Pandit Ravi Shankar: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Pandit Ravi Shankar

Shankar pictured in May 1966. (Getty)

The man who was dubbed “the Godfather of world music” by George Harrison is celebrated in the April 7 Google Doodle. Pandit Ravi Shankar, the sitar master would have been 96 were he still alive. Shankar passed away in December 2012 shortly after having surgery to relieve breathing difficulties in California.

He performed his final concert just a month earlier with his daughter, Anoushka Shankar.

The connection between Shankar and the Beatles began when the band’s guitarist George Harrison discovered a sitar on the set of the band’s 1965 movie Help. Eventually, that discovery would lead Harrison and his bandmates to India to meet Shankar, who was considered the master of the instrument.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. He Hated the International Fame That the Beatles Inadvertently Bestowed Upon Him

Despite being interminably linked with the Fab Four, the Daily Telegraph reported in 2009 that Shankar resented the group. The newspaper, citing an interview that Shankar had done with an Indian TV station, quoted the sitar master as saying:

All four came. All of them were very sweet but George was so special. He would corner me and ask me about the relation between spirituality and music, religion and music.

He met me a few times and then I started teaching him. And that news spread all over. That did help me. When people say that George Harrison made me famous, that is true in a way.

Then what happened was that I became a pop star all of a sudden. All young people, bearded, long hair, wearing beads and not normal. They would behave like Naga sanyasis [cannabis-smoking holy men] if they were permitted. And I was not happy at all. I would tell George, ‘What have you done?’

His hatred wasn’t reserved for the Beatles. Just prior to a performance at the Montreal Pop Festival, the Who had performed and destroyed the stage. Shankar’s response was to cancel his performance due to the “obscenity” of the rock gods.

2. During the Highpoint of His Fame, Shankar Was a Guest of Gerald Ford at the White House

After being photographed with the Beatles, Shankar’s career began to take off in the west. He would perform in Europe and the U.S. with George Harrison. The son of then-U.S. President Gerald Ford, John Gardner Ford, was a fan of Shankar and invited the sitar master, along with Harrison, to the White House to meet his father.

Though in 1974, during a stop in Chicago, the tour schedule caused Shankar to suffer a heart attack. This meant that his sister-in-law, Lakshmi Shankar, took his place among a touring band of Indian musicians.

He recovered from the attack and continued to record, conduct and teach sitar around the world. In 1983, Shankar was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score for his work on Gandhi but lost out to John Williams for ET.

During his time in the west, Shankar also hugely influenced Minimalism founder Philip Glass.

3. His Affair With a New York Concert Promoter Resulted in the Birth of His Daughter Norah Jones

In 1979, Shankar, while married to dancer Kamala Shastrie, began an affair with a New York concert promoter named Sue Jones. The couple had a child, Norah, born in 1979. Shankar carried on the affair and had another child with Shastrie, Anoushka, born in 1981. Though he would finally break-up with his wife that year and moved in with Jones. That couple remained together until 1986.

Finally, in 1989, Shankar married long time friend, Sukanya Rajan, at a temple in India.

His first marriage occurred in 1941 where married Annapurna Devi and had a son, Shubhendra, born in 1942. An accomplished sitar player in his own right, he toured with his father. Sadly, Shubhendra Shankar passed away in 1992 after suffering with pneumonia.

4. Shankar Was Responsible for ‘the Great Sitar Explosion’ in Rock Music in the Late 1960s

Although the Beatles are associated with Shankar and the sitar, it was the Kinks who were credited as being the first mainstream band to use the instrument in their son “See My Friends.” That track actually used a low-tuned drone guitar, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The Byrds were quick to follow with “Eight Miles High” and “Why” in 1965 which again sounded Indian but used western instruments. The Telegraph says the Shankar and the Byrds had shared a studio in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Brian Jones used a sitar for the Rolling Stones on “Paint it Black” in 1966. The lesser known Traffic used one in 1967 on “Paper Sun” and “Hole in My Shoe.”

5. He Was a Lifelong Vegatarian

Upon Shankar’s death, he was honored with an obituary on PETA’s website. The animal rights group noted:

Compassion towards animals was a major part of Shankar’s philosophy. A lifelong vegetarian, he was proactively involved in defending the rights of animals and frequently spoke up to help end animal suffering.

His actions included appealing to the Indian government to strengthen laws protecting animals, participating in a PETA India news conference urging the Supreme Court to hold authorities accountable for failing to prevent animal suffering in the leather and meat industries, asking KFC to address its severe cruelty to chickens and appearing in this PETA India ad with his daughter Anoushka.