Ravi Shankar KBE, whose name is often preceded by the title Pandit and “Sitar maestro”, was an Indian musician and a composer of Hindustani classical music. He was the best-known proponent of the sitar in the second half of the 20th century and influenced many other musicians throughout the world. Shankar was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999.
Shankar was born to a Bengali Brahmin family in India,and spent his youth as a dancer touring India and Europe with the dance group of his brother Uday Shankar. He gave up dancing in 1938 to study sitar playing under court musician Allauddin Khan. After finishing his studies in 1944, Shankar worked as a composer, creating the music for the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray, and was music director of All India Radio, New Delhi, from 1949 to 1956.
In 1956, Shankar began to tour Europe and the Americas playing Indian classical music and increased its popularity there in the 1960s through teaching, performance, and his association with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Beatles guitarist George Harrison. His influence on the latter helped popularize the use of Indian instruments in pop music in the latter half of the 1960s. Shankar engaged Western music by writing compositions for sitar and orchestra, and toured the world in the 1970s and 1980s. From 1986 to 1992, he served as a nominated member of Rajya Sabha, the upper chamber of the Parliament of India. He continued to perform until the end of his life.
Shankar was born on 7 April 1920 in Benares, then the capital of the eponymous princely state, in a Bengali family, as the youngest of seven brothers. His father, Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, was a Middle Temple barrister and scholar from East Bengal (now Bangladesh). A respected statesman, lawyer and politician, he served for several years as dewan (Prime minister) of Jhalawar, Rajasthan, and used the Sanskrit spelling of the family name and removed its last part. Shyam was married to Hemangini Devi who hailed from a small village named Nasrathpur in Mardah block of Ghazipur district, near Benares and her father was a prosperous landlord. Shyam later worked as a lawyer in London, England, and there he married a second time while Devi raised Shankar in Benares, and did not meet his son until he was eight years old. Shankar shortened the Sanskrit version of his first name, Ravindra, to Ravi, for “sun”. Shankar had five siblings: Uday (who became a famous choreographer and dancer), Rajendra, Debendra and Bhupendra. Shankar attended the Bengalitola High School in Benares between 1927 and 1928.
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