As a young boy, Ravi Shankar toured Europe with his brother’s dance troupe. Then at the age of 18 he began to learn how to play the sitar.
When his training was finished in the mid-1940s, he started composing film music, founded the Indian National Orchestra and worked as a music director for All India Radio.
In the 50s and 60s, he taught and performed the sitar all over the world. His concert tours of Europe and North America popularized ragas and other elements of Indian classical music that had hitherto been virtually unknown outside of India.
George Harrison's guru
In 1966, he met George Harrison in London. The Beatle then went to study with him in India. Their friendship boosted Ravi Shankar’s popularity. In 1971, the two performed together at a charity concert for Bangladesh. They remained lifelong friends.
"I became a superstar because I was the guru of Beatle George Harrison", Shankar said.
In 1969, Ravi Shankar was so popular that he was invited to perform at Woodstock. But he soon distanced himself from the hippie movement. "To tell you the truth, it did not make me happy at all. Because all these kids started coming to me. Then these folk festivals in England, all these weird looking people, long hair, beard, beads, strong smell of patchouli to hide the other smells they were smoking. That was a difficult period for me."
He didn’t like the drugs but was not averse to the idea of free love, having several well-known affairs besides his two marriages. His most well-known daughter, the jazz pianist and singer-songwriter Norah Jones, was born out of his relationship with American music producer Sue Jones.
And although his complicated private life was a source of much speculation, his other famous daughter, Anoushka, whom he trained on the sitar himself, thinks his influence on music is what’s important: "I think my father stands as the largest figure in Indian classical music of the last century and will probably remain so. He has impacted the music on the inside and the outside in so many ways."
A life devoted to music
Ravi Shankar also experimented with various Western musical styles. He composed instrumental pieces for sitar and orchestra and also performed with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
Ravi Shankar’s talent has been acknowledged all over the world. India has awarded him the three highest national civil honors. He was knighted by the Queen of England. In the US, where he lives today, he has received many honorary doctorates and music prizes.
But Ravi Shankar says that all these honors are unimportant – his music is what counts: "I never compromised my music. I came to realize that I would like to give as much as I can the slower part, the spiritual content in our music."
The Hindu vegetarian is now 90 and continues to devote his life to music and spirituality.
Author: Sabina Matthay / act
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein