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.
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.
At an early age Ravi Shankar started to tour with his brother, choreographer Uday Shankar’s dance troupe around India and Europe.
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.
In 1930, at the age of ten, Ravi Shankar came to Paris with the dance troupe of his brother.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.