Pandit Ravi Shankar | 10 Facts About The Sitar Maestro


Pandit Ravi Shankar, known for playing the sitar, a plucked string instrument, and who was once described by George Harrison as “the godfather of world music”, died on 11 December 2012 due to failure to fully recover from a heart-valve replacement surgery. Here are 10 interesting facts about the sitar maestro.


#1 He learned music and dance at an early age

Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar

Born on 7 April 1920, Ravi Shankar’s birth name was Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury. He was the youngest of seven brothers in a Bengali Brahmin family. His father worked as a lawyer in London where he married a second time. He didn’t meet Ravi Shankar till he was eight years old. At the age of 10, Ravi Shankar went to Paris with the dance group of his brother Uday Shankar. By the age of 13 he was a member of the group and toured various countries along with it. Apart from learning to dance and playing Indian classical instruments, Ravi also learned about Western classical music and jazz while he toured aboard.

#2 He gave up his dancing career to learn music

In 1935 Uday Shankar convinced the Maharaja of Maihar to allow the lead musician of his court, Allauddin Khan, to become his group’s soloist for a tour of Europe. During the tour Khan trained Ravi Shankar a bit and offered him to become a serious musician under his training but on the condition that Shankar should abandon touring and come to Maihar. In 1938 Ravi Shankar gave up his dancing career and went to Maihar to study Indian classical music under Allauddin Khan.

#3 Ravi Shankar’s music teacher was Baba Allauddin Khan

Baba Allauddin Khan
Baba Allauddin Khan

Baba Allauddin Khan was known for his violent temper and his students often found themselves on the receiving end of it. On one occasion unsatisfied with Shankar’s performance he asked Shankar to buy some bangles and wear them like a girl. Shankar was so offended that he considered leaving Maihar but Baba convinced him to stay back. From that day onwards Baba never reacted to Shankar’s mistakes. Instead what he did was leave the room to take his anger out on other people, sometimes even on stray dogs. Shankar married Baba’s daughter Annapurna Devi in 1941 and had a son with her. Shankar’s training was complete in 1944. In the late 1940s he separated from his wife.

#4 His first LP album was Three Ragas

In the year 1945, Ravi Shankar recomposed the music of the popular Indian song “Sare Jahan Se Achcha”. He worked as music director of All India Radio (AIR) from 1949 to 1956. After resigning from AIR, he toured U.K., Germany and the United States. During this time he also recorded his first LP album Three Ragas in London.

#5 He created a new raga for Mahatma Gandhi after his assassination

Poster of 1982 film Gandhi
Ravi Shankar composed the music for the 1982 film Gandhi

In 1948 after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination Shankar was asked to play something mournful on AIR. Drawing from the name Gandhi, Shankar took the three sargam notes that approximate it—“Ga” (third), “Ni” (seventh) and “Dha” (sixth)—and developed a new melodic theme. He called this new raga Mohankauns, since it was similar to raga Malkauns. He later used the same raga as a recurring verse in his score for the 1982 film Gandhi.

#6 Ravi Shankar taught sitar to George Harrison

In 1960s in America, The Byrds were recording in the same studio as Ravi Shankar and heard his music. They decided to incorporate some of its elements in theirs and introduced the genre to George Harrison of The Beatles. Harrison bought a sitar and used it in The Beatles song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”. This popularized Indian music and started the raga-rock trend. Harrison ultimately met Shankar in London in 1966 and later visited India to study sitar under him. Ravi Shankar’s association with George Harrison extended his popularity throughout the world.


#7 Along with Harrison, he organized the Concert for Bangladesh

In 1971 when Bangladesh was struck by violence and famine and people of the country were suffering hardships, Harrison and Shankar organized the Concert for Bangladesh. Apart from them it had performances from other musicians including Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. The money from the concert which was close to US $250,000 was sent to UNICEF for Bangladesh relief. The concert was the first ever benefit-concert of such a magnitude.

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison
Ravi Shankar with George Harrison (left)


#8 Ravi Shankar is the father of Norah Jones

Norah Jones
Norah Jones – Daughter of Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar had an affair with a New York concert producer named Sue Jones. This led to the birth of Norah Jones in 1979. Norah Jones went on to become a successful musician and won eight Grammy Awards in 2003. Shankar had another lovechild in 1981 with Sukanya Rajan whom they named Anoushka Shankar. Ravi Shankar married her mother later in 1989. Anoushka Shankar is also a sitar player and she was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album in 2003.

#9 He was nominated for an Oscar for the film Gandhi

Ravi Shankar has composed music for a number of films, most notably for Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. For his work in Gandhi, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Music Score but he lost to John Williams’ E.T.

Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar in 2009
Ravi Shankar performs with daughter Anoushka Shankar in 2009.


#10 Ravi Shankar was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1999

Ravi Shankar is considered one of the top sitar players of the twentieth century. He has won three Grammy Awards. In 2001, Shankar was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Elizabeth II for his “services to music”. In 1999, Ravi Shankar was awarded the highest civilian honor in India – the Bharat Ratna, or Jewel of India.

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