Music of India: Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar
(April 7, 1920 – December 11, 2012)

Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar was a master of the sitar and composer and one of the best known Indian musicians in the world. His rich musical career spanned nine decades and he spent much of his career bridging the gap between the musical cultures of West and East.

Born in 1920 to a Bengali Brahmin family, Shankar was the youngest of seven brothers. At the age of 13, he joined his brother Uday Shankar‘s Compaigne de Danse et Musique Hindou (Company of Hindu Dance and Music) as a dancer and spent several years touring India and Europe with his brother’s group. The extensive touring allowed Ravi to learn about Western classical music and jazz while he travelled.

In 1938, Shankar gave up dancing to study sitar playing under court musician Allauddin Khan. After completing his studies in 1944, Shankar worked as a composer – working several genres including for Indian films like The Apu Trilogy and serving as musical director of All India Radio.
During this period, Shankar founded the Indian National Orchestra, and composed for it; in his compositions he combined Western and classical Indian instrumentation.

Ravi Shankar's sitar

Sitar of Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920–2012). Commissioned by Shankar from the instrument maker Nodu Mullick in Calcutta. Made in 1961. (Gift to the British Museum from Shankar’s family )

Concurrently, Shankar’s international fame 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. Within two decades, he was probably the most famous Indian musician in the world.

Shankar was not one-dimensional and his great genius was his openness to other musical traditions. His liberal musical outlook brought him into musical collaborations with a diverse set of musicians. He was so confidently grounded in his own tradition, that he felt unthreatened and completely secure in presenting it to the world as well as by collaborating with others. This is most remembered in his teaching of, and collaboration with the Beatles, above all George Harrison (who became Shankar’s student).

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison

Guitarist George Harrison poses for a portrait with Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar in circa 1975. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Ravi Shankar also worked with classical musicians like Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta and Philip Glass. He composed music for several films, including Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, for which he received an Academy Award nomination and also composed three concertos and a symphony for sitar and Western orchestra as well as pieces pairing the sitar with the Western flute and the Japanese koto.

Shankar received many honors and awards during his lifetime including the Bharat Ratna (India’s highest civilian honor) in 1999, an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) for “services to music” in 2001, the Fukuoka Prize and five Grammy awards.

Ravi Shankar

Here is a sampling of library resources featuring Shankar from our collection:

My Music, My Life by Ravi Shankar (1968) (Book)
Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar West Meets East (1999, p1966) (CD)
Pandit Ravi Shankar (2002) (DVD)
Ravi Shankar: The Concert for World Peace (2007) (DVD)
The Concert for Bangladesh – George Harrison and Friends (2005) (DVD)
Rāgas & Tālas Ravi Shankar (2000, p1964) (CD)
Orion Philip Glass (2005) (CD)
Pandit Ravi Shankar: A Portrait of the Maestro of the Sitar (1986) (Streaming video via Medici.TV)
Sitar Concertos Etc (2005) (Streaming audio via Alexander Street)

Music of India