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Ravi Shankar
Biography, photographs, concert and CD reviews. Sheet music by Ravi Shankar.

Added on December 12, 2012
A musical giant has left us yesterday. On December 11, 2012 Ravi Shankar died in a Californian hospital at the age of 92. The father of pop, soul and jazz singer Norah Jones and sitar-player Anoushka Shankar had been treated for heart and respiratory problems in a San Diego hospital.

The three-time Grammy winner Ravi Shankar is nominated for the 2013-Grammy Awards with his album The Living Room Sessions Part 1 (, and In addition to his musical activities, Ravi Shankar was a member of the Indian Upper House of parliament.

Article added on November 7, 2005  
Nowadays, the title of living legend is attributed in an inflationary way. If there is a musician who truly deserves this title thanks to his contribution to music and to his musical and physical longevity, it is the Indian composer and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, whose career began in 1930 and still continues.

Biography of Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar was born in Tilebhandeshwar Galli in Benares (Varanasi) on April 7, 1920. By this time, his father, Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, was chief minister to the Maharaja of Jhalawar and had left Ravi's mother Hemangini. The father married an English Lady named Miss Morrell. She died around 1925, when the father was practising law in Calcutta. He spent the rest of his life between London, Geneva and New York. Ravi first met his father in 1928, when he came to India with "Madam Henny from Holland, who was his latest girlfriend".

Shyam Shankar was a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste, the highest in the Hindu caste system. Born in the city of Jessore in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, he was a statesman, lawyer, philosopher, writer and amateur musician. He was a Sanskrit scholar who took his MA at Calcutta University, became a Barrister-at-Law at the Middle Temple in London and a Privy Council member and, in 1931, was awarded a Doctorate of political science from the University of Geneva (where I studied myself, the world is small). From about 1905 he served as Diwan or chief minister to the Maharaja of Jhalawar, a small state in what is now Rajasthan. During this period, he became estranged from his wife Hemangini and remarried without divorcing. This was not unlawful in Indian then, although rare and frowned upon. Shortly before Ravi's birth, he left to practise law in Calcutta and London before gaining a legal position with The League of Nations in Geneva. Later, he went on to teach Indian philosophy in New York, at the invitation of the Roerich Museum and later Columbia University.

Shyam Shankar had also studied yoga in a cave with a great yogi for almost two years and Vedic chants in Benares (and possibly in Maharashtra too). "He also specialized in voice culture, a technique designed to improve the voice-throw system." This technique was used before microphones became common. Ravi heard his father perform Vedic chants (mostly from Sama Veda) in a chapel in Geneva, and was impressed by the reverberating sound of his "powerful, clear, melodious and rich voice." Shyam also wrote several books, only two of which have been published (in London), according to Ravi Shankar: Buddha and his Sayings in 1914, Wit and Wisdom of India in 1924, a collection of humorous Indian short stories. Among the unpublished manuscripts, Ravi remembers seeing Light, Life, Law and Love, a discussion of the Indian way of life, mostly regarding the ideas of Manu Samhita.

Ravi's mother Hemangini was from a small village in Nasrathpur, some seventy miles from Benares. As Shyam's father, her father had been a prosperous zamindar or landlord.

Together with three brothers, Ravi lived a precarious life with his mother, who had seven sons. One was stillborn, one died at the age of ten months and the oldest, Uday, born in 1900, had already left home to study fine arts at the Royal College of Art in London. Ravi was by ten years the youngest of the five sons surviving infancy.

Thieves and robbers on the staff of the aristocrats took substantial amounts of the pension allocated to Ravi's mother by the Maharaja of Jhalawar. By the time the pension reached the family in Benares, it had dwindled from 200 rupees to only 60 rupees per month. Shyam Shankar never sent money, probably because he believed that they were provided for. Ravi's mother was too proud to let his father know, who was a generous man who financially helped students and his aunts, some of which were widows.

The name Ravi comes from Sanskrit and means the sun. In Bengali, his name was originally Robindro or Robi. He only changed it to Ravi when he was about twenty. As a boy, Ravi studied only briefly at Bengalitola High School from 1927 to 1929, when he met his brother Uday for the first time. In December 1930, he moved with Uday's Indian dance and music troupe to Paris, where they first performed in March 1931.

Ravi's father had not only studied Vedic chants, but, although not a professional, since 1915 he had also produced a series of variety shows in London. He would make suggestions to his oldest son Uday (called "Dada" by Ravi and his brothers) about the choreography of the Indian dances he was performing. Dada had received a Silver Medal of Merit at the Royal College of Art and his mentor, Sir William Rothenstein, had great hopes for him as a painter. But an invitation by his father to a performance by the legendary Russian dancer and choreographer Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) at Covent Garden would change Dada's life.

