Today — 7 April — marks the 96th birthday of sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar.
It therefore seems like an ideal occasion to recount some of the lesser known facets of the legend’s life; aspects such as his humane qualities as a son, father, brother and a genuine well-wisher of all his friends that were overshadowed by his personality as an artiste.
Ravi Shankar’s father, Pt Shyam Shankar was estranged from his first wife, Hemangini Devi, who felt completely alienated from her husband’s western style of living. His growing interest in another woman culminated in a second marriage. Young Ravi was a witness to these disturbing developments and he felt more at ease with his mother.
When he attained global fame as a sitar virtuoso, Ravi built a magnificent house named after his beloved mother — Hemangana Bhavan. This house saw many of Ravi Shankar’s recitals, including some by The Beatles (notably, George Harrison). I had seen Ravi Shankar beaming with pride and childlike excitement while showing friends around the house, specially mentioning his mother's name in whose memory it was built.
Pt Ravi Shankar’s love for his mother and his prolonged stay at his mamas’ house in Benares and Nasrathpur introduced simplicity in his life as he freely mixed with the villagers and spoke fluent Bhojpuri . And this continued for a long time, even after the maestro travelled abroad. He loved to visit his childhood home time and again and hold “addas” with his friends and mamas.
The Shankar siblings
Ravi Shankar had three other siblings: Uday, Rajendra (married to the famous vocalist Lakshmi Shankar), and Debendra. He held them in great respect and maintained an excellent and cordial relationship with his sisters-in-law as well. It was amazing how Ravi Shankar gave up his claim to the family’s home in Nasrathpur in favour of his immediate older brother, Debendra.
Ravi Shankar visited his brothers and their families at regular intervals, always ensuring their wellbeing. He attended his niece’s wedding at Allahabad in 1964 and himself played sitar on the occasion, regaling friends and relatives.
His down-to- earth attitude remained his forte and simplicity, his strength. Despite his iconic image and international acclaim, Ravi Shankar never allowed arrogance to come between him and others. When he was the Rajya Sabha MP and staying in 95, Lodhi Estate, he invited his brother Debendra and wife Krishna to live with him so they would have a comfortable stay. I was surprised to note the warmth and hospitality he showered on them — almost on the lines of what Krishna did for Sudama.
He also begged his sister-in-law to make the choicest Bengali cuisine he had enjoyed when his mother was alive. In reality, he was a hundred percent family man.
In his autobiography Raga Mala, he has explained the relationship between a sister-in-law and her brother-in-law. He also gives out how his sister-in-law Krishna Boudi (or Bhabhi) was instrumental in his marriage to Annapurna.
Other than his relations, Pt Ravi Shankar was immensely fond of his childhood friends and kept up relationships with them throughout his life. I had seen him in midst of his old friends (also those who were with him at the Maihar school under Ustad Alauddin Khan) recalling their glorious past. Pt Ravi Shankar often described these gatherings as “divine meetings”.
These facets apart, Panditji was extremely well informed about current affairs and global happenings. Once he asked me something about the events in Sri Lanka, which was then going through a turbulent period. I thought being a sitarist, he may not comprehend the information I shared with him, but to my utter surprise, I found that he was immensely analytical and had a thorough grip on the subject. I wondered how a person of such an eminence can take time out for current affairs! Such was the diversity of his knowledge.
Pt Ravi Shankar had a fine sense of humour and his wit was very subtle. He was a great conversationalist too! I had the rare privilege of interacting with him on many occasions within India and abroad and I was floored by his captivating conversations about music, religion, architecture, politics or people! He was a learning institution not only in music but also on matters of humanity and compassion. Very few legends of international stature can measure up to the personal qualities of the maestro — the one and only Pt Ravi Shankar.
The writer is a freelancer and this account is based on his personal association with Pt Ravi Shankar, and also from anecdotes gathered from the maestro’s relatives.