Born Robindro Shankar on April 7, 1920, in Benares, India; married Annapurna Allauddin, 1941; divorced, 1958; married Sukanya Rajan, 1989; children: (with Allauddin) Shubho, (with Rajan) Anoushka, (with girlfriend Sue Jones) Norah. Addresses: Website--Ravi Shankar Official Website:

From his small, low platform covered with Indian rugs, Ravi Shankar has brought the music of India to audiences around the world. He has introduced the sitar--a long-necked Indian Lute--to such new domains as film, ballet, and orchestra. A complete musician, he is renowned equally as a concert soloist, composer, and conductor. He is also one of the few composers to have been greatly appreciated and embraced by such diverse audiences as the classical, jazz, pop, ethnic, and New Age music circles. It seems inevitable that his greatest wish will come true: above all things to be remembered for his musical creations.

Shankar was born Robindro Shankar on April 7, 1920, in Benares, which is considered the holiest of cities in India. He was the youngest son of a family of Bengali Brahmins, coming from an upper-class background. When he was ten years old Ravi was sent to Paris where his eldest brother, the great dancer Uday Shankar, had a troupe of gifted Indian dancers and musicians. Ravi became quite successful and was soon billed as a star dancer in their tours of Europe and the United States. He also attended school in Paris where he met many great musicians who exposed him to Western music.

In 1935 Uday invited sarod master Ustad Allauddin Khan to join the company and play as the principle soloist. Ravi was deeply impressed by his playing and spent most of the following year acting as Allauddin Khan's interpreter and guide in the hope of becoming his pupil. Before his departure Khan agreed to teach Ravi to play the sitar only if he gave up the fame and fortune of the artist's life in Paris and came to study with him in Maihar, a small village in India.

After a year of soul-searching Ravi decided to go to Maihar and submerge himself in intensive study and total dedication to his guru, Allauddin Khan. He shaved his head, wore clothes of coarse material, and slept only four or five hours a night with a one-hour nap in the afternoon. Ravi would then practice for 12 hours a day, sometimes until his fingers bled. The rest of the time was devoted to study, prayer, and meditation with the guru. "When music is not written down and you learn by an oral tradition," Shankar was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, "what is transmitted by the guru is not merely a technique but a feeling. My guru taught me that the best way to worship is by music."

After seven and a half years of study, Ravi became a virtuoso and began playing concerts throughout India. He married his guru's daughter, Annapurna, once he had established himself as a success. He then founded the Vadya Vrinda, the Indian National Orchestra at All-India Radio. For the next seven years, Shankar conducted most of the concerts and wrote some 200 compositions.

The Pioneer Period

In 1956 Shankar made his American debut in New York City and was received with critical and public acclaim. This began what he has referred to as the pioneer stage of his career, where he gradually became well known to the classical world and was simultaneously discovered in jazz circles. At first he played to modest audiences in town halls, college auditoriums, and the smaller stages on both of the American coasts. His manager had trouble booking engagements in the Midwest at all. Although he was one of the first performers of classical Indian music to tour the United States, interest in his work grew rapidly, and within a matter of a few years he played Carnegie Hall.

In Europe Shankar quickly established himself as a musical phenomenon through collaboration with other classical masters. In 1958 he appeared at the UNESCO Music Festival in Paris, performing with the great violinists Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh. A couple of years later his first Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra was commissioned and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Andre Previn. International recognition was decidedly achieved when Shankar wrote a composition for violin and sitar for Yehudi Menuhin and himself called "West Meets East." They appeared in concert at the United Nations to celebrate Human Rights Day. The album West Meets East won the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance in 1967. Menuhin commented on the recording experience in Life magazine: "We sat incarcerated for three days in the aura of incense to which Ravi always plays. The whole object of the music lies in creating an aura which liberates men's thoughts and demands complete surrender."