Pavlova had been to India before and was enchanted by what she saw there. She was eager to do something with Indian dances and costumes, but felt she couldn't do it herself. She proposed to Dada to assist her with two ballets, Hindu Wedding and Radha-Krishna, which she produced as a part of her Oriental Impressions presentation. This is how Uday came to spend nine months touring Canada, the United States, Mexico and South America with Pavolova's troupe, choreographing the two ballets and dancing the part of Krishna, with the great Pavlova as Radha. Their collaboration lasted less than a year. Before she died in January 1931, she had encouraged him to concentrate more on traditional Indian rather than Western arts. This is was Uday did. He became the first Indian superstar in the 1930s, a self-taught one. He did not have his first guru until 1934, when he stayed in Calcutta, where Ravi himself also got proper basic training in Indian dancing from Sankaran Namboodri, who gave him a good idea of Kathakali. Uday's only other period of training came when he lived in Almora, at the cultural center he founded in the Himalayas. Uday lived with his troupe some five years in Europe and also toured the world during this period, including his youngest brother Ravi for most of the time.

In addition to his father Shyam Shankar and the great Pavlova, a third person was instrumental in Uday setting up his own troupe, the wealthy Swiss sculptress, painter and art historian Alice Boner (1889-1981) from Zurich. In 1929, she helped him create the Uday Shankar Company of Hindi Dance and Music. Alice Boner co-founded and then managed and financially supported the troupe for five years. She met him in 1927 and together they traveled to India in 1930 to organize his troupe, instruments and costumes. From 1936 to 1978, the city of Varanasi (Benares) became her home (further reading on her subsequent live: Alice Boner Diaries: India 1934-1967. Delhi. ISBN: 81-208-1121-6).

In Paris in 1931 and 1932, Ravi Shankar frequented the Ecole Saint Joseph, a Catholic school. Because of the language problem, he had to enter in a lower class. "The only thing I benefited from was learning French", he admits. This was the end of his academic career.

In the 1930s, Paris was still the art capital of the world. Ravi met many artists, including Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller and Cole Porter. He witnessed concerts by Pablo Casals, Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Andres Segovia, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin and others. However, he never met the famous Pavlova, who died too soon after his arrival.

Apart of a few piano lessons in Paris, Ravi Shankar never had proper training in Western music. Even today, he reads Western sheet music with difficulty and cannot write in the Western notation system. Still, the many concerts he witnessed and the records he listened to as a boy have helped him understand Western music.

In 1932, his mother returned to India whereas Ravi started touring with Uday's troupe when he was twelve and a half. On March 3, 1931 already, the troupe had given its Paris debut. At the beginning, Ravi was a dancer and modest accompanying musician and secondary sitar player in Uday's troupe. Only in 1938, in an unexpected decision against a life in luxury and glamour, Ravi decided to seriously study the sitar with Ustad Baba Allauddin Khan in Maihar.

In the 1930s, Ravi had the chance to tour Europe. The British, apart Londoners, were not interested in Indian music. The best reception they got was in Germany. The teenager was impressed by the intellectual and cultural side of the Germans. He recalls that their knowledge of India was far ahead of that of the French, Italians and the British. Ravi had also the chance to tour the United States and, in 1934, India, where he saw his mother again after a year and a half.

Before the tour, Ravi's father visited his family several times in Paris and invited them to Geneva, where he worked for the League of Nations. Ravi had the chance to stay there for some two weeks, the longest time he ever spent with his father. In total, he recalls a few meetings with him in Paris, New York and the first short visit in Benares. The total time he spent with his father in his entire life would not add up to one month.

1932 was the year of Ravi's first trip to the United States, where he was impressed by the skyline of New York City, arriving by boat in the early morning, with the skyscrapers gradually emerging through the fog and haze. They were dressed like maharajahs, an idea of Solomon Hurok, their impresario, "the greatest of all time", according to Ravi Shankar. He knew how to sell an act. The title "Solomon Hurok Presents..." alone was enough itself to ensure the success of a show. They stayed at the St. Moritz, at the time one of the best hotels in town.

With the success of his troupe, Dada was becoming "extremely famous. In the Thirties and maybe even at the beginning of the Forties, 'Shankar' was actually the best-known Indian after Gandhi and Tagore. Dada was a superstar", recalls Ravi.

During his four trips with Dada to the United States in the 1930s, 1932-33, 1933-34, 1936-37 and 1937-38, Ravi discovered his love for the cinema, Charles Chaplin (article in German) being his favorite. With Dada's fame and Hurok in the back, the Indian musicians could visit Hollywood anytime. There, the actress Marie Dressler even wanted to adopt Ravi. But his two older brother's said no. The boy was angry and cried. He dreamed of a life among the film icons, becoming himself the first Indian star in Hollywood.

Over the years, Ravi also encountered many jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong (article in German), Duke Ellington (article in German), Count Basie and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club. The old jazz of that time was not as intellectual as today's avant-garde varieties, but it appeals more to Ravi.

