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Pandit Ravi Shankar, India’s greatest cultural ambassador and outstanding exponent of Indian ragadhari music passed away on 11th December 2012 at the age of 92.
When Shankar was born on April 7, 1920 in Varanasi (Anglicized to Benares),he inherited the social and cultural milieu of the Bengalis during the time of the Maharajahs and the British Raj in India. Both his parents, Shayam Shankar Chowdhury and Hemangini Devi belonged to Brahmanic and land-owning Zamindari class.
For Shankar, Varanasi was the ancient holy city of two thousand temples situated along the banks of the sacred Ganges River; a city immersed in the incessant sounds of shahnais, dances enacting stories of Radha and Krishna and bhajans sung with extreme devotion.
He was born ten years after the youngest of four other surviving brothers and was named Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury. His father was a privy counsellor, author and a Sanskrit scholar who taught Vedanta philosophy at Columbia University. While Shankar was still unborn, his father had distanced himself from his wife and remarried an English woman.
Though Shankar in his boyhood hated his father for shaming his mother and neglecting paternal responsibilities, later in life his attitude changed somewhat upon realizing the considerable circumstantial gap in the lives of his parents.
Three significant occurrences profoundly impacted on the artistic and personal life of Ravi Shankar:
First: He was born into the era of the Bengal Renaissance that witnessed a remarkable period of societal transformation wherein a whole range of creative activities flourished and openness and interest in western culture and values were emergent. Rabindranath Tagore was possibly the most inspirational figure of that era at least in so far as music and literature were concerned. He created a new genre of songs (Rabindra Sangeeth) drawing from Indian classical traditions in music and imbued with the spirit of the Upanishads. His prodigious output of some 3,000 melodious songs became popular favourites at Shantiniketan and in Bengali households.
Among the first songs Shankar learned, loved and sang were songs of Tagore. By the time Shankar first met Tagore he had read his poems, novels and essays. In Shankar’s words seeing Tagore was like being face-to-face with the "Taj Mahal" or the "Eiffel Tower".
Second: At the age of 10, Shankar’s life was transported to Paris, the cultural capital of the world, when his eldest brother Uday Shankar(Uday) embarked on a historic cultural journey to showcase the choreographic mystique of classical Indian dance to western audiences. Ravi Shankar, still under his mother’s care and therefore could not be left behind, was destined to accompany the troupe along with his mother.
Uday’s dazzling choreography took Europe by storm and later entranced audiences in USA as well. It was a phenomenon the western world had never witnessed before; Uday and his troupe were fondly fraternized by the world’s cognoscenti and connoisseurs of dance, music and art.
Of him,poet James Joycehad written: "He moves on the stage like a semi-divine being. Believe me, there are still some beautiful things left in the world."
Thus it was not Ravi Shankar that first captivated western audiences but his eldest brother Uday.
Living in the shadow of his brother’s stardom, Shankar was exposed to a new world of Parisian culture and dignitaries of arts and culture. He loved its theatre, ballet, cinema, and night clubs and met or heard of international celebrities such as Anna Pavlova, Andres Segova, Jascha Heifetz and Pablo Casals, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.
By now Shankar was steeped in aspects of Indian dancing and music. The respected sarod player Timir Baran, Uday’s music director, was the first classical musician to impress Shankar. Uday, ten years his senior, was his beloved guru and friend. He taught him to love art, culture and heritage and the basics of stagecraft, showmanship, manners and discipline. And according to Shankar’s autobiography his life was greatly influenced by Uday’s insatiable passion for women and sex.
Since Shankar saw little of his father during his formative years, his childhood was deficit in the emotional comfort of a paternal relationship. And because of the age gap between him and his brothers who were his close friends, Shankar’s life ‘leapfrogged’ as it were from childhood to a precocious adolescence.
More successful tours of Europe and later in the USA with Uday defined Shankar’s role as a dancer. And the realization dawned on him that with such fame, came freedom and indulgence. Life was wonderful.
In 1935, when Uday persuaded legendary Ustad Allauddin Khan(affectionately called Baba) to join his next tour to Europe, it was the beginning of a consequential rapport between Shankar and the maestro. Allauddin Khan was the greatest Indian musician of the twentieth century and the preeminent sarod player of his time.
Third: At the age of eighteen, Shankar made the most fateful decision of his life. As if spurred by some "revelatory" beckoning, he submitted himself to the tutelage of Ustad Allauddin Khan. By so doing he renounced luxury and fame to embrace austerity and obscurity. Shankar moved to a Spartan dwelling close to Baba’s in Maihar cut away from the glitzy life of Uday’s show business. He slept on a hard bed, in a room infested with cockroaches, scorpions and snakes.
For seven arduous years Shankar was immersed in the oral traditions of learning at Baba’s feet imbibing the profundities of classical ragas and their exposition in the Maihar Gharana––the hallowed school of music associated with Ustad Allauddin Khan and the princely state of Maihar.
Baba was very fond of talented Shankar who was doing well under his tutelage. It was not surprising that in conformity with guru-shishya tradition, Shankar should marry Annapurna, Baba’s daughter and an accomplished surbhar player. The prospect was not without some concerns. Baba, though a devoted Muslim who’d been to Mecca and Medina, was more Sufistic and inclusive in outlook. In a remarkable gesture he proposed that Annapurna be converted to a Hindu before marriage to Shankar. In the morning of May 15, 1941,a reformed sect of the Arya Samaj performed the rites for Annapurna to become a Hindu and the same evening they were married according to Hindu traditions.
