Ravi Shankar @100: India’s Global Musician

Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar was one of India’s greatest musicians. A pioneering ambassador of Indian classical music, Ravi Shankar achieved critical and popular acclaim both in India and abroad. Charismatic and unusually open to the world, Ravi Shankar’s life over nine decades was a rollercoaster of people, places and events. He left behind a towering legacy and foreshadowed India’s rise as a global cultural force.

Ravi Shankar @100: India’s Global Musician (Indian Music Experience's 2020-21 exhibition)Indian Music Experience Museum

SitarIndian Music Experience Museum


The sitar is a long-necked string instrument (tat vadya or chordophone). The origin of the sitar has been the subject of conjecture through the ages. While the 13th century poet and musician Amir Khusro is frequently credited with having invented the sitar, the instrument rose to prominence in the Delhi court of the early 18th century.

The sitar shares features with older Indian instruments as well as similar instruments of Persian origin.

Ravi Shankar's sitar (1980)Indian Music Experience Museum


The Ravi Shankar-style sitar usually has two thumba-s (chamber resonators), 6 main and 13 sympathetic strings, and rich ornamentation.

The early yearsIndian Music Experience Museum


A childhood in Benares, teenage years in Europe and America, followed by an intense period of learning in Maihar—Ravi Shankar’s early years were a fertile mix of artistic influences.

Ravi shankar,as a dancer in the 'Uday Shankar Ballet Troupe' (c.1935-1937)Indian Music Experience Museum


In Europe of the 1930s, Uday Shankar forged a path as a choreographer and dancer of ballets inspired by Indian art and dance forms. Highly inventive, he devised movements and gestures, including a distinctive arm wave, evident in the 1948 film Kalpana. Uday Shankar convinced his brother Ravi Shankar and rest of his family to move to Paris to join his troupe.

Ravi Shankar toured Europe and America as a dancer and musician in Uday Shankar’s troupe.

A young Ravi Shankar playing sitar in his brother Uday Shankar's orchestra. (c.1935-1937)Indian Music Experience Museum


Ravi Shankar who, as an adolescent, came in contact with writers like Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller, heard musicians from Stravinsky to Louis Armstrong live, and met actors like Clarke Gable and Joan Crawford.

It was Uday Shankar who brought him in contact with his guru, Baba Allauddin Khan, when he invited the multi-instrumentalist maestro to join the troupe.

Ravi Shankar with his guru Baba Allauddin Khan and Ali Akbar khanIndian Music Experience Museum


At the age of 18, Ravi Shankar returned to India to become a disciple of Baba Allauddin Khan and dedicated himself to continuing the study of the sitar.

For seven years, he lived and learnt in the guru-shishya tradition. One of the most noteworthy teachers of the 20th century, Baba Allauddin Khan was a musician at the royal court of Maihar in modern-day Madhya Pradesh. While he was a master of the sarod, he played several instruments and assembled the Maihar band, an orchestra of Indian instruments played by orphans.

Ravi Shankar's Surbahar by Indian Music Experience MuseumIndian Music Experience Museum


The surbahar is referred to as a bass sitar, and is bigger and considered more difficult to play than the sitar.

Ravi Shankar initially played the surbahar, before switching over to the sitar. However, he continued to be influenced by the aesthetic of surbahar-playing, often revelling the lower octaves while exploring a raga.

Vadya Vrinda -instrumental ensemble of All India RadioIndian Music Experience Museum

Akashvani Vadya Vrinda Ensemble


In 1948, aged only 28, Ravi Shankar joined the All India Radio in a prestigious directorial post. During this time he started the Vadya Vrinda, an orchestral ensemble.

Indian instruments are normally played with minimal accompaniment, and plenty of room for improvisation. Yet, Ravi Shankar drew inspiration from Western classical and jazz ensembles he had heard in Europe and America, as well as from the orchestra of Maihar, to create an Indian orchestral sound.

