Ravi Shankar: the man and his music (Part I)
September 24, 2015
Many of us of the 1960s generation easily identified with the sitar music of Ravi Shankar (sick and tired of the number of Pandits in Indian music, he has renounced the prefix Pandit). We saw in him an iconoclast and a youth icon, an advocate of protest — Make love, not war. We were easily swayed by the purity of sound of his instrument, his fascinating collaboration with Ustad Allah Rakha, his tremendous success with the lotos eaters of the 20th century who flocked to his concerts for all the wrong musical reasons. We didn’t know then that they were the wrong reasons; we didn’t know that for all his dalliance with experimentation and crosscultural collaboration, even film music, he was a highly accomplished exponent of traditional music. We didn’t know then that among his contemporaries he was perhaps the one Hindustani musician who appreciated Carnatic music, not to mention his respect for its practitioners.
Yes, he was a matinee idol among classical musicians. For perhaps the only period in its 80 odd years of existence, the Madras Music Academy broke its own rules in the 1960s to accommodate the spillover of Panditji’s New Year’s Eve concert into the New Year. He would pause at the midnight hour and offer his greetings to his audience to thunderous applause. What could be more exciting for young people straining at the leash to be liberated from the conservative norms of Madras by arguably the most charismatic of India’s classical musicians!
Yet to listen to the lilting strains of the sitar, losing ourselves in the sensitive raga explorations of the maestro, was a transporting, spiritually elevating experience. Even to the uninitiated, it was quite obvious that this was no mere entertainment, not cleverly packaged razzmatazz. There was depth in the music, and the contours of the raga-s were so brilliantly etched, whether in the elaborate alap-jod-jhala that opened the concert, the shorter, brisk piece that followed, the Carnatic raga-s the maestro had made Hindustani music’s own, or indeed one of the raga-s he had created. The mastery of the music and the instrument was so complete, it seemed effortless, though we now know how much devotion, tireless practice and intelligent absorption of all his guru offered him it took to make him a complete musician.
Ravi Shankar travelled extensively in the West as a boy dancer in his elder brother Uday Shankar’s troupe that wowed audiences everywhere, but when he went West again as a sitarist in the 1950s, the audiences were small and unappreciative of Indian music. They dismissed it as limited, repetitive and simple. Ravi Shankar was determined to show the West what a great music he brought from India. He learnt to give it initially in small doses and educate his audiences step by small step. He held countless lecdems at university campuses, and with his natural charm and articulation, he won them over in time, aided in part by the handsome praise the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin showered on him.
Today, Ravi Shankar is one of India’s oldest living musicians of international fame. Awarded the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999, he has received some 15 honorary doctorates, the Ramon Magsayasay Award, two Grammys, the Crystal Award from Davos, the Fukuoka Grand Prize Award from Japan, and countless other awards and honours. He has played his music to a great variety of audiences, from the knowledgeable rasika-s of Varanasi and Pune, to wildly cheering young fans at the Woodstock and Monterey pop festivals. He taught the Beatles sitar music and he collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin in creating world music albums. He orchestrated Indian music for All India Radio, composed music for Indian and international ballets and films including Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Godaan, Anuradha, Gulzar’s Meera and Attenborough’s Gandhi, and with Ali Akbar Khan, kickstarted a whole new variety of Indian classical music – the jugalbandi.
Born in Benares on 7 April 1920 as the youngest of four brothers, Ravindra, named after Nobel laureate Tagore, hailed from a privileged background. His father, a bar-at-law, and a minister in princely states, was an amateur singer at local soirees, and there was plenty of music in the family. Elder brother Uday Shankar was to become a world famous dancer, taking his troupe, including his siblings, all over the West. Another brother Rajendra was involved in theatre, and stored his drama troupe’s musical instruments at home. Ravi would play those in secrecy, but his singing at house parties and school parties did not have to be clandestine.
