On Pandit Ravi Shankar's 100th birth anniversary, his wife Sukanya remembers a 'peerless musician, charming man'
“I want the world to remember him just as he was,” Sukanya Shankar said of her husband, he late sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. “A devoted and dedicated musician, who lived and breathed music until the very end.'
Today, 7 April 2020, marks the 100th birth anniversary of Pandit Ravi Shankar. The sitar legend’s centennial birth year was meant to be marked with several special events across the globe, including a multi-country tour by his daughter Anoushka, and a joint performance by Anoushka and her half-sister Norah Jones. The coronavirus outbreak, however, meant the months-long programme had to be cancelled.
“We were all really looking forward to it. It would have been historic for the girls [Anoushka and Noah] to appear together live,” Sukanya Shankar, the late maestro’s wife, said in an interview with Firstpost. “But how do you make God laugh? You tell him your plans. Yes, it is disappointing but something good comes out of everything in life. We will celebrate quietly at home with a puja, music, cook his favourite dishes, and spend time together as a family.”
Even if the celebration is quiet, it is certainly not confined to their home. Countless music fans the world over are joining in — in spirit, if not physically. It’s a symbol Pandit Ravi Shankar — who brought about a confluence of the East and West with his music — would have appreciated.
Born in Varanasi, Ravi Shankar spent considerable time in both the US and the UK. Then there were his concert tour that took him to various parts of the globe. Leading such an itinerant life, he described his wife Sukanya as the “home” that always stayed with him.
Speaking with Firstpost, however, Sukanya Shankar said it was in fact, her husband who was — and continues to be — her idea of home. “My definition of ‘home’ is a temple where he will always reside, and my service to him will be my prayers. Even though he is not physically present, whoever visits my home always feels his presence,” she said.
She noted that for her too, as much as for Pandit Ravi Shankar, bringing Hindustani classical music to the West was a “soul nourishing exercise”. She recollected how his penchant for languages helped Panditji connect with foreign audiences, how much he disliked the term “ethnic” being used to describe Indian classical music, and his role as the “chief architect of what would come to be known as World Music” — a gene that their daughter Anoushka, a multiple Grammy Award-winning musician, is now among the influential proponents of.
When this writer interviewed Anoushka in February, during her visit to India, the sitarist and composer reminisced about making her stage debut with her father at the age of 13. Incidentally, Sukanya Shankar too had performed with Ravi Shankar on stage, accompanying him on the tanpura.
Both women agreed that in addition to being their lifelong guru, Pandit Ravi Shankar was also a student of music. “There are some things you cannot be taught. There are some things that have no logic, and are a wonder. Ravi Shankar was one of a kind, and his curiosity stemmed from his humility,” Sukanya said.
For Anoushka Shankar, her father’s childlike curiosity was her biggest takeaway from being his student for over two decades. “Even in his 90s, he was still a student. He never lost that. He always thought he had a power above him. That’s how spiritual his art was. The kind of reverence he had for the music was incredible,” she told me in our interview.
She also dwelt on how, in his final years, her father must have witnessed her gradually discover her own voice as an artiste. “It’s a very internal discovery so it’s difficult to articulate how different it is from his. I was his student for sure but even he wanted me to discover my own voice after a point of time,” she said.
From her vantage point, Sukanya Shankar asserted that Anoushka, while living and learning extensively from Pandit Ravi Shankar, was never his clone: “Her dad acknowledged and admired that in her too. She has a great foundation, and Raviji gave her all he could and even said that she is his best disciple, and that she would take the sitar much farther. We have to remember that she is six decades apart from her father, and today, she is able to do so much for society through her honesty in music. She has created her own space in the music world, and she is a brand by herself.”
Even though she was a musician herself, Sukanya Shankar told me she never felt overshadowed by her husband’s legacy. “We had a lot of fun together, but I could never jam with him! He was an ocean, and I was just a drop. I knew him very intimately of course but as far as music is concerned, I knew my place. It was his greatness that he would ask for my suggestions and point of view. My music before [meeting him] was very cerebral and spiritual. He added emotion and passion to it,” she observed.
Coming back to the centenary celebrations, while much of the line-up had to be cancelled, what was staged was Pandit Ravi Shankar’s opera Sukanya, years after it premiered. Written in the final years of his life, Sukanya was Ravi Shankar’s tribute to his wife, and took a page out of the Mahabharata, where King Chyavana discovered newfound potential when he married Sukanya, daughter of Vedic king Sharyati.
“A long time ago, when I was serving Raviji and taking care of him, my mother was there and she spontaneously said, ‘I named you right’. Raviji asked her why she said that, and she narrated the story of Sukanya to him. He was so impressed by the story, that he said he would love to make an opera or ballet [about it]. This was way back in the ‘90s, and we never talked about it again. He, I believe, later wanted to surprise me, and started writing the opera without my knowledge,” King Sharyati’s daughter’s namesake explained. “I know Raviji credited me for his ever youthful self, but it is not true. That was his personality.”
“I want the world to remember him just as he was,” she added. “A devoted and dedicated musician, who lived and breathed music until the very end. He was a peerless musician and beautiful human being, who also just happened to be the most charming, gorgeous, and good looking man!”
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