Ravi Shankar with Satyajit Ray (1955)Indian Music Experience Museum

Theme music of the film 'Gandhi'


Ravi Shankar composed music for Satyajit Ray’s landmark film Pather Panchali (1955), followed by Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). He recorded the entire film score of Pather Panchali in one long session. The film catapulted both Satyajit Ray and Ravi Shankar to iconic status.

Later in his career, Ravi Shankar created memorable soundtracks for several Hindi films such as Anuradha (1960), Meera (1979), and international films, such as Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) for which he received an Oscar nomination.

The golden yearsIndian Music Experience Museum


Ravi Shankar performed around the world in unusual contexts to unlikely audiences and collaborated with musicians across a breathtaking range of genres.

Ravi Shankar with Yehudi MenuhinIndian Music Experience Museum


Yehudi Menuhin, an American classical violinist played a key role in introducing Indian musicians to the West. His partnership with Ravi Shankar was proof that it was possible to bridge the musical cultures of the West and East. They were formally introduced at the behest of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952, when Yehudi visited Delhi.

The meeting sparked a lifelong friendship that resulted in many collaborations, including EMI’s West Meets East trilogy in which Yehudi played Ravi’s compositions, based on Indian ragas and rhythms.

A lifelong bondIndian Music Experience Museum


They were different in every way—age, culture, music, and personality—and yet, Ravi Shankar and The Beatles’ George Harrison shared a life-long bond.

Fascinated by the instrument and the spiritual elements in Indian music, George Harrison became a devoted student, friend and collaborator, and went on to play the sitar in other Beatles’ songs including “Love You To” (1966). Through his association with George Harrison, Ravi Shankar’s music reached new audiences.

A letter from Ravi Shankar to George Harrison (1999)Indian Music Experience Museum


This letter from Ravi Shankar to George Harrison stands testimony to the deep affection they shared.

Monterey Pop Festival (1967)Indian Music Experience Museum


The sixties witnessed the rise of the counter-culture movement in the West, characterized by hippie culture, anti-war protests and rock n’ roll. Music festivals embodied the youthful spirit of the time.

In 1967, Ravi Shankar played at the Monterey Pop Festival in California. The emotional intensity of his four-hour long set, left many of them deeply moved.

Woodstock festival (1969) by Indian Music Experience MuseumIndian Music Experience Museum


Two years later, Ravi Shankar played ragas Puriya Dhanashri and Manj Khamaj at Woodstock. Nearly half a million people attended the three-day festival in New York state.

Although he became hugely popular within the counterculture, he was not enamoured by the 'hippie scene' prevalent at the festival.  

Ravi Shankar at Woodstock (1969)Indian Music Experience Museum


Ravi Shankar, accompanied by tabla maestro Alla Rakha, performed at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, at Bethel Woods in New York state on August 15th, 1969. The festival ran from August 15th to 18th.

The concert for Bangladesh (1972)Indian Music Experience Museum


Held on August 1st, 1971 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Concert for Bangladesh was the first major rock concert to raise money and awareness for an international humanitarian crisis.

Conceived by Ravi Shankar and produced in partnership with George Harrison, the concert was held to aid war-torn Bangladesh. The concert featured George Harrison, Ravi Shankar and sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, as well as The Beatles’ Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and others.

Costume of Ravi Shankar by Indian Music Experience MuseumIndian Music Experience Museum


Kurta-pyjama with waist coat and angavastram (a white piece of silk cloth or stole draped over the shoulder).

Ravi Shankar at a rehersal with Zubin MehtaIndian Music Experience Museum


Ravi composed concertos and symphonies that blended the sounds of Indian instruments with western orchestral ensembles.

He composed three concertos, and a symphony, which have been presented by prestigious orchestras in the United States and Europe. His opera, Sukanya, premiered on the U.K. stage in 2017.

Indian musicians who travelled with Ravi ShankarIndian Music Experience Museum


While Ravi Shankar created international audiences for Indian classical music, he also introduced other Indian performers to the world stage.

