by Vishnu Vasudev
Ravi Shankar has passed away. He will of course be best remembered as one of the first and longest lasting global rock stars of Indian classical music – if the world knows what a sitar is, if the strains of the sitar are used in pop culture to suggest eastern mysticism, it is likely due to Ravi Shankar. Indians love to talk about our civilizational strengths – our architectures, our music, our philosophies, the invention of zero. Ravi Shankar showed the world what we were talking about – tangibly, viscerally, with flair and in stereo. India’s “soft power”, was launched (or relaunched in the post-war era) by a small cohort led spectacularly by Ravi Shankar.
In my family, the loss is felt more personally. Growing up, I rarely heard anything of my parents’ heroes. I had no idea who they looked up to. One exception was Ravi Shankar, who was clearly a rock star. Of all our LPs, pride of place and number were reserved for Ravi Shankar.
My father claimed that Ravi Shankar is the reason he became a “rasika” of raga music, to try and understand what he was listening and reacting to, rather than simply enjoying the notes. This was because in Madras, despite its decades of music festivals, Ravi Shankar was the first to take the trouble to announce a raga, and say a few words about it, to try and make his music accessible to the layman. I suspect that what holds for my father holds for thousands of others.
That Ravi Shankar was playing at several venues in the Madras music circuit was not uncharacteristic of the man. He was, by all accounts, open to new ideas and new experiences. Stories of his veneration of Veena Dhanammal, and of his visiting her just to listen to her (Carnatic) Bhairavi have endeared him to even the most parochial of rasikas south of the Vindhyas.
His rendition of Simhendramadhyamam, a majestic Carnatic raga, is one of the more comprehensive and nuanced versions of the raga that I have heard – it must have taken a lot of hard work. This is perhaps what could have been expected of someone who has both flitted across the globe as part of Uday Shankar’s eclectic dance troupe, and also thrived for years under the draconian regimen of Baba Allaudin Khan in the dusty environs of Maihar. We are just lucky that he chose to share all that he had imbibed with Tom, Deepak and Hari, and on their terms.
My favourite piece of Hindustani instrumental music is Ravi Shankar’s alap, jor and jhala rendition of Shuddh Kalyan, and it has all that is good about his music. A slow, most meditative dhrupad style alap, filled with bass notes and gamakas,; transitions into faster tempos that occur most naturally and without notice; the use of virtuosity only in the service of the raga. And a sense of being completely immersed in the raga like it is some sort of Shuddh Kalyan gas filling a dimly lit room, the sympathetic strings of the sitar coming into full play. And then all you are left with is a heady, heady feeling that lingers on.
That such music will never again be played is why I mourn Ravi Shankar.