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Sitar legend Ravi Shankar dies, aged 92

December 12, 2012

Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar (R) gestures while his daughter Anoushka Shankar (L, background) looks on during a performance at The Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata.–Photo by AFP

NEW DELHI: Legendary Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, a major influence on Western musicians ranging from The Beatles to Yehudi Menuhin, has died at the age of 92, officials said Wednesday.

Shankar, died in a hospital in San Diego where he was preparing to undergo surgery, according to Indian television news channels.

His extraordinary musical journey took him from the banks of the sacred River Ganges in British India to the legendary Monterey and Woodstock festivals, where he played alongside the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his sadness over the death and hailed Shankar as “a national treasure and global ambassador of India's cultural heritage”.

“Mourn (the) passing of a musical genius and gentle soul,” Nirupama Menon Rao, the Indian ambassador to the United States, said on her Twitter feed.

Shankar taught Harrison to play the sitar and collaborated with him on several projects, including the groundbreaking charity Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The Beatles called him “The Godfather of World Music”. Another collaborator, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, compared his genius and humanity to Mozart.

To later generations, he was known as the estranged father of popular American singer Norah Jones.  His last musical performance was with his other daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar Wright, on Nov. 4 in Long Beach, California; his foundation said it was to celebrate his 10th decade of creating music. The multiple Grammy winner learned that he had again been nominated for the award the night before his surgery.

Feb. 7, 2012 file photo, Indian musician Ravi Shankar laughs as he speaks during a concert in Bangalore.–Photo by AP

Ravi Shankar was born into a high-caste Bengali family in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in northern India on April 7, 1920.

During one of his tour, renowned musician Baba Allaudin Khan joined the troupe, took Shankar under his wing and eventually became his teacher through 7 1/2 years of isolated, rigorous study of the sitar.

"Khan told me you have to leave everything else and do one thing properly," Shankar told The Associated Press.

Shankar first married Khan's daughter, Annapurna Devi, in 1941 and they had a son, Shubendhra. The couple later separated and Shubendhra, who also played the sitar, died in 1992.

Shankar's affair with a New York concert producer Sue Jones led to the birth in 1979 of Norah Jones, who has won nine Grammys with her blend of pop and jazz music. He had a third child, Anoushka Shankar, with his second wife Sukanya Rajan.

Anoushka became an accomplished sitar player in her own right and toured with her father, who was still giving concerts into his 80s.

In the 1950s, Shankar began gaining fame throughout India. He held the influential position of music director for All India Radio in New Delhi and wrote the scores for several popular films. He began writing compositions for orchestras, blending clarinets and other foreign instruments into traditional Indian music.

Shankar started to attract the attention of musicians outside India after being introduced to violinist Menuhin in the early 1950s, leading to tours of Europe and the United States, as well as his first long-play album, “Three Ragas”.

Among the major names in contemporary music influenced by him were The Byrds, whose 1965 track “Eight Miles High” bears the hallmark of Shankar's mesmeric sitar playing.

In the same year, Harrison, used a sitar he had bought on a whim on the song “Norwegian Wood”.

Harrison met Shankar in London in 1966 and later travelled to India, where the maestro taught him how to play the plucked instrument.

Awards and collaborations with other top artists followed Shankar wherever he went. He composed three sitar concertos and worked with top conductors like Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta and the composer Philip Glass.

The first of his three Grammy awards came in 1967 for his collaborative album with Menuhin, “West Meets East”.

The second in 1972 was for his Concert for Bangladesh album while the third in 2001 was for his “Full Circle” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York.

He was nominated for an Oscar in 1982 for his work on the film “Gandhi”, was a recipient of both India and France's highest civilian honours and was awarded an honorary knighthood in Britain as well as a string of honorary degrees.

The Bangladesh concert at New York's Madison Square Garden, organised by Harrison, raised nearly $250,000 for UNICEF to help refugees of the South Asian country's freedom struggle and led to future benefit gigs like Live Aid.

He taught close friend the late Beatle George Harrison to play the sitar and collaborated with him on several projects, including the groundbreaking concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The Beatles called him “The Godfather of World Music”.