His first guru and first major influence was brother Uday Shankar. Not only did Ravi Shankar travel with his brother’s dance troupe, he was also a permanent fixture at the Almora India Cultural Centre, as a singer and dancer – until one day he answered the irresistible call of the sitar, going from a life of comfort to rural Maihar and gruelling lessons from the great Ustad Alauddin Khan. It was after years of extraordinary hard work and perseverance that he became a successful instrumentalist and achieved fame.
Few of India’s great musicians have had to handle as much adverse criticism as Ravi Shankar has had to endure in a lifetime of constant endeavour to project the greatness of Indian music to the world. For long accused of diluting Indian classical music to please Western audiences, the maestro was deeply hurt by such charges. Over the decades, however, his critics and the vast majority of lovers of Hindustani music have come to recognise the value of his contribution and the purity of the sound produced by his sitar, his brilliance as a composer and creator of raga-s, his unparalleled eclecticism that resulted in the transmission of some of the finest ideas and attributes of south Indian classical music to its north Indian counterpart.
Yet another criticism aimed at Ravi Shankar has been his alleged promotion of daughter Anoushka as a sitarist when she first came on the scene, back in the late 1990s. It was perhaps no fault of his that the media made a superstar of her even before she had proved herself in the big league of classical instrumentalists. Any charge of nepotism against Ravi Shankar cannot wash because he produced many excellent disciples, presenting them on stage alongside him long before Anoushka made her debut. And the daughter’s talent is unmistakable.
Ravi Shankar is an old friend of Sruti magazine, of its founder editor N. Pattabhi Raman in particular. His decision to perform free of charge to launch SAMUDRI, an archival initiative of the magazine in 2001 was a magnificent gesture (Sruti 198). So was his warmhearted cooperation with us when we profiled him in depth back in 1996 (Sruti 147), a sequel to an issue devoted to his guru Alauddin Khan (Sruti 135). Reading those issues and the material collected for it, it becomes immediately clear that more was to have followed in subsequent issues of Sruti. Lakshmi Shankar and her sister Kamala Chakrabarty had put down their thoughts on Ravi Shankar for our use. More recently, we spoke to his disciple Janardan Mitta about his “Guruji”.
Lakshmi Shankar first came into contact with the Shankar family in March 1940, when she joined Uday Shankar’s India Cultural Centre in Almora, where she went as a Bharatanatyam dancer along with her guru Kandappa Pillai. Ravi Shankar’s guru Alauddin Khan, his son Ali Akbar Khan, and Uday’s Kathakali guru Sankaran Nampooodiri were all there, each stalwart supervising his part of the ballet.
Soon afterwards, Ravi Shankar, a dancer in his brother’s troupe so far, became a serious convert to the sitar, and accompanied his guru to Maihar, where he stayed for the next four years doing gurukulavasa.
The young man showed rare dedication and grit in his pursuit of music, forsaking his position as a reputed dancer. He was 20 years old when he decided to start from scratch as a musician. He did riyaz for 14 hours a day! Lakshmi said, “I’ve seen blood coming out of his fingers. Baba would ask him to do something and Ravi Shankar would achieve it in the shortest time possible – and Baba would be pleased and give him some more. It was a wonderful guru-sishya relationship.”
Lakshmi was a dancer all right, but was also interested in music and had a malleable voice. Celebrity visitors to the centre, including the Paluskar family, Prof. B.R. Deodhar, Dilip Kumar Roy and Vinayakrao Patwardhan and Pandit K.S. Bodas, all loved Lakshmi’s voice. Through these greats, Lakshmi learnt the rudiments of khayal music and Bengali songs.
By 1945, when news arrived that Ravi Shankar was seriously ill at Maihar, Lakshmi was already married to his brother Rajendra Shankar, and Ravi Shankar to Alauddin Khan’s daughter Annapurna Devi, and the Almora Centre had closed down owing to financial difficulties. Rajendra and Lakshmi had moved to Bombay, and Rajendra brought his brother home and nursed him back to good health. The Rajendra Shankars found a house nearby for Ravi Shankar, his wife and two-year old son. Ravi Shankar’s sitar career just about began then and he was soon performing regularly at chamber concerts. He also found a job in HMV as a sound recordist.
