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Ravi Shankar is Dead; Sitar Player Influenced the Beatles (and Steely Dan)

A photo of Ravi Shankar playing the sitar in a gold silk shirt on a big bench

Ravi Shankar in 2009. Photo: Carrie Devorah / WENN

Ravi Shankar is dead.

The world’s most famous sitar player died yesterday at age 92 near his home in San Diego. He had heart surgery last week, according to a note from his wife Sukanya and daughter Anoushka on his official site:

As you all know, his health has been fragile for the past several years and on Thursday he underwent a surgery that could have potentially given him a new lease of life. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the surgeons and doctors taking care of him, his body was not able to withstand the strain of the surgery. We were at his side when he passed away.
Another daughter, musician Norah Jones, wasn’t mentioned in the statement.
Ravi Shankar “brought Eastern music to Western legends,”NPR says. The sitar has six main strings, but with many more strings underneath that produce a mysterious resonance as the main strings are played.
A photo of Ravi Shankar looking boldly at the camera with a sitar angled up in his lap

Ravi Shankar about 1956. Photo supplied by WENN

Ravi Shankar began playing the sitar as a teen in the 1930s. But he was little-known in the west until George Harrison of The Beatles became a famous disciple. That got started when The Beatles were filming their comical movie Help!

“We were waiting to shoot the scene in the restaurant when the guy gets thrown in the soup and there were a few Indian musicians playing in the background. I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, ‘This is a funny sound.’ It was an incidental thing, but somewhere down the line I began to hear Ravi Shankar’s name. The third time I heard it, I thought, ‘This is an odd coincidence.’

And then I talked with David Crosby of The Byrds and he mentioned the name. I went and bought a Ravi record; I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can’t explain, but it seemed very familiar to me. The only way I could describe it was: my intellect didn’t know what was going on and yet this other part of me identified with it. It just called on me… a few months elapsed and then I met this guy from the Asian Music Circle organisation who said, ‘Oh, Ravi Shankar’s gonna come to my house for dinner. Do you want to come too?'”

George Harrison played a sitar in the 1965 single Norwegian Wood, and began studying with Shankar in 1966. It all led to the Beatles’ mind-bending Indian era and it made Shankar a worldwide celebrity.
Which led to odd photos like these:
Billy Preston has a wonderfully HUGE afro, Harrison long hair and mustache, Ford looks presidential, Ravi Shankar is just barely visible

Official White House photo by David Hume Kennerly

Yes, that’s Ravi Shankar (far right) with George Harrison (center), keyboardist Billy Preston (left) and President Gerald Ford at the White House in 1974.

It also led to the electric sitar solo by Denny Dias in Steely Dan’s 1972 tune “Do It Again,” which can be heard as either a legitimately hot and deeply thoughtful solo or a wry goof on the hippie power of the sitar.

Speaking of which, here’s Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees can be seen grooving blissfully near the end, at about the 4:22 mark.

Ravi Shankar stayed vital to the end. He performed in November with his daughter Anoushka, also a world-class sitarist. And if you want to hear an 85-year-old man charm the socks off a younger woman, listen to this 2005 radio interview with NPR’s Susan Stamberg (starting at about the 3:00 mark), with wily old Shankar pretending not to understand the term “pillow talk.”

Flirting and playing right up to the end — not a bad way to go.

Side note: We were wondering why he is often called Pandit Ravi Shankar. It turns out that “Pandit” is an Indian word for an esteemed scholar or expert. And it is the root of our modern term “pundit.”

Now see our full Ravi Shankar biography »

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