Sitar Maestro, Composer Ravi Shankar Dead at 92

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Legendary sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar died at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California, the Ravi Shankar Foundation announced. He was 92.

Over the past year, Shankar had suffered from upper-respiratory and heart problems. He was hospitalized last Thursday after complaining of breathing difficulties. Although heart-valve replacement surgery was successful, recovery proved too difficult for him, the foundation said.

Years before the Beatles made him famous, Shankar helped provide improvised music for the partly animated 1957 National Film Board of Canada short A Chairy Tale, a fairy tale in the modern manner, told without words by film artist Norman McLaren. In the film, a chair (animated by Evelyn Lambart) that declines to be sat upon and a young man perform a sort of pas de deux. A struggle ensues, first for mastery and then for understanding.

“The short film was completely edited before sound of the animation was considered,” said Karin Gunn of the Teach Animation site. “At that time, the distinguished composer-performer sitarist, Ravi Shankar, had come to Montreal. After being invited to view the silent film, he expressed a keen interest in composing the music.”

A Chairy Tale was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects. It won the Canadian Film Award for Best Arts and Experimental, and a Special Award at the BAFTA Awards.

Shankar was India’s most esteemed musical ambassador, and a singular phenomenon in the classical music worlds of East and West. As a performer, composer, teacher and writer, he did more for Indian music than any other musician.

He was well-known for his pioneering work in bringing Indian music to the West. This, however, he did only after long years of dedicated study under his illustrious guru, Baba Allaudin Khan, and after making a name for himself in India.

Always ahead of his time, Shankar wrote three concertos for sitar and orchestra, the last in 2008. He also authored violin-sitar compositions for Yehudi Menuhin and himself, music for flute virtuoso Jean Pierre Rampal, music for shakuhachi master Hosan Yamamoto and koto virtuoso Musumi Miyashi-ta, and collaborated with Phillip Glass (Passages).

Former Beatle George Harrison produced and participated in two record albums, Shankar Family & Friends and Festival of India, both composed by Ravi Shankar.

Shankar also composed for ballets and films in India, Canada, Europe and the United States — the last including the movies Charly, Gandhi and the Apu Trilogy.

In the period of the awakening of the younger generation in the mid-1960s, Shankar gave three memorable concerts: the Monterey Pop Festival, the Concert for Bangla Desh and the Woodstock Festival.

An honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Shankar was a member of the United Nations International Rostrum of composers. He received many awards and honors from his own country and from around the world, including 14 doctorates, the Bharat Ratna, the Padma Vibhushan, Desikottam, Padma Bhushan of 1967, the Music Council UNESCO award 1975, the Magsaysay Award from Manila, two Grammys, the Fukuoka grand Prize from Japan, the Polar Music Prize of 1998 and the Crystal award from Davos.

In 1986, he was nominated as a member of the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of Parliament.

Deeply moved by the plight of more than eight million refugees who came to India during the Bangla Desh Freedom struggle from Pakistan, Shankar wanted to help in any way he could. He planned to arrange a concert to collect money for the refugees.

He approached his dear friend, Harrison, to help him raise money for this cause. This humanitarian concern from Shankar sowed the seed of the concept for the Concert for Bangla Desh. With Harrison’s help, this concert became the first magnus effort in fundraising, paving the way for many others to do charity concerts.

His recording Tana Mana, released on the private Music label in 1987, brought Shankar’s music into the “New Age” with its unique method of combining traditional instruments with electronics.

In 1989, he celebrated his 50th year of concertizing, and the Birmingham Touring Opera Company commissioned him to do a Music Theatre (Ghanashyam – a broken branch), which created history on the British arts scene.

He was born Robindra Shankar on April 7, 1920 in Varanasi, India, and was the youngest of four brothers,

“Ravi Shankar has brought me a precious gift, and through him, I have added a new dimension to my experience of music. To me, his genius and his humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart’s,” Menuhin reflected.

Harrison once said: “Ravi Shankar is the Godfather of World Music.”

Ravi Shankar is survived by wife Sukanya, daughter Norah Jones, daughter Anoushka Shankar Wright and husband Joe Wright, and three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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