Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, 7 April 1920, Varanasi [aka Benares], India; d 7 April 2012) Sitarist, composer/player of Indian classical music, a best-selling Indian artist throughout the world. His father was Shyãm Shankar, a Brahmin diplomat who worked as a diwan (minister) for the Maharajah of Jhalawar in south-eastern Rajputana (present-day Rajasthan) before practising law in London, and left India shortly after Ravi's birth. Ravi's oldest brother, Uday Shankar, also moved to London in order to study art under Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945); their mother, Hemãngini Devi, was left to bring up the children on a gradually decreasing pension from the Maharajah of Jhalawar. Uday switched from art to dance and established himself with Pavlova's dance company, went solo and sent for mother and brothers to come to Paris. Ravi was then ten; he danced with his brother's dance company there, and his schooling in France including grounding in Western classical music; he went to THE USA as a dancer '32 where he heard Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and others. A career as an Indian classical dancer beckoned, accompanied by a quite hedonistic lifestyle, but after a crisis of conscience he forsook it for music.

From age 18 he studied sitar and singing under Indian classical music master Bade Ustad Allauddin Khan, whose daughter Annapurna Devi (a renowned surbahar or bass-voiced sitar player) would become his first wife in 1941 and whose son Ali Akbar Khan would play a number of inspired duets with him for several decades, making them the hottest ticket in town. He worked on All India Radio from early 1949 to early 1956 and as music director on Bengali films '50s including Satyajit Ray's cinematic masterpiece, the Apu trilogy, which chronicled the experiences of Apu, the son of a poverty-stricken Bengali family and his rise in life; it began with Pather Panchali '55, continued with Aparajito '56 (which won the best film prize in Venice in '57) and concluded with Apur Sansar '59.

Ravi made his European and US debuts as a sitarist '56, became resident lecturer at U of California '64, City College of NY '67. George Harrison met Shankar mid-'66 and made a lifelong friendship; Harrison's introduction to Indian classical music had been courtesy of David Crosby of the Byrds, and the sitar became a fad in rock, used as a colour instrument or glorified drone (the role played by tanpura in Northern Indian classical music); sitar tinkerings graced music by the Beatles, Traffic, the Incredible String Band and many others, leaving trace elements which were detectable in Kula Shaker in the mid-'90s. Ravi also profoundly affected John Coltrane (who named his son Ravi). Shankar played high-profile Western pop festivals including Monterey '67 (appearing in film, on a World Pacific LP, and on the Monterey International Pop Festival anthology on Castle Communications '94), Woodstock '69 (not in the film but the World Pacific disc) and at Harrison's Concert For Bangla Desh '71.

As the sitar in rock became associated with drugs in the public mind, Shankar gracefully withdrew from the scene. His ghost-written autobiography My Music My Life '69 was taken down from oral reminiscences. He became further known through classical crossover projects with Yehudi Menuhin '60s, Sitar Concerto 1 '70 with André Previn, Sitar Concerto 2 '80 with Zubin Mehta, an Indo-Soviet collaboration '87 (released as Inside The Kremlin on Private Music '89) and 'Passages' with Philip Glass '90. He continued to work on Hindi and Western film projects from the '60s including Conrad Rook's Chappacqua (where he met Glass '65), Charly '68 and Gandhi '85. His recordings appeared on many labels incl. Apple, Chanda Dhara, Columbia, Dark Horse Records, EMI (India), Fantasy, Library of Congress, Ocora, Victor and World Pacific; early material has been reissued on CD, notably World Pacific recordings being reissued by Beat Goes On. Ravi Shankar: In Celebration on Angel '95 was a useful anthology, though it lacked tracks from the days of 78s and jugalbandi (duet) performance with sarodist Ali Akbar Khan. A legendary '72 concert with Ali Akbar Khan (and Alla Rakha on tabla) on Apple was finally reissued on a two-CD set '96. Chants Of India '97 had 16 traditional Sanskrit mantras plus four of his own, scored for flute, harp and chimes as well as sitar, produced by Harrison. Shankar's status in the arts also led him to various ballets and the championing of many of the best newcomers, later of high rank themselves, such as flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, santoor player Shivkumar Sharma, vocalist Lakshmi Shankar and violinist L. Subramaniam. From '86 he served a term as member of the Rajya Sabha, India's Upper House of Parliament. The cache of Shankar's work released in commercial form so far is far exceeded by his unpublished work, much of which has been archived by Alan Kozlowski in California. Reappraisals of his artistic work will go on for generations, but he altered the course of musical history by laying out the banquet of music that is represented by the North and South Indian classical music traditions for Western and other audiences. Few musicians ever change cultural mindsets so profoundly.

Shankar's first wife, Annapurna Devi (b Roshanara Khan, April 1927, Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, d 13 October 2018), devoted herself to passing on the classical traditions she had learned from her father, who was a court musician at the time of her birth: her name Annapurna Devi was given to her by a maharaja. She gave up performing in the early 1960s but was one of the most influential and most admired teachers in Indian music. Some said that when she and Shankar were married and performed together, audiences responded more to her than to him. A 1973 movie, Abhimaan, is said to have been inspired by the tensions in their marriage.