Now he is back, preparing to appear at the Womad festival as part of a 16-week tour, but, at 77, pacing his life more carefully after undergoing a quadruple heart bypass.
He lives most of the year now in a glorious home near San Diego, with his wife Sukanya and their 16-year-old daughter Anoushka. He has always been a beautiful man, though now he is frail, his thick black locks have thinned and greyed, his cheeks have sunk, though his jawline is still strong. He talks animatedly and gestures gracefully with his hands and arms, his movements are measured and he is certainly not decrepit.
He turns down more concerts than he feels able to carry out, but the work load is still heavy. He has a new album, Chants of India, coming out at the beginning of September, and comprising his own original compositions based upon the traditional chants and ancient prayers and mantras of his homeland. Produced by ex-Beatle George Harrison, and commissioned by Steve Murphy of Angel Records - the company that brought you the multi-million- selling album of Gregorian chant by the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos - it aims to do for Indian chant what the Spanish Benedictines did for liturgical plainsong. He also has an autobiography, Raga Mala, coming out this autumn in a limited edition, complete with accompanying two-CD set.
He may be trying to pace his life better in order to preserve it, but it still sounds as if he's got a lot left that he wants to squeeze in. Does he think about death? "Now more so, because I am getting nearer to it. But for many years I never thought of it. It is one of those things that is bound to happen to everyone.
"I have no fear of death at all," he continues, "excepting that, like everyone else, I guess, I don't want to suffer physically. I would like to keep it at bay for a while because of her," he gestures to his daughter Anoushka, sitting by his side, "and to some extent because of certain unfinished things that I feel I would like to complete." Among those are having Chants of India performed live, composing a few more ballets and operas based on Indian mythology, and passing on the mantle of sitar maestro to Anoushka.
Shankar has released more than 65 albums but feels that Chants of India is "one of the most meaningful things I have done". It's also one of the most unusual because, except for some strumming, there is hardly any sitar on it. There is, though, a choir of 12 or 15 voices, and a musical backdrop made up of traditional Indian and a few Western instruments. The result, the Indian equivalent of Western plainsong, is subtle and spiritual; it has a calming quality. Shankar finds music more spiritually rewarding than he does religious ritual. He is reluctant to talk about it but admits to having had mystical experiences in the course of creating Chants of India.
Has he ever gone into a trance-like state? "I consider all this very personal but, as you ask, I can tell you that I have - more through my music, when I am performing, than when I am sitting and meditating."
Is he holy? "Very unholy."
Then he retracts. "No, no. I think I am in the middle path, but slightly tilted towards the holy feelings at least. Being in this world, witnessing everything, it is very difficult to feel holy constantly. I am very much a see-saw, I go from one extreme to the other. Sometimes worldly and sometimes I feel `What's the use of all this?' Very extreme feelings."
Unlike too many supposedly pious people, he admits to his failings. That only enhances the aura of spirituality that surrounds him. As India's greatest ambassador of culture through the mystical power of the sitar, he has sought to spread the message of his music despite maulings from "so-called cultured people who have positions and talk of tradition not knowing anything about it."
His association with George Harrison, who incorporated the sitar and raga rhythms and melodies into his song-writing for The Beatles, was the catalyst for Shankar's burst of Sixties super-stardom (although he had already enjoyed a successful career in the West, including collaborations and friendship with Yehudi Menuhin). The relationship with Harrison has endured and, except for a period of severance in the Seventies, deepened..
"George, since the day I met him, was a very introverted and very spiritual person. He was a young boy then and very superficial, with a very child- like groping. Now he is very mature. He has studied and has such a deep love for our old culture, the Vedic culture especially."
Their collaborations have included the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, the first major fund-raising rock concert. Harrison co-produced the four- CD box set In Celebration to celebrate Shankar's 75th birthday and also edited Shankar's autobiography, as well as enthusiastically embracing production on Chants of India, which was recorded partly in India, partly at Harrison's country home.
"We have become so close really. It's a beautiful relationship - like a father / son, guru / disciple - and we laugh and have fun so much together."
The guru / disciple roles are reversed, however, whenever they go into the recording studio. "When we were mixing the sound, I let him lead because that is something which he has so much experience in, but composition- wise I made all the decisions. In fact it was my idea to utilise him, though not in a major way, just as part of the chorus, using some strums of the acoustic guitar or just a few notes on the vibraphone or auto harp."
Shankar would like to see Chants of India performed live, although neither he nor Harrison would be among its performers, much as Harrison would like to be. "There comes the catch. If it is George, then the attraction becomes George Harrison being there, and it loses its whole approach. George doesn't want to exploit that. It's not fair to him either as such a famous musician and neither is it fair to the production."
Shankar has been comfortable in the role of guru and father. His early experiences of the loss of his own father made him more detached than he feels he should have been. His father Pandit Dr Shyam Shankar, a once- wealthy landowner, left his family in poverty in India to come to the West, where he studied at the bar in London, taught Indian philosophy at Columbia University, and eventually became a member of the Privy Council.
For years Ravi had a low opinion of his father, although they eventually became reconciled. "I connected later on and maybe spent a few weeks with him. I really found him not to be the person that I thought he was. I didn't have a very good opinion about him, but the whole world respected him, he was such a learned person, wise person, a good person."
"He was a very detached person. He was many things but never took anything for a long time and never made any money."
Shankar's surrogate father was his sitar guru, Baba Allauddin Khan. "I found my father actually in my guru, he gave me that love when I went to him and met him." He married his guru's daughter Annapurna Devi and they had one son, Shubhendra, who died in his forties leaving two children.
The detachment inherited from Ravi Shankar's father stayed with him. "I am sorry to say I am very detached in that way. I mean I have all the love, but I have never been able to be like a normal person because from very early childhood I have been a nomad - travelling and hotel rooms have been like my home. Only in the last few years I am feeling those things that I lost."
The transformation has come about through the love of his wife Sukanya, 35 years his junior, and Anoushka. He is making up for the time he failed to spend with Anoushka in her first seven years after she was born and brought up alone by Sukanya in London's Willesden Green. Sukanya was in a previous marriage when she met Ravi Shankar and became his mistress. Their affair was revealed by an Indian magazine under the headline "How love conquered lust"!
They moved in together and married when Anoushka was eight and a half, moving to India for two years, then back to London for a year, before settling in California for his health. Anoushka has now become a bit of a California girl - at least her accent has, though she has agreed not to have any boyfriends until she is 17 or 18, only going out with boys in groups. You can see the devotion to her father in her eyes.
"I am working very hard with her. I wish she could work as hard as I want her to, but you know how difficult it is for a kid of 16, going to school and being a teenager, and she's also doing piano, Western music, so, poor thing, I feel sorry for her, because it's really very much strain on her and she's now touring with me. Being a teenager and being in California is very very difficult. But we have tried to maintain a balance and she is a very wise girl and I have tremendous admiration for her."
Ravi Shankar appears this Friday at the Womad Festival, Reading. Booking: 01225 74449Reuse content