SAN DIEGO — With an instrument perplexing to most Westerners, Ravi Shankar helped connect the world through music. The sitar virtuoso hobnobbed with the Beatles, became a hippie musical icon and spearheaded the first rock benefit concert as he introduced traditional Indian ragas to Western audiences over a nearly century-long career.
From George Harrison to John Coltrane, from Yehudi Menuhin to David Crosby, his connections reflected music's universality, though a gap persisted between Shankar and many Western fans. Sometimes they mistook tuning for tunes, while he stood aghast at displays like Jimi Hendrix's burning guitar.
Shankar died Tuesday at age 92. A statement on his 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 Shankar's death and called him a "national treasure."
Labeled "the godfather of world music" by Harrison, Shankar helped millions of classical, jazz and rock lovers discover the centuries-old traditions of Indian music.
"He was legend of legends," Shivkumar Sharma, a noted santoor player who performed with Shankar, told Indian media. "Indian classical was not at all known in the Western world. He was the musician who had that training ... the ability to communicate with the Western audience."
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, California; 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.
"It's one of the biggest losses for the music world," said Kartic Seshadri, a Shankar protege, sitar virtuoso and music professor at the University of California, San Diego. "There's nothing more to be said."
As early as the 1950s, Shankar began collaborating with and teaching some of the greats of Western music, including violinist Menuhin and jazz saxophonist 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.