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Shankar sparked world music revolution

The Washington Post
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 05:36 PM

Ravi Shankar, 92, the Grammy Award-winning Indian sitar virtuoso who exerted a major influence on popular music in the 1960s and was the father of jazz-pop musician Norah Jones, died Tuesday at a hospital in Encinitas, Calif. He had undergone heart valve replacement surgery last week.

Shankar, who began his performing career as a young dancer, toured extensively as a musician after learning sitar from one of India's great musicians.

The skill with which he played the traditional Indian stringed instrument inspired several pop and rock bands in the 1960s to incorporate the sitar, most notably the Beatles with its songs "Norwegian Wood" and "Within You, Without You."

Shankar took his music to the stages of Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington. The London and New York philharmonic orchestras performed his concerto compositions for sitar and orchestra.

During the height of the countercultural music revolution of the 1960s, he also was in the lineups at the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York and the Monterey Pop Festival in California.

In 1971, Shankar and Beatles guitarist George Harrison organized and played at a fundraising concert to aid the war and famine victims of Bangladesh, giving birth to the modern megastar benefit concert.

Besides Harrison, who was his best-known disciple, Shankar's musical collaborators included jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Philip Glass, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal.

He composed music for film, radio and stage, including the score for Richard Attenborough's movie "Gandhi" (1982) and director Satyajit Ray's "Apu Trilogy" in the 1950s.

Shankar's association with the Beatles made him a household name in the West and created "an avalanche of such experiments in the rock and pop world," South Asian music authority Gerry Farrell once wrote.

But first and foremost, Shankar remained an Indian classical musician who kept the core aesthetics of his ancient art intact in the face of social, artistic and commercial shifts during the 20th century.

One reason Shankar's music had such influence over audiences and musicians was the otherworldly quality of its tones and rhythms; the sitar produces more tones than a guitar and is based on a different theory of music.

But Shankar became appalled at how Indian music was integrated into what he called the vulgarity of rock theatrics and the association of his art with drug use.

At the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California, Shankar refused to be in the same evening's lineup with Jimi Hendrix because of the way the guitarist was using his instrument. Hendrix made sexual motions on stage with his guitar and then lit it on fire as a finale.

"People went gaga for it, they loved it," Shankar told the London Guardian in 2008. "But for me, the burning of the guitar was the greatest sacrilege possible. I just ran out of there. I told them that even if I had to pay some kind of compensation to get out of playing the festival, I just couldn't do it."

Because of the influence Shankar exerted on musicians of all styles and nationalities, George Harrison called the sitarist the "godfather of world music."

Shankar counted three Grammys among his honors. His album "West Meets East," with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, won the 1967 award for best chamber music performance.

Shankar shared the 1972 award for album of the year for "The Concert for Bangladesh," which also featured Harrison, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. And Shankar's "Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000" won the 2001 award for best world music album.

Survivors include his wife; two daughters; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Speaking of his legacy a few years ago, Shankar said he was proudest of having helped expand the public notion of what Indian raga music could be. "There is so much more — erotic, romantic, sad, spiritual," he told the publication the World and I. "One good thing is the people getting stoned don't do that with my music anymore. I worked hard for that and achieved it."

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