Legendary Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar, died yesterday, December 11, in San Diego, California. Shankar died in a hospital near his home, his family said in a statement, adding that he had suffered from upper respiratory and heart ailments in the past year and underwent heart-valve replacement surgery last week. He was 92.
Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, India, to a family of musicians and dancers. His older brother Uday directed a touring Indian dance troupe, which Ravi joined when he was 10. Within five years he had become one of the company’s star soloists.
In the early 1950s, Shankar began traveling throughout Europe and the United States. He introduced the Western World to the sitar, then a little-known instrument outside of India. Shankar collaborated with a variety of fellow musicians, including violinist Yehudi Menuhin and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. But, it was his work George Harrison of the Beatles that brought him even greater international fame and respect. Harrison had become intrigued with the sitar on the set of the 1965 Beatles’ film “Help!” He quickly learned how to play it and used it on the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood.” Within a couple of years, the sitar became popular with rock music, and Shankar began a new career. He even opened the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival.
But he came to regret his participation in rock festivals, saying he actually deplored the use of his music, which has its roots in an ancient spiritual tradition, as a backdrop for drug taking.
“On one hand,” he said in a 1985 interview, “I was lucky to have been there at a time when society was changing. And, although much of the hippie movement seemed superficial, there was also a lot of sincerity in it, and a tremendous amount of energy. What disturbed me, though, was the use of drugs and the mixing of drugs with our music. And I was hurt by the idea that our classical music was treated as a fad – something that is very common in Western countries.”