Ravi Shankar, Sitar Virtuoso Who Changed Pop Music, Dead at 92

Concert for Bangladesh innovator mentored George Harrison, brought Indian ragas to global pop mainstream

Ravi Shankar
The master at work: Shankar plays a sitar in 1966 / Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Marc Hogan WRITTEN BY
Marc Hogan

Perhaps the key figure in global pop music's embrace of fluid, immersive sound and oceanic drift over the past several decades, virtuoso sitar player Ravi Shankar has died at age 92, according to the the AP.

Shankar, who helped bring Indian ragas to fame in the '60s, performed at Woodstock, and innovated the idea of rock fundraising concerts with 1971's Concert for Bangladesh, was still giving shows as recently as last year at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He won three Grammy awards and earned an Oscar nod for his score to the film Gandhi. He was also the father of singer-songwriter Norah Jones, though the two were estranged for a decade.

But his influence on pop was most directly felt through his close association with the Beatles' George Harrison, who called Shankar "the Godfather of World Music." Shankar taught Harrison the sitar after the Beatle had used one on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," and Harrison's more highly technical playing of the instrument on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band's "Within You Without You" led to a broader interest in Indian music. Another student of Shankar was John Coltrane, who recorded the album East Meets West with the sitar master and named his own son Ravi in Shankar's honor.

As the Byrds' David Crosby wrote in the book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi, via the AP: "Any player on any instrument with any ears would be deeply moved by Ravi Shankar. If you love music, it would be impossible not to be."

Though Shankar's musical legacy echoes most clearly in the psychedelia of the '60s and '70s, it could be argued that the drones he brought to pop furthered a U.S. and European embrace of non-linearity that goes back to the French composer Debussy's first listen to Javanese gamelan music in 1889. In that sense, not only is Shankar significant for his own music and the way he affected psych rockers, but also because without him listeners might have been less prepared for ambient, dream-pop, noise, drone, and all the other textured, non-verbal, hypnotic styles that music has expanded to encompass in his wake.

"If you like our tuning so much," he's quoted as saying after the audience applauded for a minute and a half of sitar and sarod tones at the Concert for Bangladesh, "I hope you will enjoy the playing more."

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