Ravi Shankar joined IPTA (The Indian People’s Theatre Association) hereabouts, composing the music for ballets like India Immortal. Lakshmi sang for some of these ballets and Rajendra dramatised Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India. Lakshmi was the prime ballerina for the ballet which debuted in New Delhi in March 1947. The ballet was a superhit, and Ravi Shankar’s music for it was “unbelievable”, but Lakshmi had health problems, her husband broke a leg, and her son had to be looked after. To top it all, Lakshmi was acting in the Tamil film Bhakta Tulsidas, with music by Veena S. Balachander. Though her mother helped her, she also did all the housework, and paid a heavy price for all the stress and strain. She had pleurisy, which ultimately meant she could not dance any more.
Ravi Shankar had moved to Delhi. He had joined All India Radio but was also a successful concert musician. Not long afterwards, he was so busy performing that he had to give up the AIR job. Lakshmi was singing playback for films. When they met after a gap, he said, “Why don’t you take up Hindustani classical music? Your grounding may be in Carnatic music, but your voice is ideally suited for Hindustani music.”
In her search for a good teacher, Lakshmi was lucky. The music director Madan Mohan introduced her to Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and by April 1954, the classes were underway. The guru was keen on Lakshmi taking the place of his successful disciple Nirmala Devi with whom he had had a parting of ways. In Lakshmi, he found a hard working student determined to make it as a classical vocalist, well supported by mother and husband. He worked as hard as she did, and the lessons and practice sessions went on for hours together. Lakshmi progressed so rapidly that she became an A grade artist of AIR within six months. Unfortunately, Karim Khan stopped teaching her, owing to some misunderstanding, and she then took lessons from Prof. B.R. Deodhar.
This was the time Ravi Shankar came back into Lakshmi’s life, musically speaking. She recalled, “I was fast making a name in Bombay, singing here and there. He told me, ‘I’ll coach you in new aspects of music.’ It was an advanced course in khayal, vilambit and drut, in raga-s like Jog, Behag and Keeravani. There were no songs in Hindustani music in raga-s like Keeravani (Kirvani), essentially south Indian as they are. Ravi Shankar would instantly make up a composition in half an hour, teach it to me and there it was, one khayal in my bag. He did it so beautifully, you’d think he did vocal riyaz everyday! What he could not demonstrate vocally, he played on the sitar. He was terribly busy, but would snatch a few half-hours, come up hurriedly and say, ‘Fine, let’s sit down and do this raga.’ Sometimes we would both be travelling and he would sing on the plane for me to note down.”
Shamanna Kothi was a record based on a small poem by Rabindranath Tagore. Uday Shankar had made a fabulous ballet on the theme, a roaring hit. Ravi Shankar composed the music for it. This was in 1961 during the Tagore Festival. Lakshmi Shankar sang throughout, while Ravi Shankar sang a few pieces in the record. She also sang for his music in a few Bengali films. Back in 1946, she had sung for his music in a few films like Dharti ke Lal.
In 1968, Lakshmi accompanied Ravi Shankar on a trip abroad for the first Festival of India and again in 1974, to sing as well as help him organise. “I was really very fortunate to learn close at hand how his creative genius worked,” Lakshmi recalled. “Most of the time I would write down the music. Like all geniuses, he would forget what he created. Writing down also helped me when I rehearsed with the other musicians.”
