In 1968, the celebrated Indian musician Ravi Shankar performed for six days in Manhattan, bringing his virtuosity on the sitar to a New York audience. That year, this magazine’s reviewer wrote that the sheen of celebrity that the musician’s association with The Beatles had created was starting to fade. In hindsight, that assessment is debatable; Shankar went on to perform at Woodstock and a globally influential career. What was never in question was the musician’s uncanny gift for forging connections with audiences and music lovers around the world. “It is utter joy, uninhibited, that an artist experiences,” Shankar told TIME, describing the transcendence of performing. “The raga, the musician, the listeners, all become one.”
More than forty years later, Ravi Shankar, who died on Dec. 11 in southern California at the age 92, after failing to fully recover from surgery, is still one of the most powerful and lasting influences in music today. Throughout his long career, Shankar granted international audiences access to millennia-old Indian musical traditions, through his performances and recordings, and by collaborating with a diverse group of high-profile musicians like George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin, John Coltrane and Philip Glass. “When we talk about crossover music, or bringing our musical knowledge to other parts of the world, it was just him,” says Indian musician and composer Shankar Mahadevan. “His contribution is immense, and cannot be described in a few words.”
But people tried to do just that. Remembrances flooded Twitter and news sites Wednesday morning as word of the passing of Pandit Ravi Shankar, as he is respectfully referred to in India, reached his homeland. Shankar had undergone heart valve replacement surgery last week, after suffering from long-term respiratory and heart problems. India’s parliament members took a break from their squabbling to stand and pay a silent tribute to the musician, who served as a nominated member of the upper house from 1986 to 1992. “It was difficult, often, to judge what was more remarkable – the man or his music,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who worked with Shankar during that time, said in a statement. “The nation was fortunate not only to be able to enjoy his music, but also to have him as one of its most effective cultural ambassadors across the world.”
Shankar was born in 1920 in Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities and one of the holiest places in India. He began his career as a performer in his brother’s Indian dance troupe, and later picked up the sitar and other classical music instruments. After living in Paris with his family, Shankar returned to India to dedicate himself to the study of the sitar, where he apprenticed under sitar great Ustad Allauddin Khan, and, eventually became famous himself as a musician and composer in India. “He first achieved the pinnacle of popularity among Indian audiences and his peers, then he went abroad where he educated the western audience on Indian music,” says Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, an esteemed santoor player who was close to Shankar. “He was a thinking musician. He never diluted his music … Such musicians are not created merely through practice or dedication, but somehow through a higher divine power.”
In the 1960s, Shankar took that charisma to the West, where he worked with musicians as diverse as John Coltrane and Yehudi Menuhin, and at venues as divergent as Woodstock and the United Nations General Assembly. Performing and recording tirelessly for decades, Shankar earned the criticism of some more traditionally-minded musicians at home, as he experimented with different genres and composed music for films such as Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, and also ballets. He also earned over a dozen honorary doctorates and two Grammy’s, among many other awards. George Harrison once called him the “Godfather of World Music.” In 1999, Shankar was given the highest civilian award in India, the Bharat Ratna, also known as the Jewel of India, while Britain made him an honorary Knight.
Shankar leaves behind his second wife, Sukanya Shankar, and two daughters, sitarist Anoushka Shankar and singer-songwriter Norah Jones, both of whom have successful music careers of their own. “[Shankar] was a symbol of Indian tradition, culture and our past heritage of 3000 years,” says Sharma. “His legacy will continue in his compositions which future generations will continue to listen to and be inspired.”
With reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick / New Delhi