In late 1934, the sitar player Gokul Nag joined the troupe a short while. He impressed Ravi to the point of reinforcing his interest in the sitar. During the same time, Ravi attended the All-Bengal Music Conference in Calcutta, where he met for the first time Ustad Allauddin Khan, the master of the sarod and pioneer of modern Hindustani instrumental music, who later became Ravi's guru. Allauddin Khan or Baba (literally 'father') was performing with his son, the young Ali Akbar Khan.

In 1934, several members left Uday's troupe, including his brothers Mejda and Sejda and his cousin Kanaklata. Uday managed to persuade Allauddin Khan to join his troupe for a year as a soloist on their European tour beginning at the end of 1935. Before, Ravi went with his brother Uday on a world tour (Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan and the USA). However, the tour was to be cut short in a tragic manner.

In 1935, Ravi's father had given up his lectures on Vedanta and left Columbia University and Roerich Foundation. He received three fabulous job offers from India. He was invited to become the Diwan of Baroda state, at the time the fourth biggest Indian state and tremendously rich. At the same time, he was also offered a legal position within the government. The third offer was a legal case in London, which he agreed to undertake on his way to India. This was the famous case of the Pakur brothers, two rich zamindars from Bengal, who were fighting a legal battle against each other, which went to the Privy Council in London because it could not be solved in India. It was one of the longest cases in history and involved scandal, money and murder.

This article is based on Ravi Shankar: Raga Mala - the autobiography of Ravi Shankar. Edited and Introduced by George Harrison. Additional narrative by Oliver Caske. Afterword: Yehudi Menuhin. Several editions, 336 p. Get it from,,, - Sheet music by Ravi Shankar.

Ravi Shankar. Photo © David Farrell, Archive Images, EMI.

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The very best of Ravi Shankar, August 2010.. Order the double-CD from,, or - Sheet music by Ravi Shankar.

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Ravi Shankar. Photo © David Farrell, Archive Images, EMI.

Ravi Shankar. Photo © Steve Ladner EMI.

Ravi Shankar. Foto © Steve Ladner EMI.

Ravi Shankar. Photograph © Ken Howard.

Ravi Shankar: Raga Mala - the autobiography of Ravi Shankar. Edited and Introduced by George Harrison. Additional narrative by Oliver Caske. Afterword: Yehudi Menuhin. Several editions, 336 p. Get it from,,, Especially the part of the book about Ravi's childhood is rich on information about India and its culture. This book is a must for anybody interested in Ravi Shankar and sitar music. It is the basis for the biographical article on this page.

Ravi Shankar: Ragas & Talas. Angel, 2000. Get it from,,

Ravi Shankar: Three Ragas. Angel, 1956, remastered in 2000. Get the CD from One of my favorite CDs.

Ravi Shankar: Live at the Monterey International Pop Festival. Angel Records, 1967, remastered 1998. Get the CD from Amazon or Ravi Shankar himself considers the concert one of his finest performances.

Ravi Shankar: Improvisations. Angel, 1962, remastered 1999. Get the CD from or

Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin: West Meets East. Angel, remastered 1999. Get the CD from,,

Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, André Previn & London Symphony Orchestra, Zubin Mehta & London Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI, 1976, 1982. Remastered 1998. EMI 2005. Get the CD from, or

Ravi Shankar: Genesis. Milan/BMG, 1995/2001. Different covers. Get it from, or .

Ravi Shankar: Full Circle-Carnegie Hall 2000. Live-recording. Angel, 2001. Get it from or In 1938, 17-year-old Ravi Shankar made his first appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall as a dancer and musician in his brother Uday's troupe. Some 60 years later, the leading sitar player and composer returned to NYC, this time with his 19-year-old daughter and protégée Anoushka. They performed the nighttime raga "Kaushi Kanhara" and the light, romantic "Mishra Gara". The two tabla players were Bikram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose.

Ravi Shankar: Chants of India. EMI, 1997. Get it from,

Double DVD Set by BBC Opus Arte: Ravi Shankar 'Between Two Worlds'. Running Time 190 minutes. DVD 1: Documentary. Ravi Shankar filmed in India and American during two years. The master remembers his childhood and his career, illustrated by archive footage. He is teaching a master class in New Delhi, including his daughter Anoushka. Touching is the sequence showing his family, including his daughters Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, watching French archive footage on DVD. Dating from 1932 in Paris, it shows brother Uday dancing, little Ravi playing the sitar. The original French subtitles mention: "M. Uday Shankar et sa troupe nous donnent un aperçu des véritables danses sacrées de l'Inde accompagnées par de bizarres instruments jusqu'alors inconnus en France." As it turned out later, Ravi Shankar would not only become a master of one of these "bizarre instruments", but make the sitar known all over the world. DVD 2: Includes footage of Ravi Shankar live in concert at Union Chapel in London in 2002 as well as a short introduction to Indian classical music and to the sitar by the master. Get the Double DVD Set from,, - Sheet music by Ravi Shankar.