New Delhi: With the death of Pandit Ravi Shankar, passes an era of Hindustani classical music - an era which saw the Indian musical artform going global in the true sense of the word. Ravi Shankar, born as Robindro Shounkor Chowdhury to a Bengali Brahmin family in Varanasi in 1920, was the last of the surviving ambassadors of that movement.
Ravi Shankar's exposure to the world of Indian culture was through his elder brother, the dancer Uday Shankar. He started touring with the troupe when he was just ten and became an integral part of the group in three years' time. In these interim three years, Ravi Shankar had taken to playing various musical instruments. However, his life-altering experience came in 1934 when he first heard Ustad Allauddin Khan, also known as simply 'Baba' (Father in Bengali) among his disciples and the man who completely reshaped the Maihar gharana of Indian classical music and would give the world the biggest ambassadors of Indian classical music.
Baba toured with Uday Shankar's troupe for a while and trained Ravi Shankar to play the sitar but it was sporadic. He told Ravi Shankar that he had to come and stay with him at his Maihar home to get full-fledged training. Then in the late 1930s, came the clouds of war as Nazi Germany went about consolidating its hold on the old parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Tours to Europe, the lifeline of Uday Shankar's troupe, dwindled and in 1938, at the age of 18, Ravi Shankar reached Baba's Maihar home.
There he would undergo the most rigorous training regime in any musical genre, part of it parts of folklore. As fellow students, Ravi Shankar had Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Indian classical music's first global ambassador and son of Ustad Allauddin Khan, Annapurna Devi (who would eventually become Ravi Shankar's first wife and as many connoisseurs still say was musically even more blessed than her husband), Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (the man whose sitar, they say, spoke to the audience), flutist Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, Maestro Rabin Ghosh who added the fifth string to the violin. As people would say it, training sessions could go up to 16 and even 18 hours a day in Baba's gurukul.
From his first public performance in 1939 in a jugalbandi with Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar moved to Mumbai in 1944 upon completing his training. A brief association with IPTA and a seven-year stint with the All India Radio in Delhi, would finally end in 1956 when he found his final calling - touring the west and popularising Indian classical music. Some observers say Ravi Shankar decided to make his move as he was amazed at the reception that Ali Akbar Khan got when he played in New York in 1956. Some say, the invitation had come to Ravi Shankar and since he was having problems with his marriage, he had suggested Ali Akbar Khan's name. Others are quick to point out that his marriage troubles had been there since the late 1940s and that would not have been a significant factor in turning down such an invitation in 1956.
The 1960s saw Ravi Shankar's western connections in full bloom. The Byrds were the first to be influenced by his music. His association with George Harrison of The Beatles would last from the 60s till the latter's death in 2001. George Harrison would buy a sitar, record 'Norwegian Wood', a composition drawing heavily from the Indian ragas, and would come to India to learn sitar from Ravi Shankar. In the transcendental 60s and 70s, Ravi Shankar was suddenly the big name who had arrived from the land of renunciation and peace. A collaboration with violinist Yehudi Mehunin won Pandit Ravi Shankar a Grammy. Countless performances followed including one at the Woodstock Music Festival (which he did not like) and one at the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Gardens in New York City (of which he was a co-organiser along with Harrison).
Though Ravi Shankar started distancing himself from the Hippie movement from the beginning of the 1970s, his association with Harrison stood the test of time. In 1973, they recorded 'Shankar Family and Friends'. Harrison would later become the editor of Pandit Ravi Shankar's autobiography, titled 'Raga Mala'.
Ravi Shankar, in the meantime, had collaborated with Zubin Mehta, had scored music for the Richard Attenborough film 'Gandhi' (which won him an Oscar nomination for best original musical score along with George Fenton) and had become a Member of Parliament.
Connoisseurs, critics and contemporaries differ as to whether he was the greatest sitarist India produced in the 20th century. Names like Vilayat Khan, Nikhil Banerjee and even his first wife Annapurna Devi (though she played the Surbahar or bass sitar) frequently cropped up in these discussions. It is said that Annapurna Devi withdrew herself completely from public performances after her husband started touring extensively. Many say that she would have completely overshadowed her husband and that's why the conscious decision. Others feel Ravi Shankar deliberately wanted to keep her away as she was decidedly superior as some of their early Jugalbandi concerts proved. But since these recordings are non-commercial and are the preserve of a select few, these conversations have been held to be mostly in the realm of speculation. But Ravi Shankar's separation from Annapurna Devi definitely took a toll on the relationship between him and Ali Akbar Khan. The two would seldom play together later and even when they would occasionally create magic on the stage, offstage there would be no words exchanged.
But there is no point denying that barring possibly Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, no Indian classical musician, other than Pandit Ravi Shankar, has had such an impact on popularising Hindustani classical music across the oceans.
If Pandit Ravi Shankar's musical journey was one of rare vivacity colour, his personal life kept pace with these developments in the musical world. Married to Annapurna Devi in 1941, who gave birth to their son Shubho Shankar, they finally divorced after two decades though the cracks had started appearing in the 1940s themselves after Ravi Shankar started seeing a dancer, Kamala Shastri. A late-1970s affair with New York-based concert producer Sue Jones led to the birth of their daughter Norah Jones, who is today an accomplished musician herself and a recipient of 8 Grammys. Ravi Shankar separated from Kamala Shastri in 1981 and lived with Sue Jones till 1986. He married Sukanya Rajan in 1989 who had given birth to their daughter and sitarist Anoushka Shankar in 1981.
Was Ravi Shankar the greatest sitarist or classical musician India had ever produced? It is a difficult question to answer but there is no point denying that he was the one who took Indian music to faraway shores and created a foothold for the same in the west. But calling him the 'Godfather of world music', as George Harrison had once called him, would be too simplistic an expression. It was an exotic sound when it travelled west and hit those shores. But trained ears might reserve a different judgement.