The energy, infectious smile and calm that one usually associates with the sarod maestro were missing. Despite the buzz around the release of his ode to his father Ustad Haafiz Khan, to be released in Mumbai today, it’s clear from the start of our interview that the news of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s demise had shaken Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. The glass of water was untouched, as were the jam tarts, throughout our time with the legend.
“It’s a great loss to the world and to Indian classical music. He dedicated his life towards popularising Indian music in the West. I would call him Dada — older brother. Ours was a very spiritual connect because Raviji’s guru, who was his first father-in-law — Ustad Allauddin Khan and my father, were contemporaries. My father and he shared a guru-bhai (disciple-brother) connect; they also learnt under the same teacher, Ustad Wazir Khan from Rampur.”
His voice lowers further, as he rolls back the years to the time when Panditji and Sukanya (Panditji’s wife) would meet Subhalakshmi and myself, socially. “It was Sukanya who brought the two families closer. We would meet often for family dinners. Sukanya would call my wife akka (older sister); she admired her Bharatnatyam style, immensely. Sukanya and her daughter, Anoushka took great care of Dada,” he recalls. He flips through the pages of his book, My Father, Our Fraternity to show us a few sepia-tinted photographs along with Panditji and other stalwarts from Indian classical music, from the 1960s and 70s. It’s clear that both legends respected each other’s music and their passions, tremendously. Both would attend each other’s festivals and performances too. “It was an honour to have Dada at my concerts, be it the UK, New York or New Delhi,” he says.
Pandit Ravi Shankar had started an institution in Varanasi where, for a few years, a weeklong annual music festival was organised. Here, many stalwarts would perform live. Known as RIMPA (Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts), the Ustad shares with us of the time when he performed at the festival. “It was a memorable concert, with so many greats in the audience, including Bismillah Khan Saheb.” Both spoke occasionally, and when one of their contemporaries would pass away. “In 2008, after tabla legend Pandit Kishan Maharaj’s demise, he telephoned me from the US; we reminisced of his contribution to Indian classical music.”
The last meeting between Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan was in 2010. “I was performing along with the Scottish Chamber at Delhi’s Siri Fort auditorium. I recall a lovely gesture on Dada’s part. After my performance, as is the tradition with artistes the world over, he waited in the green room, to congratulate me. It was a really long wait, mind you. Yet, he stayed on, patiently, along with Sukanya until I stepped out. Such was his humility. And when we met, he hugged me. I was so touched.”
And perhaps, best summarising an epitaph for the music icon, Ustadji leaves us with this gem: “The sitar means Pandit Ravi Shankar and Pandit Ravi Shankar means the sitar.”