At the age of 10, he moved to Paris to join the world famous dance troupe of his brother Uday. Over the next eight years, Shankar traveled with the troupe across Europe, America and Asia, and 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.
"Khan told me you have to leave everything else and do one thing properly," Shankar told The Associated Press.
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 "West Meets East" album with him. 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. If you love music, it would be impossible not to be," singer David Crosby, whose band The Byrds was inspired by Shankar's music, said in the book "The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi."
Shankar's personal life, however, was more complex.
His 1941 marriage to Baba Allaudin Khan's daughter, Annapurna Devi, ended in divorce. Though 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 Norah 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 young Anoushka as his heir on the sitar. In recent years, father and daughter toured the world together.
When Jones shot to stardom and won five Grammy awards in 2003, Anoushka Shankar was nominated for a Grammy of her own.
Shankar, himself, has won three Grammy awards and was nominated for an Oscar for his musical score for the movie "Gandhi."
Despite his fame, numerous albums and decades of world tours, Shankar's music remained a riddle to many Western ears.
Shankar was amused after he and colleague Ustad Ali Akbar Khan were greeted with admiring applause when they opened the Concert for Bangladesh by twanging their sitar and sarod for a minute and a half.
"If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more," he told the confused crowd, and then launched into his set.