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He introduced Indian music to much of the Western world

December 12, 2012|Don Heckman
  • George Harrison spends time with his musical mentor, Indian musician Ravi Shankar, in 1967. The musicians met in London the previous year.
George Harrison spends time with his musical mentor, Indian musician Ravi… (John Malmin, Los Angeles…)

Ravi Shankar was already revered as a master of the sitar in 1966 when he met George Harrison, the Beatle who became his most famous disciple and gave the Indian musician-composer unexpected pop-culture cachet.

Suddenly the classically trained Shankar was a darling of the hippie movement, gaining widespread attention through memorable performances at the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock and the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.

Harrison called him "the godfather of world music," and the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin once compared the sitarist's genius to Mozart's. Shankar continued to give virtuoso performances into his 90s, including one in 2011 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Shankar, 92, who introduced Indian music to much of the Western world, died Tuesday at a hospital near his home in Encinitas. Stuart Wolferman, a publicist for his record label Unfinished Side Productions, said Shankar had undergone heart valve replacement surgery last week.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, December 14, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Ravi Shankar: The obituary of Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar in the Dec. 12 LATExtra section said that his son Shubhendra died in 1989. Shubhendra Shankar died in 1992.

Well-established in the classical music of his native India since the 1940s, he remained a vital figure on the global music stage for six decades. Shankar is the father of pop music star Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, his protege and a sitar star in her own right.

Before the 1950s, Indian classical music -- with its improvised melodic excursions and complex percussion rhythms -- was virtually unknown in America. If Shankar had done nothing more than compose the movie scores for Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray's "Apu" trilogy in the 1950s, he "would be remembered and revered," Times music critic Mark Swed wrote last fall.

Shankar was on a path to international stardom during the 1950s, playing the sitar in the Soviet Union and debuting as a soloist in Western Europe and the United States. Two early albums also had considerable impact, "Three Classical Ragas" and "India's Master Musician."

During his musical emergence in the West, his first important association was with violinist Menuhin, whose passion for Indian music was ignited by Shankar in 1952. Their creative partnership peaked with their "West Meets East" release, which earned a Grammy Award in 1967. The recording also showed Shankar's versatility -- and the capacity of Indian music to inspire artists from different creative disciplines.

He presented a new form of classical music to Western audiences that was based on improvisation instead of written compositions. Shankar typically played in the Hindustani classical style, in which he was accompanied by a player of two tablas, or small hand drums. Concerts in India that often lasted through the night were generally shortened to a few hours for American venues as Shankar played the sitar, a long-necked lute-like stringed instrument.

At first, he especially appealed to fans of jazz music drawn to improvisation. He recorded "Improvisations" (1962) with saxophonist Bud Shank and "Portrait of a Genius" (1964) with flutist Paul Horn, gave lessons to saxophonist John Coltrane (who named his saxophone-playing son Ravi), and wrote a percussion piece for drummer Buddy Rich and Alla Rakha.

On the Beatles' 1965 recording "Norwegian Wood," Harrison had played the sitar and met Shankar the next year in London.

Shankar was "the first person to impress me," among the impressive people the Beatles met, "because he didn't try to impress me," Harrison later said. The pair became close, and their friendship lasted until Harrison's death in 2001.

Harrison was instrumental in getting Shankar booked at the now legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. They partnered in organizing the Concert for Bangladesh and were among the producers who won a Grammy in 1972 for the subsequent album. They toured together in 1974, and Harrison produced Shankar's career-spanning mid-1990s boxed set, "In Celebration."

But Shankar came away from his festival appearances with mixed feelings about his rock generation followers. He expressed hope that his performances might help young people better understand Indian music and philosophy but later said "they weren't ready for it."

"All the young people got interested ... but it was so mixed up with superficiality and the fad and the drugs," Shankar told The Times in 1996. "I had to go through several years to make them understand that this is a disciplined music, needing a fresh mind."

When Shankar was criticized in India as a sellout for spreading his music in the West, he responded in the early 1970s by lowering his profile and reaffirming his classical roots. He followed his first concerto for sitar and orchestra in 1971 with another a decade later.

"Our music has gone through so much development," Shankar told The Times in 1997. "But its roots -- which have something to do with its feelings, the depth from where you bring out the music when you perform -- touch the listeners even without their knowing it."

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