Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar master who profoundly influenced the work of the Beatles, John Coltrane, and the Byrds—and, by extension, a large swath of modern music—died Tuesday, December 11 at age 92.
Shankar was born in Varanasi, India, in 1920, and became involved with Indian classical music and dance at a very early age, working with his brother’s dance troupe when he was just 5 years old. He took to the sitar very young, displaying a rare natural affinity and skill for the instrument, as well as other Indian classical instruments such as the tabla and sarod. His autodidactic approach made him adept enough to become a professional, and he first toured Europe in the 1930s. By the middle of that decade, however, he’d been persuaded by master Indian classical musician Allauddin Khan to study the sitar formally. By the time he emerged from his formal training several years later, he was a master.
Shankar’s uncommon skill as a sitarist and composer made him a fixture in Indian theater and ballet, as well as Indian radio and the country’s nascent recording industry. And the breadth of experience, charisma, and undoubtedly his early experiences in Europe made him a natural, if sometimes reluctant, cultural ambassador for India. By the 1950s, he had begun to record ragas for American labels—most importantly Richard Bock’s World Pacific Records.
The association with World Pacific would prove incredibly important to Shankar’s rise to wider world popularity. World Pacific’s titles were enthusiastically digested by American music cognoscenti—from jazz heavies like Miles Davis and John Coltrane (who visited Shankar to study ragas as early as 1964) to budding folk, pop, and rock musicians—not the least being a pair of aspiring, Beatle-crazed folk musicians by the name of David Crosby and Jim McGuinn. While rising interest in Indian philosophy and culture had already made Indian classical musical more common in English and American intellectual circles, it was arguably David Crosby who sparked the explosion of interest in Shankar’s work among the pop elite. He discussed Shankar’s work at length with George Harrison when the Byrds and Beatles mingled in Los Angeles in the summer of 1965. And though it wasn’t released until 1966, the Byrds “Eight Miles High”—the first and perhaps definitive article of raga rock—was composed during a 1965 tour in which the Byrds ceaselessly played a cassette containing Shankar’s ragas and Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. Within two years, echoes of Shankar’s influence were audible in work ranging from pop and rock giants like the Rolling Stones, Donovan, and the Beatles to avant and popular jazz figures from Pharoah Sanders to Gábor Szab—.
The rock underground then paid tribute and gave thanks to Shankar with an invitation to the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Shankar’s performance there became the finale in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the same name. In the performance of “Dhun (Dadra and Fast Teental),” the camera captures not only an ecstatic and mesmerized crowd, but a positively enraptured Jimi Hendrix and Michael Bloomfield digging Shankar in a priceless testament to the emotional power of his music and his profound influence on some of the electric guitar’s mightiest and most visionary vanguards.