Born in the city of Varanasi as Robindro Shankar Chowdhury, Pandit Ravi Shankar was the son of Shyam Shankar, a Middle Temple barrister and Sanskrit scholar, and Hemangini Devi. His father was a lawyer in England where he got married for a second time and saw his son only after he turned eight.
He visited Paris at the age of ten with his brother Uday Shankar and his dance group, ‘Compagnie de Danse et Musique Hindou’, and, within a few years, became a member of the group. During his association with this group, he mastered the art of dancing and also started playing several musical instruments with great finesse.
While touring all across Europe and America with his brother through the 1930s, he started imbibing elements of western music which he later incorporated in his fusion compositions.
Around this time, under the tutelage of Allauddin Khan, a prominent musician of that era who joined the group as a soloist, Ravi Shankar started to flourish as a musician. Later, on Khan’s insistence, he abandoned his brother’s group and joined him in Maihar (Madhya Pradesh, India) in 1938.
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Training & Career In India
After moving to Maihar, he steeped himself solely into music and attained a great degree of virtuosity in Indian musical instruments, including sitar and surbahar. Here, he also received extensive training in ragas and Indian classical music styles including dhrupad, dhamar and khyal.
He performed publicly for the first time in 1939 in a Jugalbandi (duet) with Ali Akbar Khan and received great applause from the audience.
By 1944, his training under Allauddin Khan was over and he went to Mumbai seeking employment. Here, he started working at ‘Indian People's Theatre Association’ as a composer of music for ballet.
He also started recording for HMV India and joined the All India Radio as a music director, where he served from 1949 to 1956. Around this time, his composition for Satyajit Ray’s movie, ‘Appu Trilogy’, earned him great International accolades.
Internationally acclaimed violinist, Yehudi Menuhin asked Ravi Shankar to perform Indian classical music in New York City in 1955. However, owing to his personal problems, Pandit Shankar had to decline the offer.
Ali Akbar Khan performed in his stead and received immense applause from all quarters, which influenced Ravi Shankar to resign from AIR in 1956 and go on a musical tour to United Kingdom, Germany and USA.
While in London, he recorded his first LP album ‘Three Ragas’ in 1956 and, a couple of years, he was invited to perform at the tenth anniversary celebrations of the United Nations and UNESCO music festival in Paris.
1961 onwards he toured Europe, USA and Australia and—now known worldwide for his extraordinary musical acumen—was offered several opportunities to compose music for non-Indian films, the first Indian to do so. A year later, he established his Kinnara School of Music in Mumbai.
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He was invited to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, the year he bagged a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East, in collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin. This year, his Kinnara School of Music went international and its first overseas branch was opened in Los Angeles, California.
He also taught music at the City College of New York, the University of California and Los Angeles and served as a guest lecturer in many other universities. In late 1970, he was appointed as the chair of the Department of Indian Music in the California Institute of the Arts. The same year, he also composed a concerto with sitar for the London Symphony Orchestra.
Amidst declining interest in Indian music during the early 1970s, he performed at the charity event, The Concert for Bangladesh, in August 1971. This concert album went to become a smash hit all around the globe and earned Ravi Shankar his second Grammy Award.
During the 1970s, he collaborated with George Harrison of ‘The Beatles’ and recorded ‘Shankar Family & Friends’ in 1973. He toured Europe again, with ‘Music Festival from India’, an Indian classical music revue and, a year later, visited North America where he didn’t receive very inspiring response.
Amidst overburdened schedules, his health started to decline and he suffered a stroke in 1974 while visiting the city of Chicago. However, after recovering he continued touring and teaching throughout the 70s and 80s.
After releasing his second concerto in 1981, he went on to compose music for the Hollywood movie ‘Gandhi’ and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Music Score.
He also composed a dance drama in 1989 titled ‘Ghanashyam’ and, a year later, released the album ‘Passage’ in collaboration with Philip Glass.
During the late 1990s, he kept performing in concerts and, in 1997, was appointed as the Regent's Lecturer at University of California, San Diego.
This eminent musical maestro performed for the last time in a concert on 4 November 2012 at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California with his daughter Anoushka.
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'Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra' was one of his most brilliant works which he composed in 1970 after being invited by the London Symphony Orchestra. In this concert conducted by Andr� Previn, Ravi Shankar played the sitar.
He composed music for the 1982 Hollywood movie ‘Gandhi’, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
Apart from the above mentioned works, ‘Concert for Bangladesh’, ‘West Meets East’, ‘Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000’ are three of his most acclaimed albums.
Awards & Achievements
He won the Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury at the 1957 Berlin International Film Festival for composing the music for the movie ‘Kabuliwala’.
This musical maestro won four Grammy Awards, receiving the first one in 1967 for Best Chamber Music Performance for ‘West Meets East’; the second one in 1972 for ‘The Concert for Bangladesh’; the third one in 2000 for Best World Music Album for ‘Full Circle — Carnegie Hall 2000’ and was also awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award’ posthumously in 2013.
He was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his ‘services to music’ in 2001.
For his extraordinary contribution to music, he was also awarded the highest civilian honor of France i.e. ‘Knight of the Legion of Honor’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He got married to his mentor Allauddin Khan's daughter, Annapurna Devi, in 1941. The couple had a son, Shubhendra Shankar, in 1942 and they got separated during the 1940s. He later had an affair with Kamala Shastri, a dancer.
He also had a relationship with Sue Jones, a New York concert producer, with whom he had a daughter, Norah, in 1979.
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His second daughter Anoushka was born in 1981 with Sukanya Rajan. The couple got married in 1989.
His elder daughter Norah has been the recipient of nine Grammy Awards while Anoushka, the younger one, has been nominated twice for the same.
On 6 December 2012, after experiencing severe breathing problems, he was admitted to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, San Diego, California. He left for the heavenly abode after a few days.
He is credited with popularizing the jugalbandi duet concert style and introduced several new ragas such as Tilak Shyam, Nat Bhairav and Bairagi.
In 1968, his first autobiography, ‘My Music, My Life’, was released and few years later wrote a second autobiography, ‘Raga Mala’.
In 2002, his daughter Anoushka also published a book about her father, ‘Bapi: Love of My Life’.
He recomposed the music for one of the most popular Indian patriotic songs, "Sare Jahan Se Achcha".
After the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Ravi Shankar, who was then working in All India Radio, played mournful music on the radio. From the name Gandhi, he derived three ‘sargam’ notes, “Ga” (third), “Ni” (seventh) and “Dha” (sixth)—and came up with an ingenious melodic theme.
Born in a Hindu Brahmin family, he was a lifelong vegetarian.