Ravi Shankar composed a ballet for a record on that tour. One side of the record featured a piece in Vachaspati, in 7-1/2 beats. Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Shiv Kumar Sharma were part of the orchestra, so the complex piece was shaping well. A shehnai player in the ensemble played beautifully, but his lack of formal training made it difficult for him to grasp the tala. Ravi Shankar made several attempts to teach him, but he repeatedly made mistakes. Finally Ravi Shankar lost his patience and told Lakshmi, “Boudi (sister-in-law), please teach him. Make him understand it.” The shehnai player waited till Ravi was out of earshot and said: “Didi, mujhe to saat hi nahin aati, saade saat kahan se aayegi?” (I can’t get seven beats right, how can I ever get 7-1/2 right?”) Feeling sorry for the poor man, Lakshmi explained the problem to Ravi Shankar. A remorseful Ravi changed the piece for the shehnai into something easier.
The other side of the record was another story altogether. As Ravi Shankar and the two sisters entered the studio, he was saying, “What am I going to do? My mind is blank.” He then asked them both to tune the two tambura-s there. When he said “Play”, the women kept strumming the tambura-s and that was the only sound for ten minutes. And then he said: ‘Ok, here we go.’ “He composed such a beautiful piece, I can’t describe it,” said Lakshmi. “It had a ragamalika which I sang, and Jai Jagadeesa harey sung by Jitendra Abhisheki in the end.”
Ravi Shankar went abroad on a concert tour as early as 1958. As a pioneer, he underwent much difficulty in the West and suffered criticism in the East. He trained Western audiences to listen to Indian music. They had no notion of his music and he had to do the training slowly, little by little. In the beginning, he wouldn’t play a raga for more than 15 minutes; he increased the duration slowly, till there was an Indian music boom of sorts in 1966 in the US – partly because of the hippie movement, partly because the Beatle George Harrison started learning the sitar. The criticism was nasty: that Ravi Shankar was playing the guitar not the sitar, that he was ruining tradition and so on. Lakshmi Shankar defended him. “All wrong. He played sitar to the hippies, yes. But he played good, chaste, Indian music with alap, jod, jhala. He did many experiments, yes. But a creative mind like Ravi Shankar’s cannot be static – it needs some experimentation all the time. His experiments never resulted in any dilution of his music. When he played with Yehudi Menuhin, for instance, or when Zubin Mehta teamed up with Ravi Shankar, Menuhin or Zubin Mehta’s orchestra played Ravi Shankar’s music; it was not the other way around.
Ravi Shankar’s Beenkar gharana goes very deep into the traditional mould and is highly classical. It comes from the dhrupad style. It is not at all light, contrary to all the criticism levelled against his music. “Quite the reverse,” Lakshmi said. “Even when he plays a thumri or a gat, he is strictly classical. It so happens that in a thumri you are allowed to flirt a little bit, stray from the raga’s notes slightly to add colour to the rendering. You can’t call that light music. I think it was just plain jealousy – people just wanted to pull him down. Even newspapers. And he has survived all that, so has his music, our music. He once said, ‘Yes, I did some format changes to basically attract the Western audiences to our music.’ If he had not done that, if he had tried a one-hour alap, jod and jhala to begin with on an audience that didn’t have a clue to our music, it could have meant curtains for our music in the West. Now everyone goes and plays or sings there and people there understand our music. He went to almost every university in the US and explained Indian music through lecture demonstrations. Of course, in the beginning and in the boom period, there were superficial audiences. That’s all gone now. Now you have elite listeners who know what they are getting, who are genuinely interested. Whether abroad or at home, classical music is an acquired taste, you have to develop an ear for it. That to this day Ravi Shankar is heard and revered everywhere is proof that he gave nothing but top class classical music, not light music. He’s still tops in terms of pulling crowds.”
“Ravi Shankar’s music has remained largely unchanged, except what Father Time has dictated,” Lakshmi Shankar continued. “As you grow older, you get weary of speed, the body doesn’t cooperate. So you substitute depth for speed, spend more time in leisurely, reflective, analytical music. Maturity, refinement, bhakti rasa – these come automatically with age.”
“The creative urge is still there in him, very much alive. The one sensible outlet for him is teaching. As you grow older, you cut down performances and start teaching. When you teach your mind opens.”
(To be continued)