Ravi Shankar Biography – Indian Sitar Maestro, Composer, Musician, Indian Classical Music, Legacy

Ravi Shankar article
Satyajit Ray with Ravi Sankar recording for Pather Panchali
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Ravi Shankar Biography and Legacy

Ravi Shankar was an Indian sitarist and composer, who became the most famous and influential exponent of Indian classical music in the second half of the 20th century.

Over the course of his long and illustrious career, Shankar helped to increase the popularity of Indian classical music in the west and influenced several musicians across the world.

Early Life

Ravi Shankar, born Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury, was born on 7th April 1920 in the city of Banaras (now Varanasi), into a Bengali Brahmin family.

Shankar was the youngest of seven brothers. His father, Shyam Shaunkor Chowdhury, was a Middle Temple barrister and scholar from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), who served as dewan of Jhalawar in Rajasthan.

Shankar’s father got rid of the family’s last name ‘Chowdhury’ and adopted the Sanskrit spelling of ‘Shaunkor’, making it ‘Shankar’.

While Shankar was raised by his mother Hemangini Devi in Banaras, his father married a second time in London, where he was then working as a lawyer. Shankar’s father did not meet him until he was 8 years old.

In 1927, Shankar, aged 7, began attending the Bengalitola High School in Banaras for a brief period.

Touring as a Dancer

In 1930, Ravi Shankar, aged 10, went to Paris with the dance group of his brother Uday Shankar, who would go on to become a famous choreographer and dancer known for creating a fusion style of dance by adapting European theatrical techniques to Indian classical dance.

Three years later, Shankar became a member of the group and began touring with them across Europe and the U.S. While touring, Shankar learned to dance and play various Indian instruments, learned French, became well acquainted with Western customs, and discovered western cinema, jazz, and classical music.

This period of the young Shankar’s life gave him a wide set of experiences in different cultures across Europe and America.

Leaving the Group to Become a Serious Musician

In 1934, at a music conference in Calcutta, Ravi Shankar heard Allauddin Khan (who was the lead musician at the court of the princely state of Maihar in Madhya Pradesh) play and was so impressed that he requested Khan to train him while on tour after Khan became the group’s soloist for a European tour.

Khan later invited Shankar to train under him to become a serious musician, under the condition that he abandon his dancing career and come to Maihar to learn music.

Shankar began thinking of the offer made by Khan. It was the late 1930s and the western world was on the brink of the Second World War. The political tension and conflict prevailing in the west made touring difficult for the group. To make matters worse, by the time Shankar returned from the European tour, his parents had died.

Taking all these factors into consideration, Shankar gave up his dancing career in 1938 and went to Maihar to study Indian classical music under Khan, while living with Khan’s family in a gurukul system.

Training Under Khan

Under Khan’s tutelage, Ravi Shankar practiced and learned the sitar and surbahar (also known as bass sitar). He was taught the techniques of the instruments such as rubab, sursingar, and mudra veena, and was also taught ragas and various musical styles such as dhamar, dhrupad, khyal.

Khan was a serious and rigorous teacher. Living with Khan’s family, Shankar learned music along with Khan’s children and became very close to them.

In 1939, barely a year since he started training under Khan, Shankar began playing the sitar in public performances, the first one being a duet with Khan’s son Ali Akbar Khan, who played the sarod.

In 1941, Shankar married Khan’s daughter Roshanara Khan, later named Annapurna Devi by former Maharaja Brijnath Singh of the former Maihar Estate. Annapurna would go on to become a well-known bass sitar player while performing with Shankar in Bombay and Delhi.

By 1944, Shankar’s training under Khan had been completed and he was now prepared to follow a career as a serious musician.

Early Work as a Musician

After completing his training under Khan, Ravi Shankar moved to Bombay to join the Indian People’s Theater Association, where he would go on to compose music for ballets from 1945 to 1946.

He then began to record music for HMV India. From February 1949 until January 1956, he worked as a music director for All India Radio (AIR) in New Delhi, where he formed the Indian National Orchestra for which he composed music. In these compositions, he combined and experimented with classical Indian and western instrumentation.

In the mid-1950s, Shankar was hired by the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray to compose the music for the soon-to-be internationally acclaimed films of the Apu Trilogy, directed by Ray.

Beginning of International Tours

In 1952, the director of the AIR, V.K. Narayana Menon, introduced Ravi Shankar to American violinist Yehudi Menuhin during Menuhin’s first visit to India.

