravi Shankar receives the 1998 Polar Music Prize from H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf.
The two 1998 Polar Music Prize Laureates, Ray Charles and Ravi Shankar, meeting outside Berwaldhallen before the ceremony. (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
With daughter Anoushka Shankar at the Banquet (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
The 1998 Polar Music Prize Laureates: Ray Charles and Ravi Shankar. (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Anoushka Shankar performs her father's composition "Tilak Shyam - 3" during the prize ceremony.