Ambassador of Indian classical music dies at 92

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 12, 2012 21:31 hrs

Ravi Shankar, the sitarist and composer whose collaborations with Western classical musicians as well as rock stars helped foster a worldwide appreciation of Indian classical music, died on Tuesday in Southern California. He was 92.

He had suffered from upper respiratory and heart ailments in the last year and underwent heart-valve replacement surgery last Thursday, his family said in a statement.

Shankar’s quest for a Western audience was helped in 1965 when George Harrison of the Beatles began to study the sitar with him. But Harrison was not the first Western musician to seek Shankar’s guidance. In 1952 he met and began performing with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he made three recordings.

He collaborated with the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane. He also collaborated with several prominent Japanese musicians. Shankar was also a prolific composer of film music (including the score for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” in 1982), ballets, electronic works and concertos for sitar and Western orchestras. In 1990, he collaborated with composer Philip Glass on “Passages”.

Shankar, whose formal name was Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi. His older brother Uday directed a touring dance troupe, which Shankar joined when he was 10. He also discovered that he had a facility with the sitar and the sarod, as well as the flute and the tabla.

The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer.

“My brother had a house in Paris,” he recalled in one interview. “To it came many Western classical musicians. These musicians all made the same point: Indian music,’ they said, is beautiful when we hear it with the dancers. On its own it is repetitious and monotonous.’ They talked as if Indian music were an ethnic phenomenon, just another museum piece. Even when they were being decent and kind, I was furious. And at the same time sorry for them. Indian music was so rich and varied and deep. These people hadn’t penetrated even the outer skin.”

In 1936, Allaudin Khan joined the company. “He was the first person frank enough to tell me that I had talent but that I was wasting it — that I was going nowhere, doing nothing,” Shankar said.

When Shankar asked Khan to teach him, he was told that he could learn to play the sitar only after he decided to give up the worldly life he was leading and devote himself fully to his studies. In 1937 Shankar gave up dancing, sold his Western clothes and returned to India to become a musician.

© 2012 The New York Times News Service

More from Sify: