Ravi Shankar was our Columbus. While one explorer came looking for India, the other took India to the world. Perhaps that’s why it’s only fitting that the first time I saw him perform was not in India, but at the Kremlin in Moscow.
I was no classical music connoisseur, just a callow student, part of an Indian youth delegation and he was performing with a Russian folk ensemble and the Moscow chamber orchestra. I remember the draughty, rather dreary hotel dining room, the cold windy Red Square and the rickety Aeroflot airplanes. But most of all I remember the Kremlin vibrating with Ravi Shankar’s Shanti Mantra.
For my generation, growing up with Ravi Shankar was a given. Even when we were not aware of it, he was part of a musical score of our lives. You didn’t have to be a classical music enthusiast to encounter the man. He was the Discovery of India in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. He was the sound of Apu and Durga skipping through fields of waving kaashphool in Pather Panchali. He was the music of the dancing elephant in the Asian games. He was the theme music that signalled our televisions coming to life every evening.
It was only while putting together a 90th birthday tribute for the man for India Abroad magazine that I actually had to stop and think about how unique this man was in a country blessed with so many masterful musicians. Now with his death many will remember his musical legacy. But at that time speaking with friends and colleagues and collaborators from around the world I was able to get a glimpse of the amazing man behind the music.
He was truly a musician’s hero. “I remember as small children we would play a game where I would say ‘I am Ravi Shankar’ , another fellow would say ‘I am Allah Rakha’ and then we would pretend to go on stage and have people clap,” chuckled Grammy-winning mohan veena master Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Ravi Shankar's disciple Shubhendra Rao, often confused with Ravi ji's son Shubho Shankar, remembered playing for him at the age of three when he was too little to hold the sitar properly. “I played a sargam in Yaman Kalyan with the sitar lying on the ground,” recalled Rao. “He said I should now start holding the sitar in its normal position and continue my practice. When I was eight he taught me Bhairav for over an hour.”
Most artistes at the pinnacle of their careers become a sort of hologram of themselves, playing it safe, collecting their honorary degrees and setting up schools. Ravi Shankar somehow retained a child’s twinkle and curiosity for the world outside. “I remember he finished a concert 15 minutes early to rush back to watch the final episode of Mod Squad. That’s the child in him that keeps his music fresh,” said tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. “You become younger when you are with him,” laughed dancer Tanusree Shankar who was married to his nephew Ananda. “I can just hear him say ‘Tell me some gossip.’” Conductor David Murphy, founder of Sinfonia Verdi, joked he was called Pundit because of his propensity for bad puns. Cellist Barry Philips who assisted Ravi Shankar in the composition of pieces for Mstislav Rostropovich agreed. “He would ask me what voice I sang in,” he recalled. “The answer was of course, barry-tone.” Once when Philips and he were traveling to France for a performance with Rostropovich, Ravi Shankar asked him to get a sandwich but the bread was really hard."And he started singing like Bob Dylan – ‘it’s hard, hard..'" laughed Philips.
The anecdotes sound cute – the musical giant as a playful pixie. But that was the genius of Ravi Shankar beyond the raw talent. His music could speak to laypersons or westerners who had little knowledge of laya and taal. And his puckish charm allowed him to connect in ways others could not.
Also it didn’t hurt that he was so damn good looking.
Mark Kidel who directed the documentary, Between Two Worlds, about Ravi Shankar remembered touring the new Ravi Shankar Foundation with him in New Delhi. “He pointed out the building overlooked a girls’ school,” said Kidel. “(His wife) Sukanya said he would be looking there all the time.” His niece, dancer and actress Mamata Shankar said her kaka was “terribly glamorous.” She remembered going to visit him at his home in San Diego once. They went down to the farmers market together to buy some vegetables. “Kaka was at his peak then. Young people recognized him and it was a crazy scene. People started getting him to sign autographs on whatever they could find – paper plates and cups. They ran out of paper plates, I think.”
The glamour and accolades that followed Ravi Shankar made him a rockstar among musicians. He has been accused of being a little too much of a showman, not enough of a purist. “The west gave him recognisability, riches, popularity,” said Zakir Hussain. “But he also learned to present Indian art from the west, which is the master of presentation. He learned how to break it down without watering it down.” “People don’t realise the tremendous sacrifice musicians like him and Ali Akbar Khan made to spread our music around the world,” said tabla guru Swapan Chaudhuri, the director of percussion at the Ali Akbar College of Music. “Remember he had played for 40 years in India. He did not need to leave. But he made the way smoother for the next generation. We are enjoying their fruits.”
There are sportsmen, actors, singers who keep doing what they do, long past their prime, because they are afraid to stop or no one will tell them that their glory days are behind them. But even as Ravi Shankar grew frail, his love for performance felt undimmed. “I always want to do more and cannot rest on my laurels,” he said in an email interview when he turned 90. “My mind is still very young. Gradual slowing down of energy level is my only complaint.” The last time I saw him he could not sit cross-legged on the stage anymore. He tired a little quicker. The sitar was smaller. Sanjay Sharma built that sitar for him, just as his father Riddhi Ram, and before that his grandfather Rikhi Ram had done. He reduced the size by ten inches, put in guitar tuners instead of pegs, and made the tumba smaller. But with his frozen left shoulder, Ravi ji still found it hard to hold the sitar. So Sharma went to the Home Depot departmental store and got some things to build him a stand that allowed him to keep his left hand free. “He was so happy. He said, ‘ Your father was good. You are brilliant,’” said Sharma.
Sharma actually did an MBA and thought of becoming a chartered accountant. Then Ravi Shankar told him a story about a tabla legend who worked for All India Radio. When he went to get his check, he could not sign for it because he was illiterate. The accountant laughed at him and asked how come he had not even learned to write his name. The man replied “How many people are there like you? Millions. How many tabla masters are there like me?” “Panditji said there is only one Riddhi Ram’s. This is a fine art. You must learn it from your father. So I did,” said Sharma.
There was — and is — only one Ravi Shankar. I remember seeing an article in an American newsweekly on the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. Under the heading of Where Are They Now they gave quick updates on what the main players at Woodstock were doing currently. For Ravi Shankar it simply said “whereabouts unknown.” I had laughed then at the ignorance and laziness of some editorial intern who didn’t know that the maestro was still busy touring the world even if he was not playing at pop concerts.
Now I’d like to think that the Pandit Ravi Shankar has not really gone. He is still out there somewhere. Whereabouts unknown.