( 4UMF NEWS ) Ravi Shankar Dies:
MUMBAI: To say it is a sad day for India would diminish a man whose music comes alive every time a child sings ‘Saare jahaan se achha’ or a film-buff watches Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali or a connoisseur tunes into one of his many recordings—both solo or with other musical greats. As another maestro Zakir Hussain said about ‘Ravi uncle’, “Beings like him don’t die. They just go back to heaven to take their rightful place amongst Gods.”
The sitar maestro passed away in the Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego, California, where he had been admitted for surgery last week. He was 92. He is survived by his wife Sukanya and daughters Anoushka Shankar, and Norah Jones—from an earlier relationship. His son Shubhendra from his first wife Annapurna passed away in 1992.
A life as sparkling as a ragamala started in India’s most musical city, Varanasi, where he was born Rabindra Shankar Chowdhury in 1920 to Hemangini and Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, a scholar and barrister, originally from Bangladesh. He remained very close to his mother, but his father left the family and moved on to Kolkata and London, and got remarried to an Englishwoman, Miss Morrell. Shankar’s mother was left to raise her four sons with the help of a pension from the Maharaja of Jhalawar, in whose court his father had served as the diwan.
His earliest memories are imbued with the sound of shahnai that used to be played in the temples and palaces that dotted the ghats of Varanasi.
At the age of ten, his life took a dramatic turn when his eldest brother Uday Shankar threw him into the salons and stages of glamorous Paris where he had already established himself as an accomplished dancer about whom James Joyce said, “He moves on the stage like a semi-divine being. Believe me, there are still some beautiful things left in this world.” These years were perhaps deeply formative in shaping India’s most extraordinary global ambassador of music, who eventually attracted artistes such as George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta and Philip Glass, to collaborate with him.
In his charming autobiography Raga Mala, Ravi Shankar writes about ‘dada’ (Uday Shankar), “He was the first one to direct my attention towards stagecraft, showmanship, manners and discipline on the stage. And yes, his insatiable passion for women and sex influenced me greatly in my life too!”
But alongside this colourful cosmopolitan world there existed another, very different one—the stark and rigorous world of the guru-shishya parampara. He began his musical training under the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan as a young teenager, strangely while on a ship headed out to Europe. He once recalled how Baba had bound his son Ali Akbar Khan to a tree, whipped him, and kept him there for two days after which he made him practise for 12 to 15 hours a day. That’s when his turning point as a musician started.
Ravi Shankar eventually married his guru’s daughter Annapurna with whom he had a fractious relationship which eventually ended up in divorce. Various relationships later, Ravi Shankar finally ended up having his most enduring one with a woman 34 years younger than him, Sukanya Rajan, who he married after the birth of their daughter Anoushka.
Most of his musical career took him away from India. In 1954, he was part of India’s first big cultural delegation to go abroad, sent by Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1966 he met George Harrison, one of the Beatles, who became his friend and disciple and suddenly put the strains of the sitar onto the world stage, a post-World War globe that was craving solace which came through the medium of music, yoga and philosophy. This was when Ravi Shankar played in the memorable Madison Square Garden concert for Bangladesh, and also at the Woodstock Festival. Suddenly, he became the Karma Cola ambassador, and the world wanted to know more about India.
In his introduction to Ravi Shankar’s biography, Harrison writes, “Without Ravi, I would have ended up a boring old fart. Some people may still say I’m a boring old fart, but at least my life was enhanced and given much more depth through the ancient Indian culture, and Ravi was my contact with it.”
Ravi Shankar is perhaps the most enduring musical legend of the twentieth century. At the end of his autobiography, astonishingly candid for a world filled with hagiography, he writes, “Baba always said that music is not made for commercial purpose. Music is like worshipping, and through music you worship God. However, like many other people’s, mine is an imperfect quest… we can never count on quite getting there. For me, it is through music that I feel nearest to my ultimate goal.” This honest acceptance of his imperfections as a human being very likely contributed to drawing him closer to perfection as a musician.