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Shormishtha Panja
Thursday , December 13, 2012 at 11 : 40

Pandit Ravi Shankar - the rock star of classical music


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Pandit Ravi Shankar died yesterday - well, technically, he died on December 11 at 4.30pm PST (Pacific Standard Time or West Coast time,) in San Diego, California, but that corresponds to yesterday morning IST. My maternal grandfather knew him well. His eldest brother Uday Shankar, the legendary dancer, was a close friend of my grandfather's, and my grandfather had watched the youngest Shankar child, Robu, as he was affectionately called, growing up, dancing in Uday Shankar's troupe, doing odd jobs, playing the tabla.

Yes, the first musical instrument this man played was not the sitar but the tabla. My great grandfather was the court physician to the Raja of Jhalawar and Ravi Shankar's father, Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, was the dewan. I met Ravi Shankar many years later, long after my grandfather's passing, in San Francisco. I was teaching at Stanford and Ravi Shankar, long a legend in the world of classical music, was spending part of the year in California. The renowned sitar guru's eyes lit up as soon as I mentioned my grandfather's name. He was like an older brother to me, he said.

It was this ready charm, this ability to connect to strangers that helped make him the world icon that he was. There was, no doubt, his undeniable talent for the sitar. However, there are many classical sitar aficionados who will prefer Vilayat Khan's slow, languorous, achingly sweet alaaps to Ravi Shankar's dramatic playing, full of explosive chords (jhalas).

But Ravi Shankar had the gift to package Indian classical music as it had never been packaged before. He brought to it a glamour and an entertainment value that had earlier been the monopoly of popular music or filmi music. He was the first rock star of classical music.

He was equally at home playing in the Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden in New York as he was playing in the Dover Lane Music Concerts of Calcutta.

His long-standing collaboration with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, their joint album West Meets East (1967) being a must-buy for any music lover, and his later association with the Beatles, particularly George Harrison, who called him the "godfather of world music", not only made the sitar a world instrument but proved that music could cross national and cultural borders. To this day there are many non-Indian musicians who flock to the many music academies in the US, UK and Europe, usually set up by Indian musicians, to learn it or travel to India to master it. He was the first Indian musician to bring Indian classical music to the world stage. He did for Indian classical music what AR Rahman has done for Indian popular music in recent years - only Shankar was already the ambassador of Indian music when Rehman was just born!

His charismatic stage presence helped find an enormous audience for a kind of music enjoyed selectively even within India. It was Shankar who made Indian classical music move from niche to mainstream. His association with the world of films ranged from Satyajit Ray's 'Pather Panchali' (later Ray chose to compose his own music) to 'Kabuliwala' to 'Anuradha'. His music could be heard every day by any Indian who switched on the television: Doordarshan's signature tune was his composition. He also set Iqbal's popular patriotic poem, 'Sare Jahan Se Achcha', to music.

Ravi Shankar takes the credit of introducing a modicum of professionalism in classical music concerts. Before him the proper dressing of the stage, the lights, the punctuality of accompanying musicians and the attentive and non-disruptive attitude of the audience were a rarity. I suspect that he learned these disciplinary protocols from his older brother. Uday Shankar was known to terrorise everyone in his troupe with his exacting standards. This was why he was able to implement on stage such stupendously original choreography.

In true rock star style, Ravi Shankar did not believe in keeping his private life under wraps. Some say he married Annapurna, the daughter of Ustad Alauddin Khan, so that he could be instructed in the mysteries of the sitar as only a kinsman could be. He had a number of live-in relationships with dancers and musicians; he had a daughter outside marriage and this daughter grew up to be the multiple Grammy awardee Norah Jones.

Ravi Shankar couldn't take any credit beyond the genetic one - Norah was raised solely by her mother and seemed to establish regular contact with her father's family only after becoming a worldwide musical sensation. His other daughter, Anoushka, was conceived when her mother, Sukanya, was married to someone else and when Ravi Shankar himself was sixty-one years old. Subsequently Sukanya left her husband and married Ravi Shankar.

I recall the excitement that greeted the serialisation of Shankar's autobiography, 'Raag Anuraag', in the Bengali literary magazine 'Desh'. As the title suggests, Shankar talks with complete candour about his many romantic relationships and liaisons. And there was the shattered debris that surrounds every famous person's life, the casualties who fall by the wayside and pay the price. When their relationship ended, Sue Jones was left to raise Norah alone without any help from Shankar. Annapurna, who some claim was as fine a musician as her husband and the true heir to her father's legacy, became a heartbroken recluse when her only child, Shubho, also a musician, died suddenly far away in the US.


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More about Shormishtha Panja

Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.

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