Shankar's career suddenly shifted gears in the mid-1960s with the association of another gifted musician. In 1966 George Harrison heard one of Shankar's albums and quickly arranged to meet him at a dinner party. Ravi was impressed by Harrison's sincerity and reverence toward Indian music and invited him to come study in India. Harrison eventually spent seven weeks in India learning how to play the sitar but was required to return to England to rejoin the Beatles. To show his gratitude for the instruction, Harrison flew in to join Shankar at his Hollywood Bowl concert in the summer of 1967 and the two of them held press conferences and fielded questions regarding their collaboration.

The Superstar Period

These events drew the attention of English and American youth cultures, which began attending Shankar's concerts in droves. Almost overnight he achieved superstar status. His record company put out ads stating: "We love Ravi, do you?" Record sales leapt up and his asking price per concert doubled from $2,000 to $4,000. Full-color posters of him posing next to his sitar were sold in record shops everywhere. Now that he was a part of the youth culture, he was invited to play with pop and rock groups at the Monterey Pop Festival later that year and again at Woodstock in 1969.

Shankar, however, was not entirely pleased with this burst of popularity and often scolded his audiences for their lack of respect toward the music. He repeatedly explained to journalists that he was not an advocate of the drug culture and that he was never on drugs when he played but rather in a deep spiritual state. "Though I understand it I feel a little bit sorry to be appreciated from a wrong angle," Shankar was quoted as saying in Life magazine. "It's a go-man-go attitude, not the proper one.... It's not [the audience's] fault that they are looking for instant Karma."

In 1971 Shankar joined Harrison for two sold-out charity concerts at Madison Square Garden to help the refugees of Bangladesh. At least $25,000 was raised from ticket sales and donated to the United Nations Children's Fund. A three-album recording of the concert called The Concert for Bangladesh was later released and generated an additional $15 million for the refugees. The recording also won Album of the Year honors at the Grammy Awards in 1972. However, the strain of touring with Harrison and The Festival of India over the next few years finally got to Shankar and ultimately drove him to a nervous breakdown in 1975. He subsequently disappeared from the concert circuit for the next two years.

The Classicist Period

When he returned to the stage, Shankar chose to play only venues for classical or ethnic music and thereby avoided the popular music following. This new phase began with a United States premiere of the Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra at Carnegie Hall with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Years later in an interview for Musical America, Shankar reflected on how his audience had changed from this point on in his career: "Yes, they have changed, changed for the better. It is no longer the esoteric, over-excited ethnic business it once was." He retained only a small percentage of the mass youth culture but kept a large following of Indian immigrants and Indian music lovers.

The next few years saw a creative burst for Shankar in which he combined the sitar with the music of other cultures. In 1979 he embarked on his "East Greets East" tour, which blended the classical music of Japan and India. He wrote the piece for Hosan Yamamoto, a master of the Japanese bass flute, and for koto expert Musumi Miyashita. Afterwards he wrote new music for the French flute virtuoso Jean-Pierre Rampal. In the following year the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Zubin Mehta, commissioned a second sitar concerto from Shankar. "The Garland of Ragas" or "Raga Mala" premiered at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall; this fusion of Indian music with Western classical orchestration was received with enthusiastic reviews.

In 1982 Shankar won great applause for his film score to the Academy Award-winning motion picture Ghandi. This was not unfamiliar territory for him, however. In the 1950s his film music to the Pather Panchali trilogy and to Kabuliwala had won him awards at the Cannes, Venice, and Berlin film festivals. These honors made him the first Indian musician to receive an award for best music direction from a foreign country. Shankar also composed film music for a number of American and European commercial movies, the most renowned being the incidental music to Jonathan Miller's controversial version of Alice in Wonderland on BBC.

In 1984 Shankar turned his attention to teaching. He felt it was important to continue the ancient guru/disciple tradition, and taught classes restricted to eight or ten of the most talented students in India. Teaching was nothing new to Shankar. As early as 1967 he founded the Kinnara school of Indian music in Bombay. A few years later he opened another branch in Los Angeles. He also chaired the department of Indian Music at the California Institute of Art. Afterwards he was to be the first musician invited as a Challigar Professor at City College in New York City. Even his autobiography, My Music, My Life, is still used as a textbook in ethnic music college courses.

