Sitar Virtuoso Ravi Shankar, 'Godfather of World Music,' Dead at 92

by Damian Fanelli
Posted Dec 12, 2012 at 10:18am

Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar died Tuesday, December 11, at age 92.

According to a statement posted on his official website, Shankar died in San Diego, near his Southern California home with his wife and a daughter by his side. Shankar's foundation issued a statement saying he had suffered upper-respiratory and heart problems and had undergone heart-valve replacement surgery just last week.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed Shankar's death, calling him a "national treasure."

Shankar, who George Harrison dubbed "the godfather of world music," introduced traditional Indian ragas to Western audiences and helped millions of rock and jazz fans discover the ancient traditions of Indian music.

A good part of the Western world became familiar with Shankar through his association with The Beatles — especially Harrison — in the late 1960s. It was an association that led to Shankar being hailed as a hippie musical icon, influencing everyone from The Beatles, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and John Coltrane, not to mention untold numbers of lesser-known composers and musicians who suddenly found themselves finding ways to incorporate sitars into their work.

Shankar and Harrison met in 1966, when Harrison approached him at a party. He asked Shankar to teach him how to play the sitar "properly" (Harrison had already used one on The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood"). Shankar took Harrison under his wing, and the Beatle's playing improved quickly, as heard on 1967's "Within You Without You."

"When George became my student, I got a new audience: the younger generation," Shankar told Rolling Stone in 1997. "And, of course, they came like a flood because the whole thing happened with the hippie movement and this interest in Indian culture. Unfortunately it got all mixed up with drugs and Kamasutra and all that. I was like a rock star ... I never said one shouldn't take drugs or drink alcohol, but associating drugs with our music and culture, that's something I always fought. I was telling them to come without being high on drugs. I said, 'Give me the chance to make you high through out music,' which it does, really. I think it's good I made that stand, and that's why I'm still here today."

In 1971, Shankar and Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh, which is considered rock's first benefit concert. Harrison and Shankar toured together in 1974, and Harrison produced and appeared on several Shankar albums from the '70s through the late '90s. Their strong bond lasted until Harrison's death in 2001. In one of Harrison's last televised interviews in 1997, Shankar sat at his side (See the second video below).