Pandit Ravi Shankar is widely credited for firmly placing Indian classical music on the world map. He was born in Varanasi in 1920 and was exposed to European and American culture as a result of touring with his brother’s dance troupe. He went on to learn the sitar and his brilliance as an artist saw him travel the world and in a way ‘globalize’ Indian music at time when the concept of globalization hardly existed. During a long and successful career he enriched the world of music with his compositions, performances and collaborations.
He began composing for films with Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar which was released in 1946. Dharti ke Lal, Anuradha, and Godaan were some of the other Hindi films on which he worked as a composer. Pandit Ravi Shankar came into the limelight as a composer with Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, which consisted of the critically acclaimed films Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar(1959). These films are considered landmark films in Hindi cinema due to the international acclaim that they garnered. His music for the trilogy was widely appreciated and is often counted among the best film scores. His musical score for the Bengali film Kabluliwala would see Ravi Shankar receive international recognition for his music at the Berlin International Film Festival. He also worked on the music for international films like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and the American film Charly.
Though Ravi Shankar had been touring the west with his brother’s troupe from a very young age, it was during the 50s that he was introduced to the world purely as a sitar player. His concerts in different parts of the world familiarized the west with Indian classical sounds and led to elements of Indian music being incorporated into the mainstream music during the 1960s. His fame reached a new level when George Harrison of the Beatles became an avid admirer of his work and began learning sitar under him. This relationship resulted in the release of their studio album titled ‘Shankar Family & Friends’ in 1974, which contained performances by many other Indian classical and western artists as well.
With George Harrison
The sitar maestro made appearances at several high profile events and shows in the US, including the Monterey pop festival in 1967 and Woodstock festival in 1969. He was however unhappy with having performed at Woodstock due to its culture of sex and drugs which he considered at odds with the essence of his music. His willingness to experiment with music added to his appeal to audiences everywhere. He released an LP called ‘Sitar Concerto’ in the 70s, which was supported entirely by a western orchestra. Another piece that stood out was ‘Tana Mana’, released in 1987, where he combined electronics with the sounds of traditional instruments.
At the Monterey pop festival
His success in the US saw him make an appearance on American television as well. He performed along with Ustad Allah Rakha and on the popular Dick Cavett Show.
Pandit Ravi Shankar collaborated with various artists during his illustrious career. One of his earliest performances was a jugalbandi with sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, who was Ustad Allaudin Khan’s son. They performed together on several occasions in India and went on to play a concert in New York City as well in 1972, which was released as a live album titled ‘In Concert 1972’. Another artist with whom the sitar maestro frequently played was renowned tabla player Ustad Allah Rakha. For over a period of over two decades, they often played together and their performances were always remarkable and left a lasting impression on the audience.
One of his most well-known musical associations was with the celebrated American violinist Yehudi Menhuin. They first came into contact during 1952 in New Delhi and collaborated a few years later to release ‘West Meets East’ in 1966. The album won a Grammy in the Best Chamber Music Performance category, making Pandit Ravi Shankar the first Indian to win a Grammy. This was the first of three albums which they recorded together during their association which lasted decades. In 1967 they came together to play for the UN general assembly at a human rights day event.
With Yehudi Menhuin
Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Allah Rakha and Pandit Ravi Shankar shared the stage at 'The Concert for Bangladesh'. The event was organized in 1971 by Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison in aid of refugees who were victims of the conflict within the region during that time.
With a career that spanned several decades, Ravi Shankar made a huge impact on the world of music. His genius and contribution to music was recognized and honored by several nations. He won a Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1957 for his music for the film Kabuliwala. Billboard Magazine, one of the biggest music magazines in the USA, named him 'Musician of the Year' in 1969 which in a way reinforced his mainstream popularity. He won three Grammy awards during his lifetime, the last of which was in 2002 for his album Full Circle: Live at Carnegie Hall (2000). The Grammys honoured him posthumously in 2013 with a Lifetime Achievement award and his album ‘The Living Room Sessions Part 1’ also won under the world music category.
During his lifetime, Pandit Ravi Shankar was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1967, the Padma Vibhushan in 1981 and the Bharat Ratna in 1999, which are the highest civilian honors in India for outstanding contributions in any field. State recognition's were not just limited to India and he received an honorary knighthood in 2001 from the Queen of England. France also conferred upon him the Legion of Honour in 2000, which recognizes excellent conduct in any field. His long and successful career also saw him receive doctorates from several Universities all over the world.
Receiving the Commander of the Legion of Honor from the then French Ambassador to India, Claude Blanchemaison
‘Raga: A Journey into the Soul of India’ was a documentary on Ravi Shankar’s life during the 60s and 70s which was financed by The Beatles and directed by Howard Worth. It was released in 1971 and a remastered version was released in 2010.
Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away in December 2012, however his musical legacy is carried on by his two daughters Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones. Anoushka is a well renowned Sitarist herself and learned sitar under the guidance of her father. Anoushka Shankar and Ravi Shankar performed together on several occasions as well. Norah Jones is known for her soulful voice and music which is influenced by jazz and blues, and she recently began experimenting with electronic sounds as well.
With his daughter Anoushka
The need to archive and document the works of Pandit Ravi Shankar led to the establishment of the Ravi Shankar Foundation in 1997. It was funded through his prize money and fundraising concerts for the foundation. The foundation helped to set up the Ravi Shankar Center in New Delhi. This center now teaches music and follows the old gurukul system of education. It also serves as a venue for music and dance performances as well as art exhibitions. The Foundation also has an official recording label called East Meets West which helps to preserve Ravi Shankar’s musical genius for generations to come. Apart from releasing rare recordings of his work, the label also looks to encourage new talents, projects, etc. through the music label.