I vividly remember my first interview with Pandit Ravi Shankar, for this newspaper back in 1997. I was a bundle of nerves before entering the Napean Sea Road guesthouse where he stayed, but 10 minutes later, he put me completely at ease with his warmth and wit.
Raviji was a unique personality, no doubt. He would do anything to convince you about the beauty and power of Indian classical music. The world knows him as a sitar genius and as India’s biggest musical ambassador, a role he played with total dedication and passion. He defined the 20th century global musician — intense, innovative, and immaculate.
Today, on hearing the sad news of his demise, one can look back and nostalgically recollect his numerous contributions and achievements. Each raga he played developed its own personality, whether it was Maanj Khamaj, Puriya Dhanashri, Hem Bihag, Hameer Kalyani, Pancham se Gara, Mishra Piloo, Bhimpalasi, Sindhu Bhairavi, Kirwani or Charukeshi, to name a few. Whether it was a solo recital, or a jugalbandi with sarod monarch Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the Ravi Shankar sitar had its own charisma, its own language.
Serious followers of the genre have often debated about who was better on sitar — the legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan or Pandit Ravi Shankar. The truth was that both played different styles, were true to their schools and brilliant with their music. Pandit Ravi Shankar represented the Maihar gharana, and studied under the great Baba Allauddin Khan. With experience, however, his quest to explore newer musical territories, his frequent travels abroad and his friendship with western musicians like George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin led to remarkable work, some of which was actually criticised by purists.
Let’s look at some of his innovations. To begin with, Raviji incorporated Carnatic ragas and rhythms into Hindustani music, giving them a distinct texture. Secondly, he collaborated with Menuhin, composers Philip Glass and Andre Previn, cellist Msitslav Rostropovich, saxophonist-flautist Bud Shank and flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal on historic experiments. He also composed two marvellous sitar concertos, in a move to attract followers of Western symphonic music. All this was besides his role as a teacher.
For a tabla player, it was always an honour to accompany Raviji. His sessions with the maestro Ustad Allarakha are well-known, and other artistes to play with him include Chatur Lal, Kanai Dutt, Kishan Maharaj, Samta Prasad, Zakir Hussain, Swapan Chaudhuri, Bickram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose. Besides the often-used ektaal, teentaal, jhaptaal, rupak, keherwa and dadra, his fondness of unusual rhythmic cycles like 8 ½, 11 ½ or 14 beats lent variety.
Though his hectic concert schedule may have prevented him from spending too much time on film music, we all remember his work in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Anuradha’ and Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’. He also composed devotional tunes like ‘I am missing you’ and ‘Kahan gayelava shyam salone’, besides releasing the landmark album ‘Chants of India’.
I was lucky to have interacted with Raviji on five occasions, once coincidentally, on the day Menuhin passed away on March 12, 1999. The best thing was that he was so accessible, humble and friendly. In all cases, he was accompanied by his wife Sukanya and daughter Anoushka. Once, I had carried one of his CDs, which Sukanya discovered was an old recording repackaged by the record label without his knowledge.
She requested Raviji not to sign. He responded: “It’s not his fault, why should he suffer? As long as the company has put some sitar on this CD and not another instrument, I am fine.” He autographed it with a smile and childlike glow that’s impossible to forget.
Thank you, Raviji, for your immortal music.