Six Ravi Shankar stories that don't feature the Beatles

Dec 12, 2012

He's famous as the man who taught George Harrison to play sitar, but that's only part of the story

RAVI SHANKAR, the man who taught Beatle George Harrison to play the sitar and introduced India’s traditional music to the world, has died at his home in Southern California aged 92. Shankar “inspired the Sixties psychedelic sound” through his collaborations with Harrison and his influence on bands including The Rolling Stones, The Byrds and The Animals, says The Daily Telegraph. But his true legacy is the export of Indian classical to the West which makes him “the Godfather of World Music”, as Harrison put it. Here are six things you may not know about him:  

He started out as a dancer: Shankar was born in Varanasi and joined the dance group run by his brother, Uday, at an early age. At 13 he was a full member of the group and had learned instruments including the sitar, the sarod (another stringed instrument) as well as the flute and the tabla to accompany the dances. The group toured Europe and America, exposing the young Shankar to Western classical music, jazz and cinema and sowing the seeds of his love of other cultures, says The New York Times.  

He didn’t like being a pop star: Shankar’s association with The Beatles made him a pop icon, but he came to resent the status, says the Telegraph. All of a sudden he was swamped by disciples, whom he described as “young people, bearded, long hair, wearing beads and not normal. They would behave like Naga sannyasis [cannabis-smoking holy men] if they were permitted. And I was not happy at all.” He was also disturbed by “the mixing of drugs with our music” and the fact “our classical music was treated as a fad – something that is very common in Western countries".

He hated seeing musicians destroy their instruments: Shankar was aghast when Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival and refused to play at the 1967 Montreal Pop Festival after seeing The Who smash their instruments on stage. "Instruments are like a part of God," he said.

John Coltrane named his son after him: The jazz saxophonist started listening to Shankar’s records in 1961 and became fascinated with Indian music. “I’m certain that if I recorded with him [Shankar] I’d increase my possibilities tenfold, because I’m familiar with what he does and I understand and appreciate his work,” he said. The pair met in 1964 and Coltrane named his son Ravi a year later.  

His genius seems to be hereditary: Shankar has two daughters, both of whom are acclaimed musicians. The eldest is the jazz and pop musician Norah Jones, whose mother is the New York music producer Sue Jones. His younger daughter is the acclaimed sitar-player and composer Anoushka Shankar whose mother is Shankar’s widow, Sukanya Shankar. Anoushka was in her teens when she met half-sister Norah for the first time, but they are now close friends. “I just adore her,” Anoushka told the Daily Mail.

Yehudi Menuhin was a collaborator: Shankar met the violinist and composer in Delhi in 1952 because he had heard that Menuhin was interested in yoga. They became regular collaborators, finding ways to blend their very different styles of music. “I have been at concerts with Ravi when he has been on stage until three o'clock in the morning,” Menuhin told The Independent.

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