A portrait of Ravi Shankar is placed under a tree as part of a makeshift memorial at his music centre in New Delhi on Wednesday. (AP)
On the eve of his 92nd birthday, it was all quiet in the Shankar household at San Diego, Encinitas.
“He hasn’t been well at all so we’re keeping it quiet this time. No party tomorrow (April 7), we’re postponing it till he gets better. He had a lung infection and was in the hospital. We just brought him back home,” Sukanya had told us. “We just want everybody’s prayers.”
Barely a month later, Ravi Shankar proved again that he had lost none of his spunk when he caused quite a stir in Calcutta, a city he loved, by refusing to accept the Banga Bibhushan award being conferred by the Mamata Banerjee government.
Panditji, who had previously been informed that he would be receiving the award along with Suchitra Sen, was taken aback on learning that it was actually being presented to a long list of awardees. A list that comprised names who were, of course, no match in stature or seniority.
When the recipient of the Bharat Ratna, three Grammy Awards and some of the world’s greatest honours declined the award, the Mamata government had egg on its face and every Ravi Shankar follower gave their ailing hero a thumbs-up.
From their US home, Sukanya had read out to The Telegraph Ravi Shankar’s letter that had then been forwarded to the chief minister: “In our culture, we have always given a lot of importance to age and experience, with regard to how we proffer titles and respects. I’m extremely happy to hear that several wonderful artistes who are like children or even grandchildren to me are going to be conferred this award and they have my congratulations and blessings. However, I hope you understand that I cannot accept this award myself.”
Sukanya was more forthright: “You can’t give an award to him and at the same time give it to those who are third-generation artistes…. He loves his Bengal and was very happy when he first heard about it but he has his values. After all these years, now he is 92 and can’t be treated like a 29-year-old or a 51-year-old.”
Six months later, when the Bengal chief minister went into mourning overdrive on Wednesday, from Writers’ Buildings to Facebook, it seemed more than a tad silly to many.
“I am deeply pained to hear the news of demise of the legendary sitar Master Pandit Ravi Shankar today. A Bharat Ratna awardee, his renderations in sitar has taken Indian Classical Music to a position of rare aura in the world and enthralled audience all over the globe. His passing away will create an irreparable void in music and performing arts. His deep-rooted bond with Bengal will be treasured forever in our hearts…” read her FB post.
“If she felt so strongly about Panditji’s contribution, then what prompted her to club his name with so many others for the Banga Bibhushan award? She humiliated him while he was alive and now she is eulogising him in death. Who is she trying to fool?” asked a musician in the city.
Ironically, this was the city that Ravi Shankar craved to come back to. He had told this reporter so in no uncertain terms.
It was the eve of his 91st birthday. Late night for us and early morning for him and yet the sitar maestro, who had frequently been in and out of hospital in the past four years, sounded as fresh and bright as the morning sun. Conversation with the legend flowed quick and easy as the birthday boy spoke animatedly about turning 91, about his grandson Zubin, and of course his beloved Calcutta.
“Ekhon pratyek deen-i jonmodin mone hoy. Jotodin pari tomader bhalobasha niye thakbo (Now every day is like a birthday. As long as I can, I will live off the love of you all),” said Ravi Shankar from his home in Encinitas, in April 2011.
Choosing to speak in Bengali throughout the conversation, the sitar legend based in the US for more than five decades had defied age and ailment to say: “We’ll be coming to India… Tokhon khub ichhey achey Kolkatay ashaar. Eto bhalobashi Kolkatakey… dekho jodi tomader taan thakey taholey ashbo (I really want to come to Calcutta… let’s see if your love draws me there).”
That was not to be.
Panditji’s last big tour in the city — before a not-so-happy stopover for a concert at Netaji Indoor Stadium in February 2009 — was in December 2007. It was after a five-year pause that the sitar maestro had spent time in Calcutta, that too accompanied by wife Sukanya, daughters Anoushka and Norah Jones and pet dog Suki. The family stayed at Taj Bengal and the father-daughter duo of Ravi and Anoushka performed at Calcutta Club. Norah had joined the family mid-trip to hear her father perform and meet some of his old friends and associates.
Robin Pal, an impresario with the cultural centre Jalsaghar and a tour manager, friend and guide to Ravi Shankar since 1976, recalled the time he was entrusted with the task of taking a year-old Norah and her mother Sue Jones around Calcutta during their first visit to the city.
“They were in Calcutta for a week and Raviji had asked me to take care of them and take them to Dakshineswar, Victoria Memorial, Marble Palace and the racecourse. We even tried to make Norah ride a pony on the Maidan,” said Pal, revealing how Panditji loved the “kanchagolla from Mithai” and going on long drives around the Maidan when the streets were empty.
Pandit Vijay Kichlu
He was a miracle, a sage, a saint… no ordinary
person could have done what he did.
My association with Panditji goes back to the 1940s when my father was an dministrator
at the Uday Shankar
centre in Almora.
We played together
and I used to learn Bharatanatyam at the centre, so I remember clearly the consternation in the Shankar family when Robida (his family called him Robu) decided to give up dance to train under Baba Allauddin Khan. He was a brilliant dancer and they expected him to carry the family
tradition forward. No one knew it then but it was a decisive moment for India. They had this conference and everyone was upset but ultimately, they gave
in and what a boon it was for the world of music!
We didn’t meet often. The Almora centre shut down in the 1940s. But whenever we met as grownups at concerts, he always greeted me with the same affection of boyhood. He was always smiling and was always eager to laugh and make others laugh. In fact, whenever he met friends, he would ask: “So what is the latest joke?”
I remember that I tried to meet him during a
presentation last October but when I reached his home in San Diego, he was not well. He later called to say how much he regretted not being able to meet me.