Ravi Shankar is the sitar master who brought Indian classical music to the West.
Ravi Shankar is the sitar master who brought Indian classical music to the West. Hulton Archive/Getty
For more than 50 years, Ravi Shankar has been the man responsible for bringing Indian classical music to the West. He's collaborated with a stunning array of musicians, from The Beatles' George Harrison to jazz saxophonist Bud Shank; from violinist Yehudi Menuhin to composer Philip Glass.
In 2005, Shankar visited NPR's studio with his daughter, the sitar player Anoushka Shankar, and tabla virtuoso Tanmoy Bose for a different kind of collaboration. They joined radio host Fred Child for an hour of conversation, which included an engaging primer on Indian classical music and a performance.
The Early Years
The world knows Shankar as a great master of the sitar, but his artistic life began as a dancer. When he was 10, he moved to Paris with his brother's dance troupe.
"Being in the group with my brother, it was fantastic," he says. "I was raised in the whole atmosphere of dance and music."
Shankar was a promising dancer, even choreographing his own program. He was also playing the sitar and other traditional instruments, but dancing was his main focus from 1932 to 1938, when he toured with the troupe around the world, including five visits to the U.S. His first review in The New York Times came in 1932, when he was a 12-year-old dancer.
Two years later, the dance troupe was joined by Allauddin Khan, a master of the sarod (a traditional northern Indian stringed instrument), which caused Shankar to reconsider his concentration on dance. Khan took Shankar under his wing and began mentoring the young musician in the sitar.
"He always rebuked me, because I was always interested in so many things," Shankar says of his teacher. "He said, 'If you want to learn from me, you have to leave everything and give your whole energy to music.' "
After one year, Khan left the troupe, but his words continued to resonate with Shankar. When WWII forced the dance group to stop touring, Shankar went to Khan to study the sitar and spent the next seven years learning the instrument.
The transition was difficult for Shankar, who had spent the previous touring years in five-star hotels and eating at the finest restaurants. The first year was the hardest, he says. Shankar practiced up to 14 hours a day under the careful guidance of his teacher. At night, he slept on a simple cot with snakes and cockroaches underfoot.
Music Ambassador, Teacher
Shankar's excellent musicianship, coupled with a keen and open mind, led him to experiment with elements of southern Indian music and styles of music from the West. He became the most recognized Indian classical musician in the world.
Shankar is also a teacher; perhaps his most famous student was George Harrison, who had already begun playing the sitar before the two met in 1966. Shankar has also mentored his own daughter, Anoushka Shankar, in her study of the sitar. Shankar says he was hesitant to push the instrument on her, but at the insistence of his wife, he began teaching Anoushka when she was young.
"The moment I started, I found her to be so talented," he says, "and that really inspired me."
By age 13, Anoushka was already playing concerts with her father. Shankar took every opportunity to educate her about the instrument in a traditional guru-student relationship that continues to this day.
"It just continues," Shankar says. "Same as I did with my guru until the last day of his life."
But Anoushka Shankar's path to mastering the sitar was far different from that of her father. She never slept on a hard cot with snakes and cockroaches for company, and she had a guru who happened to be her father.
"From my perspective, it's been wonderful," she says, "because I end up having a relationship with him that most people don't get to have with a parent. And I also get a closeness to him that most people don't have with a guru. So on both sides, it's been very beautiful."