World-reknowned sitar player Ravi Shankar passed away last night at the Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego, where he was admitted last week for heart-valve replacement surgery after suffering upper respiratory and heart problems. He was 92 years old.
Born Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury in the Indian city of Varanasi, Shankar opened up many in the West to “world music”, or at least the sitar, after developing a friendship with Beatles guitarist George Harrison in the late 1960s. Even before Harrison, Shankar was an icon in his home country and already collaborating with the likes of John Coltrane and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. But it was his relationship with the Beatles that propelled him to world fame.
Shankar's popularity exploded after Harrison played the sitar on “Within You Without You” on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he soon found himself playing huge festivals in America, including a four-hour set at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock.
“I was shocked to see people dressing so flamboyantly. They were all stoned. To me, it was a new world,” Shankar told Rolling Stone at the time of his festival experiences.
Shankar would go on to win three Grammy Awards, and was also presented with India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has paid tribute to Shankar, calling him a “national treasure”. He is survived by his wife and daughter Anoushka Shankar, who is also a Grammy-nominated sitar player.
“It's one of the biggest losses for the music world,” said Kartic Seshadri, a Shankar protege, sitar virtuoso and music professor at the University of California, San Diego. “There's nothing more to be said.”