Married life wasn’t easy with a new-born son Shubhendra and financial hardships. In 1944 Shankar left Maihar to venture out professionally on his own.
In early 1950s Shankar wrote the score for Satyajit Ray’s first filmPather Panchali followed by scores for Ray’s other two in his Trilogy. These internationally celebrated scores were testimony to the vividness of Shankar’s musical imagination.
In 1952 Shankar was introduced to the violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin by Dr Narayana Menon, Director-General of the All India Radio. What followed were two decades of collaboration in concerts and recordings the high point of which was the Grammy Award winning album "West Meets East".
Shankar toured extensively in Europe, USA and Japan and his reputation as a classical sitarist was burgeoning. He collaborated with internationally renowned artists like Andree Previn, Zubin Mehta, Jean-Pierre Rampal, John Coltrane and Philip Glass. He appeared at prestigious venues as London’s Festival Hall, UNESCO’s Great Hall in Paris, Edinburgh and Prague Festivals.
His performances transfixed audiences across the full spectrum of the music firmament––classical, jazz, pop and rock. George Harrison of The Beatles became Shankar’s protégé and their engrossing relationship boosted Shankar’s ride to popular superstardom. Shankar stunned audiences at the Monterey Pop Festival, the Woodstock Festival and the rock-sponsored benefit concert for Bangladesh refugees.
If ragadhari music is high art, the world might have witnessed for the first time an artist rendering such art being mobbed by a frenzied audience of half a million. But for Shankar this euphoria soon turned to disillusionment. He was deeply perturbed by the phenomenon of drugs, sex and wild behaviour of pop fans and when Jimmy Hendrix set fire to his own guitar at Monterey, Shankar was deeply distraught. Ironically, Shankar’s frenetic stardom was in culture shock.
A question to pose then is what made Shankar’s life so iconic given his extraordinary genius?
He was charismatic and extraverted with classical features that were immediately arresting. From Uday he had learnt the art of showmanship. As a product of the Bengal Renaissance his attitudes and responses to people and events were internationalistic. He had a passion to show the outside world what Indian classical music was.
Shankar was not the greatest sitarist India produced. Enayat Khan, Vilayat Khan and Nikhil Banerjee were probably as good if not better sitar virtuosi. What set Shankar apart was his extraordinary interpretive artistry and improvisational ingenuity.
Indian classical music is experienced when the quintessence of a raga is articulated with integrity and skillful ornamentation. Shankar could breathe beauty to a motif or phrase of a chosen raga and transport the listener to a state of transcendence. In Thumri, Shankar would interlace minute Tagorian and folk figures into a larger fabric to create otherworldly sounds.
Shankar had a built-in response to every external musical stimulus. Nothing disarms an artist more readily than a round of big applause from the audience. Here Shankar was no exception but what was exceptional was that having conquered all other audiences, he was internally challenged to understand and be applauded by pop music’s mass subculture. He triumphed in that pursuit as well though oblivious to the disillusionment that was to come.
Shankar’s glory was not without a counterpart of complications and sadness in personal life.
His marriage to Annapurna ended after bouts of separation. Weeks before his marriage, Shankar was having intimate liaisons with Uzra, sister of dancer Zohra. While being still married to Annapurna he had an affair with dancer Kamala Shastri until she was married off to someone else. His alliance with American concert-producer Sue Jones gave birth to singer-songwriter Nora Jones. After a long relationship with Sukanya Rajan, Shankar married her in 1989. Their daughter Anoushka has featured in concerts with Shankar until his death.
Shankar was deeply attached to his mother who toiled hard to feed her children. She left the house at nightfall to pawn her jewellery as it was unthinkable for a Brahmin to be seen in such plight. Since Shankar was on tour when his mother died he could not pay her last respects in person. When Shankar’s father was found dead in a street in London with head injuries the news was received only after the body had been disposed of. At one time, unable to cope with stresses of life he made serious plans to commit suicide but was turned around by the spiritual counseling of Tat Baba who became his long-time guru.
Did Ravi Shankar leave a legacy? If there was one, underlying it was the uncompromising stand he took to show the world that he never bastardised his music. Some critics of Shankar faulted him for "jazzifying" Indian classical music or characterized his collaborations as "crossovers". Shankar was forthright and indignant about such views and consistently defended the pristine integrity of his music-making and his duty by his guru.
Out of all his non-classical recordings,"Chants of India" (producer: George Harrison),outshines all others in edifying the listener. Chants from the Vedas and Upanishads sung by shastris in Chennai and ideas derived from drupad, Rabindra Sangeeth and folk traditions provide a feast of spirituality. Shankar’s own compositions "Mangalam" and "Prabhujee" are atmospheric. Though a combination of Indian and Western instruments has been employed to good effect, by no means can this be categorized as a crossover product.
Eclecticism and confessed contradictions were inherent inShankar’s beliefs. He felt "blind-folded" or "spiritually susceptible" to the likes of Krishna, Saraswati, Buddha, Sai Baba and Christ. But ultimately Shankar’s life was a journey spiritually embedded in the world of music. His sitar, his raga and his self all fused to an iridescent oneness that radiated sublime sounds of the ragas.