Three years later, Menuhin invited Shankar to perform in New York City for a demonstration of Indian classical music, at an event sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

Hearing about the positive and encouraging response received by his mentor Allauddin Khan, Shankar resigned from AIR in 1956 in order to tour the U.S., the U.K., and Germany. During this tour, Shankar performed in front of small audiences while educating them about Indian music and incorporating ragas from South Indian Carnatic music. The same year, he recorded his first LP album titled Three Ragas in London.

In 1958, Shankar was invited to perform at the 10th-anniversary celebrations of the United Nation and the UNESCO music festival in Paris. The success of his early international tours led him to tour more extensively in the U.S., Australia, and Europe. He also began receiving offers to compose music for non-Indian films.

Influence on Western Musicians

Shankar’s tours across Europe and the U.S. brought him in touch with several western musicians who were enamored by Shankar’s brand of Indian classical music.

During his first tour of the U.S., Ravi Shankar met jazz record producer Richard Bock, who was the founder of World Pacific Records. Shankar went on to record most of his albums in the 1950s and 1960s under Bock’s label. While recording in the same studio as Shankar, the American rock band The Byrds heard Shankar’s music, inspiring them to incorporate some of its elements into their own music.

Through David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, George Harrison was introduced to Shankar’s music and he fell in love with it. Shankar and his music deeply influenced Harrison, who would go on to popularize Shankar and the use of Indian classical instruments in western music through the 1960s. Through Shankar, Harrison also became interested in Indian culture and philosophy.

Inspired, Harrison went to India to take sitar lessons from Shankar. Under Shankar’s tutelage, Harrison learned to play the sitar and even used it to record the famous Beatles song Norwegian Wood.

Slowly, Indian classical music and instruments became more popular with groups like The Animals and The Rolling Stones, and with musicians such as Nick Gravenites, Michael Bloomfield, etc.

By the mid-1960s, Shankar had become the most famous Indian musician in the world. Harrison and Shankar would go on to collaborate with each other on several albums and tours, such as the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and the North American Tour with George Harrison in 1974.

The Late 1960s and Early 1970s

In 1967, Ravi Shankar performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, where his performance was very well-received by the audience. The live album of the performance reached No. 43 on the Billboards Pop LPs Chart in the U.S., which is the highest spot he would reach on the chart.

At the festival, Shankar witnessed the iconic performance of Jimi Hendrix but was disturbed and horrified by the visual of Hendrix setting fire to his guitar on stage. He would later explain that Hendrix’s antics that night were too much for him as in his culture they had much respect for musical instruments as they considered them to be part of God.

In 1968, Shankar won his first Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for his album with Yehudi Menuhin, West Meets East. The same year, he also published his autobiography titled My Music, My Life.

The following year, Shankar performed at the Woodstock Festival but disliked the venue mainly due to the widespread drug culture and hippie movement.

His live album from the Concert for Bangladesh became one of the best-selling albums to feature Indian classical music, earning Shankar his second Grammy Award.

The 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s

Ravi Shankar continued to tour extensively across the world and record through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

His music score for the 1982 film Gandhi earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Music Score.

From May 1986 to May 1992, he served as a Member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Parliament of India, after he was nominated by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

In 1990, he collaborated with American composer Philip Glass on their album Passages.

In 1997, his second autobiography titled Raga Mala was published. He continued to perform between 25 to 40 concerts every year during the late 1990s.

In 2001, he won a third Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for his live album Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000. And in 2002, he performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the Concert for George, a year after Harrison’s death.

Shankar undertook his last European tour in 2011, performing dates in the U.K.


On 9th December 2012, Ravi Shankar was admitted to a hospital in San Diego, California, after he began complaining of breathing difficulties.

Two days later, on 11th December, Shankar, aged 92, died after undergoing a heart valve replacement surgery. The following month, on the 5th and 6th of January, the Swara Samrat Festival held in Kolkata was dedicated to Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, the son of Shankar’s mentor Allauddin Khan.


Ravi Shankar is widely regarded as one of the greatest sitar players of all time and one of the most well-known Indian musicians in the world.

Shankar singlehandedly helped to popularize Indian classical music across the world by influencing western musicians and music. His work, artistry, and popularity have remained unparalleled since his death.

He is credited to have developed a new and distinct playing style that was unique from that of his peers and contemporaries. Being deeply influenced by the Carnatic music of South India, he blended it into his style to form his own unique style.

Shankar was a true pioneer of his craft who became famous for his novel and unconventional rhythmic cycles. His collaboration with tabla maestro Alla Rakha (father of the great tabla player Zakir Hussain) helped popularize tabla playing in Indian classical music. Shankar is also credited to have introduced 31 new ragas.

Needless to say, Ravi Shankar was no doubt one of the most influential and popular Indian musicians of all time.