In July of 1988 the Palace of Culture of the Soviet Union premiered Shankar's "Swar Milan," although the recording of the concert was called Inside the Kremlin. It was an epic piece with seven passages, using more than 140 musicians and singers from the Russian Folk Ensemble, the Chamber Orchestra of the Moscow Philharmonic, the Government Chorus from the Ministry of Culture, and Shankar's own Indian ensemble. The composition was successful in bringing together the various music of these greatly different cultures, and once again Shankar was able to create a completely new sound.

Ballet is yet another music medium to which he has contributed extensively over the years. Starting as far back as 1967, Shankar received great recognition for his American debut of Samanya Ksnati. He later wrote two other ballets, India Immortal and Discovery of India, which were inspired primarily by his native history and mythology. Both were well received critically and were considered landmarks in contemporary ballet music. 1990 saw the United States premiere of the ballet Ghyanshyam: The Broken Branch. It was about a dancer addicted to drugs; Shankar wrote it because he wanted to promote the need for a spiritual resurgence in modern society.

Musical Legacy

Since then Shankar has spent most of his time in India teaching and playing concerts. There has been a renaissance in the arts there, and he continues to contribute to it generously and innovatively. He has developed multimedia projects that involve music, dance, film, and performance art based on Indian themes. In 1990 he collaborated with minimalist composer Philip Glass and released an album of new age music called Passages. An autobiography, Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar, which was edited by George Harrison, was published in 1999. It inspired the documentary Ravi Shankar, Between Two Worlds, released in 2002. Shankar made what was reported to be a "farewell tour" in 2001, but he indicated his intention to continuing performing in Down Beat: "This is a final American tour.... As long as my body and mind permit, and as long as people want to hear me, I intend to continue to give performances ... for special events." Shankar was made Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2001 and won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for the live album Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000 in 2002.

Although he continues to create music and tour, Shankar has focused a great deal of attention on the Ravi Shankar Centre in New Delhi, a school for exceptional students of the traditional Indian system of gurukul learning and archive of Shankar's work, established in 2001. Shankar hoped to make the centre "a structure which will be a universal home of peace through the essence of music and related arts," he told Iris Brooks of World and I. Shankar's daughter, Anoushka, has become a renown sitarist in her own right. She tours with her father and has released solo work on CD.

by Christian Whitaker

Ravi Shankar's Career

Sitarist, conductor, and composer; international performer, 1956-; performed with George Harrison at Hollywood Bowl, 1967; published autobiography, My Music, My Life, 1968; performed as classicist, 1979; engaged in instruction and development of the arts in India, late 1980s-early 1990s; artistic director of ASIAD, the Olympic gathering of Asia, 1982; composer of music for films, including Pather Panchali, Kabuliwala, and Ghandi, and for ballets; author of autobiography Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar, published, 1999; opened Ravi Shankar Centre in New Delhi, India, 2001; released Grammy Award-winning Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000, 2002.

Ravi Shankar's Awards

Cannes Film Festival, first prize in musical direction for Pather Panchali,1955; Berlin Film Festival, Silver Bear Prize for Best Film Score for Kabuliwala, late 1950s; President's Medal (India) for film score for Anuradha, 1961, and for outstanding contribution to Indian music and culture, 1962; Grammy Award, Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East (with Yehudi Menuhin), 1967, and Album of the Year for the Concert For Bangladesh (with others), 1972; made Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 2001; Grammy Award, Best World Music Album for Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000, 2002; honorary member of American Academy of Arts and Letters; elected fellow of Sangeet Natak Academy; awarded Padma Visbushan, India's highest civilian honor.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 13, 2004: Shankar's album, Homage to Mahatma Ghandi, was released. Source:,, August 5, 2004.

Further Reading



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