A proud cultural ambassador, he led delegations of musicians and dancers for the Government of India to Russia, Japan and other countries.

Handwritten note of a composition (2007)Indian Music Experience Museum


Raga (melodic framework) is the essence of Indian classical music. While Ravi Shankar excelled in the exploration of traditional ragas, he also introduced new ragas—a feat accomplished by only a handful of musicians.

Some of these, such as Vachaspati, were adapted for Hindustani music from existing Karnatik ragas. Others were clever combinations of two existing ragas (called 'jod', or joint ragas). He also created fresh ragas such as Bairagi, Parameshwari, as well as Kameshwari, Rageshwari and Gangeshwari.

Ravi Shankar receiving the Bharat Ratna (1999)Indian Music Experience Museum


Ravi Shankar was bestowed with India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999. He won five GRAMMYs, including the one for Lifetime Achievement.

He was conferred with many other prestigious awards including the Magsaysay Award, Praemium Imperiale in Japan, the Polar Music Prize, and a knighthood from the United Kingdom. He was also a recipient of 17 honorary doctorates from around the world.

Building a legacyIndian Music Experience Museum


Ravi Shankar continued to perform, tour, teach, and compose until the end of his life in 2012. His legacy lives on through the scores of his disciples around the world, his lasting influence on various music genres, and the global audience for Indian classical music that exists today.

With young Anoushka ShankarIndian Music Experience Museum


Ravi Shankar’s daughter and protégé, Anoushka Shankar, is an internationally acclaimed sitar player and composer who carries forward his legacy.

She has recorded over 14 albums, both classical and crossover, and has won many accolades including seven GRAMMY award nominations. Anoushka has written a biography titled Bapi: The Love of My Life on her father and guru.

Ravi Shankar is also the father of the multi-Grammy award–winning singer, songwriter and pianist Norah Jones who collaborated with Anoushka Shankar on the album Traces of You (2013).

With wife, Sukanya ShankarIndian Music Experience Museum


As the custodian of Ravi Shankar’s life works, his wife, Sukanya Shankar, is committed to ensuring that his works continue to resonate, uplift and inspire. Under her guidance, The Ravi Shankar Foundation, established in 1997, to promote the culture of Indian classical music continues to realize his vision.

Ravi Shankar at a masterclass in New YorkIndian Music Experience Museum


Ravi Shankar influenced the music of some of the most iconic pop and rock bands of all time.

While The Beatles employed the sitar in the albums Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), other bands like The Kinks (“See My Friends”) and Yardbirds (“Heart Full of Soul”) emulated the sitar’s distinctive sound on the guitar. "The Byrds" led by David Crosby and Roger McGuin went further, adopting a raga-style approach on the guitar to create the genre of psychedelic rock. Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, a student of Ravi Shankar, found in Indian music a way to transcend the harmonic boundaries of jazz.

Tribute to Ravi ShankarIndian Music Experience Museum


"Sandhya Raga", a composition of Ravi Shankar, was recorded by his disciples from their homes, during the coronavirus lockdown, occasion of his birth centenary.

Edited and arranged by Anoushka Shankar, it features Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (mohan veena), Shubhendra Rao (sitar), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri/flute), Ashwani Shankar (shehnai), Bickram Ghosh (tabla), B C Manjunath (mridangam), Pirashanna Thevarajah (ghatam), Aditya Verma (sarod), and Barry Philips (cello).

Farewell to India concertIndian Music Experience Museum


Ravi Shankar performed for the last time in India on the 7th of February 2012, at Bangalore. He was 91 years old.

Credits: Story

The Indian Music Experience Museum is extremely grateful to the family of Ravi Shankar for placing these invaluable pieces of India's musical heritage in the museum's care.

Image and Media Courtesy:
The Ravi Shankar Foundation

See more at the Indian Music Experience Museum's website

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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