A S(i)tar is Gone
Pandit Ravi Shankar lives on through his music
‘Even the walls of the home used to sing’
Mumbai resident Nandini Mehta (76) has a treasure trove of memories about Pandit Ravi Shankar. She says, “Panditji used to live in our home since 1940s onwards in the earlier stages of his career. My family used to live in Tardeo, opposite the Ganga-Jamuna cinema.
My father, who used to play the sitar as a hobby, was a great fan of Panditji. He used to attend nearly all his concerts in Mumbai. He once went backstage and introduced himself. From then on, the association grew to a friendship. Panditji had mentioned that he used to find it difficult to find accommodation when in Mumbai for concerts and my father said he would be happy to host him at our home. Since then, it blossomed into a friendship that endured for more than 40-45 years!”
Mehta laughs as she recalls, “a little later in his career, Panditji would stay at the Taj in Mumbai, and actually came to our home to apologise because he no longer stayed at our place. ‘I will always be a member of this family,’ he had told us, seeing that we were a little upset. Even while living away though, he would visit us for meals, enjoying Gujarati food, especially khichdi. He would remark, ‘you Gujaratis always have to put some sweet in your food, don’t you?’ He was a dessert person though, enjoying a sweet after his meal.”
Even as news of his death has yet to fully sink in for Mehta, little things about the legend crowd her mind. “When I got engaged, he actually played the sitar for five hours at my home, along with Ali Akbarji on the sarod, in a concert for the close family. The jugalbandi was a perfect synthesis of sounds, one that has stayed with me all through these years.”
In 1972, roles were reversed and Pandit Ravi Shankar hosted Mehta and her husband at his Los Angeles home. “He had a lovely, palatial home and we were treated like royalty. I asked him, then, if he could drive and ribbed him saying, ‘I think you cannot’. He then took us out for a drive to Marina Beach in his Mercedes,” said Mehta.
By then, Pandit Ravi Shankar had garnered global attention, thanks also to his friendship with Beatle George Harrison. Mehta reminisces, “We were all going to India from New York, including Panditji and he was buying a few gifts from the Duty Free store. As soon as he signed for his purchase, the girl on the shop counter was awe-struck that this was Panditji the legend. Her boyfriend was sitting nearby and she shouted to him: come here, you idiot, don’t just sit there, look, here is Ravi Shankar! Soon, a crowd started gathering and we had to go escape to the VIP lounge!”
Mehta was witness to India’s timeless guru-shishya tradition, while Panditji was at her home. “Some students would visit him often and they were so thirsty for knowledge, they would wait at times for hours, humbly, with hands folded for Panditji to start teaching them. They would be standing and only after Panditji said so, would sit at his feet, eagerly imbibing his knowledge. Today, some of these students are very well-known musicians in their own right.”
In the end, Mehta says that she feels privileged to have known Panditji, “proud and honoured, really” even as, “my mind refuses to accept that he is no more, now.” His spirit will live on in his music, that mesmerising sound, “the sweetness of which is difficult to explain. When he was at our home, even the walls used to sing,” signs off Mehta, emotionally.
Excerpt from the book Bapi: The Love of my Life
Speaking of Bapi’s many women, I want to clarify something. Unlike many men whom I have little or no respect for, Bapi never deceived women, or gave the impression that he was something that he wasn’t. And whoever he was with, he gave himself totally to at the time, and from what I can tell, he was so wonderful to each of these women that they chose to be in the situation of being one of the many women in his life. They could have left at any time but they didn’t want to. Each one of them knew he wasn’t ready to tie himself down and they accepted that. Perhaps at a later stage, they tired of the situation and left, but the point is that he treated each one of them with love and respect when they were with him. And they all loved him so much! Even now so many of his old girlfriends are close friends; they write beautiful letters to him and meet us whenever we go to their cities. I think that is a mark of how honourable he was, that even after all these years, women from his past speak of him with affection and regard.
Kaku means Uncle in Bengali and is what my mother called Bapi when she first met him, because she had met him through his niece Viji, Lakshmi Auntie’s daughter and one of her closest friends. Perhaps that was part of the reason he did not declare his feelings towards her for five years! In 1978 they began their affair. Mommy knew she was one of the many women in his life, but loved him too much to care. ‘I wanted his child,’ she says. ‘I knew he would never marry me or acknowledge the child but I wanted to have something of his, because I knew I would never find a love like that again in my life.’ I was conceived during the Dussehra holidays, my mother tells me, and was born in 1981. Bapi kept phoning to ask about me and saw me as a three-month-old baby for the first time. Mommy went to take care of the food, and she remembers seeing Bapi rocking me and singing me to sleep.
Father or not in a day-to-day sense, I knew there was something special about him from the very beginning. His arrival in London and at our home was always the most exciting thing that could happen: everything else would stop and we would spend all our time with him. I remember him coming to my fourth birthday party with four new party dresses for me; what he doesn’t know is that I was standing by the upstairs window waiting for him all afternoon. I was too young to really understand the technicalities of whether he was my biological father, or a family friend, or anything else – so it was quite simple. I could see how much my mother loved him, and I called him Baba then, which means Father. I used to pray at nights that he would marry Mommy, because I knew how happy that would make her. Journalists are always trying to analyse my unusual childhood, but for me it really was that simple.
Courtesy: Roli Books from their book Bapi: The Love of my Life by Anoushka Shankar