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India Sitar Legend Ravi Shankar Dies

George Harrison Ravi Shankar - H 1970
Getty
George Harrison with Ravi Shankar in 1970

A musical icon from the 1960s, he combined with his most famous pupil, George Harrison, to bring Indian music to the Western world.

Ravi Shankar, a master of the sitar who brought the music of India to the Western world in the 1960s aided by a mystical collaboration with George Harrison, has died. He was 92.

Shankar died Tuesday at Scripps Memorial Hospital outside San Diego. He had a home in nearby Encinitas. His website said that Shankar was suffering from upper-respiratory and heart issues during the past year and had undergone heart-valve replacement surgery last week.

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Harrison met Shankar in London in 1966 and visited India for six weeks to study sitar under him. A year later, Shankar performed a four-hour set at the Monterey Pop Festival and two years later played opening day at Woodstock.

Harrison organized the charity Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York in August 1971, in which Shankar participated, and the two toured and recorded an album later in the decade. The spiritual Harrison once called Shankar "the godfather of world music."

On Wednesday, the Recording Academy announced that Shankar is one of this year's seven recipients of its Lifetime Achievement Award. On Dec. 5, the  musician and his sitar-playing daughter Anoushka (the wife of Atonement director Joe Wright) were each nominated for Grammy Awards in the world music category. Another daughter is the American singer-songwriter Norah Jones.

In New Delhi, the Indian prime minister's office confirmed Shankar's death and called him a “national treasure.”

Shankar also collaborated with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane as he worked to bridge the musical gap between the West and East. 

The Byrds heard Shankar's music when they shared a recording studio, and the group introduced Indian classical music to The Beatles. Harrison used a sitar to record the song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," but he sought out Shankar, already an 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. 

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Gaining confidence with the complex instrument, Harrison recorded the Indian-inspired song “Within You Without You” for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from 1967, helping spark the raga-rock phase of '60s music and drawing increasing attention to Shankar and his work. 

Some of the era's biggest bands also incorporated the raga sound into songs, including The Rolling Stones ("Paint It, Black") and The Kinks ("Fancy," "See My Friends"). So did two of 1967's biggest one-hit wonders: The Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine" and Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)."

Shankar's popularity exploded, and he soon found himself playing on bills with some of rock's top musicians of the era.  

The sitar became a touchstone of the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene. Although 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. 

“I was shocked to see people dressing so flamboyantly,” Shankar told Rolling Stone of the Monterey festival. "They were all stoned. To me, it was a new world."

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 the Garden that included Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr

The Concerts for Bangladesh, which spawned a chart-topping triple album and a film, raised millions of dollars for UNICEF and inspired other rock benefits, including the 1985 Live Aid concerts.

Shankar's final performance came Nov. 4 in Long Beach, Calif.

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Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury was born April 7, 1920, in the Indian city of Varanasi. 

At age 10, he moved to Paris to join the world-famous dance troupe of his brother Uday. During the next eight years, Shankar traveled with the troupe across Europe, America and Asia; he later credited his early immersion in foreign cultures with making him such an effective ambassador for Indian music. 

During one tour, renowned musician Baba Allaudin Khan joined the troupe, took Shankar under his wing and eventually became his teacher through 7 1/2 years of isolated, rigorous study of the sitar. 

In the 1950s, Shankar began gaining fame throughout India. He held the influential position of music director for All India Radio in New Delhi and wrote the scores for several popular films. He began writing compositions for orchestras, blending clarinets and other foreign instruments into traditional Indian music. 

And he became a de facto tutor for Westerners fascinated by India's musical traditions. 

He gave lessons to Coltrane, who named his son Ravi in Shankar's honor, and became close friends with Menuhin, recording the acclaimed 1967 album West Meets East with the American violinist. He also collaborated with flutist Jean Pierre Rampal, composer Philip Glass and conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta

“Any player on any instrument with any ears would be deeply moved by Ravi Shankar,” Byrds singer David Crosby said in the book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi. "If you love music, it would be impossible not to be."

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Shankar's personal life, however, was more complex. 

His 1941 marriage to Baba Allaudin Khan's daughter, Annapurna Devi, ended in divorce. Although he had a decades-long relationship with dancer Kamala Shastri that ended in 1981, he had relationships with several other women in the 1970s. 

In 1979, he fathered Jones with New York concert promoter Sue Jones, and in 1981, Sukanya Rajan -- who played the tanpura at his concerts -- gave birth to his daughter Anoushka. 

He grew estranged from Sue Jones in the '80s and didn't see Norah for a decade, though they later re-established contact.

He married Rajan in 1989 and trained Anoushka as his heir on the sitar. In recent years, father and daughter toured the world together.

Shankar won three Grammys and was nominated for an Oscar in 1983 for his score for the best picture winner Gandhi.

"We know that you all feel our loss with us, and we thank you for all of your prayers and good wishes through this difficult time," his family said in a statement. "Although it is a time for sorrow and sadness, it is also a time for all of us to give thanks and to be grateful that we were able to have him as a part of our lives. His spirit and his legacy will live on forever in our hearts and in his music."

Survivors also include three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.