RAVI SHANKAR (7 April 1920 – 11 December 2012)

T.K. Raghunathan (Kabir Cultural Center, Montreal)


“I still remember the first time I saw him. He was coming down the stairs, he was so handsome and godlike that I was just frozen to the spot.” – Sukanya Rajan, Wife as told to Kavita Chhibber


There have been greater musicians before him and arguably during his time as well. Fruitless discussions have been held as to who was the greatest Sitar player of the 20th century, this among the connoisseurs and the ignorant of Indian music. But when it comes to the question of the greatest ambassador of Indian music in the western world, Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso, stands all alone, very much true to his name Ravi, like the sun that outshone all other stars, which rose in the east (Varanasi in India) and set finally in the west (San Diego, California) at the age of 92. Over eight decades, that sun shone brightly enough to illuminate and warm up millions of hearts, both in his native India and the adopted west. He won innumerable awards and honours including India’s highest, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India).


Ravi Shankar, a powerful combination of glamour and substance, was born to a family of Bengali Brahmins from Jessore, now in Bangladesh. His father, Dr. Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, was a Sanskrit scholar and dewan of Jhalawar, in the north-west of India, who later went to London to practise law, married a British lady, taught at Columbia University and became a member of the Privy Council. Ravi’s elder brother Uday, a legendary dancer, acquired fame long before Ravi. Of Uday, James Joyce, the Irish writer said “He moves on the stage floor like some divine being…believe me, there are still some beautiful things left in this poor old world”.


Iconoclasm and the daring to combine tradition with modernity were common traits in the family. At the age of ten, Ravi Shankar went to Paris to join Uday’s dance troupe. Besides being a good dancer, he displayed a great talent for various musical instruments. For two years, he led the life of a French schoolboy and became fluent in French. This was the Paris of the 1930s, glamorous and cosmopolitan, intellectual and hedonistic. The cultural scene was nothing less than intoxicating with the likes of Andres Segovia, Pablo Casals and Chaliapin becoming acquaintances and friends. But Ravi was hurt when European musicians expressed appreciation for Indian music only when it accompanied dance and not on its own. They could not tell ‘when it started and when it finished’. That must have been the time when Ravi Shankar took upon himself the future role of a supreme interpreter of Indian music to the western audience.


It was the good fortune of Ravi that in Paris he met Baba Allauddin Khan. While everyone
fawned over Ravi, who by then was ‘very spoilt by the glamour and glitz of Paris’, Baba frankly told Ravi that he was ‘going nowhere, doing nothing’. When Ravi asked Baba to teach him Indian music, Baba told him it could be done only in Baba’s native village of Maihar in central India. So, just like that, the young disciple gave up everything he had in the west and transported himself


and his single suitcase to the tiny, dusty village, there to serve and learn at the feet of his legendary master. For six years, he learnt and practised music for up to eighteen hours a day. For the six decades and more that followed, he kept up the rigorous daily practice. When he was ill in his eighties and under treatment, he asked his doctor for permission to practise on Sitar. When the sceptical doctor naively asked whether someone like Ravi Shankar needs to practise, Ravi replied, “Without six hours of practice every day, I am nothing!” Such was his rigour, such was his modesty!


While in Maihar, Ravi Shankar learnt sitar and surbahar and the techniques of rudra veena, rubab and sursingar. All this time he was in the company of Ali Akbar Khan, Baba Allauddin Khan’s own son and Annapurna Devi, his daughter, both of them turning out to be musicians of exceptional calibre. Ravi married Annapurna in 1941 and had a son Shubhendra in 1942. Destiny bestowed a great gift on India in the combination of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan whenever they performed a duet. Ravi Shankar’s debut performance in 1939 was a jugalbandi with Ali Akbar Khan, with Ravi playing the sitar and Ali Akbar Khan playing the sarod. Shiv Kumar Sharma, the great Santoor maestro, has said that Indian music attained its greatest heights when Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan performed together. Unfortunately, they drifted apart from each other in later years, while at the same time enriching Indian music like no others did in their own individual ways.


Ravi Shankar completed his training in 1944 and moved to Bombay to join Indian People’s Theatre Association. He worked as a music director at All India Radio, New Delhi between 1949 and 1956, where he founded the Indian National Orchestra. He composed music for many films and collaborated with India’s most illustrious film maker, another Bengali, Satyajit Ray, in the fifties. Though Ravi’s music for the Apu Trilogy was of very high quality, Satyajit Ray felt that, while as a writer of music for ballet and stage Ravi was unique, ‘film music was something else!’ Ravi himself acknowledged that he did not stay with Ray for possible editing and improvement as he felt that his first shot was his best shot. He also composed music, along with George Fenton for Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’.


In Ravi Shankar’s own words, his mission was to ‘have Indian music understood and popularized’ across the world. Yehudi Menuhin, the famous American violinist and conductor, visited India in 1952 and later invited Ravi to perform in New York City. As Ravi could not go, he recommended Ali Akbar Khan, who thus became the first major Indian musician to perform in the west. Ravi however resigned from AIR in 1956 and undertook tours to the U.S., U.K. and Germany. There began his mission of educating the west on Indian music. A series of collaborations ensued, with the likes of Jean Pierre Rampal, John Coltrane and Philip Glass, but none as historic as the one with George Harrison, the famous Beatle. George came over to India to learn sitar from Ravi and became a devoted student and a dear friend. The ‘Beatlemania’ of those years and George’s association with Sitar suddenly catapulted Ravi Shankar’s music to unprecedented recognition in the west and led to more collaborations.


Generations will remember Ravi Shankar’s monumental efforts which resulted in the ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ which George helped organize for the benefit of a nation about to be born. Ravi’s openness to experiment and his desire to interpret Indian music to the west, if necessary by shortening his performances, fuelled criticisms in India, most of them ill-founded. Hurt by such allegations, Ravi took the trouble of playing a raga for five hours in some concerts when back in India, just to convince his critics that he was still playing traditional Indian music.


While Ravi Shankar’s music was magnificent, his personal charisma was irresistible. Innumerable women were attracted to him after his marriage with Annapurna broke up and a few, such as Kamala Shastri, the dancer and Sue Jones, the American concert producer, had significant relationships with him. With Sue he had a daughter Norah Jones, who became a famous singer herself. After many tumultuous relationships, Ravi finally settled down in California with Sukanya, his tanpura player, with whom he had Anoushka. Sukanya brought great stability to his life and was instrumental in ensuring that Ravi Shankar lived for so long. As for Ravi, he continued teaching, interpreting and performing his music to the very last days of his life and, more significantly, found the time to pass on the torch to his talented daughter Anoushka, thus softening somewhat the impact of his departure.

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