NEW DELHI – Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso who became a hippie musical icon of the 1960s after hobnobbing with the Beatles and who introduced traditional Indian ragas to Western audiences, died Tuesday. He was 92.
A statement on the musician’s website said he died in San Diego, near his Southern California home. The musician’s foundation issued a statement saying that he had suffered upper respiratory and heart problems and had undergone heart-valve replacement surgery last week.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also confirmed his death and called Shankar a “national treasure.”
Labeled “the godfather of world music” by George Harrison, Shankar helped millions of classical, jazz and rock lovers discover the centuries-old traditions of Indian music.
He also pioneered the concept of the rock benefit with the 1971 Concert For Bangladesh. To later generations, he was known as the estranged father of popular American singer Norah Jones.
His last musical performance was with his other daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar Wright, on Nov. 4 in Long Beach, Calif.; his foundation said it was to celebrate his 10th decade of creating music. The multiple Grammy winner learned that he had again been nominated for the award the night before his surgery.
As early as the 1950s, Shankar began collaborating with and teaching some of the greats of Western music, including violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. He played well-received shows in concert halls in Europe and the United States, but faced a constant struggle to bridge the musical gap between the West and the East.
His close relationship with Harrison, the Beatles’ lead guitarist, shot Shankar to global stardom in the 1960s.
Harrison had grown fascinated with the sitar, a long-necked, string instrument that uses a bulbous gourd for its resonating chamber and resembles a giant lute. He played the instrument, with a Western tuning, on the song “Norwegian Wood,” but soon sought out Shankar, already a musical icon in India, to teach him to play it properly.
The pair spent weeks together, starting the lessons at Harrison’s house in England and then moving to a houseboat in Kashmir and later to California.
Gaining confidence with the complex instrument, Harrison recorded the Indian-inspired song “Within You Without You” on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” helping spark the raga-rock phase of ’60s music and drawing increasing attention to Shankar and his work.
Shankar’s popularity exploded, and he soon found himself playing on bills with some of the top rock musicians of the era. He played a four-hour set at the Monterey Pop Festival and the opening day of Woodstock.
Though the audience for his music had hugely expanded, Shankar, a serious, disciplined traditionalist who had played Carnegie Hall, chafed against the drug use and rebelliousness of the hippie culture.
In 1971, moved by the plight of millions of refugees fleeing into India to escape the war in Bangladesh, Shankar reached out to Harrison to see what they could do to help.
In what Shankar later described as “one of the most moving and intense musical experiences of the century,” the pair organized two benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden that included Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr.
The concert, which spawned an album and a film, raised millions of dollars for UNICEF and inspired other rock benefits.