Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha, Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala, Gulzar’s Meera, Mrinal Sen’s Genesis… for films as different as their makers, the only common string was the music of Pandit Ravi Shankar.
The maestro of classical music would often step out of his comfort zone and “score music for friends and films he liked”.
His involvement with the Indian People’s Theatre Association drove Ravi Shankar to his first two film scores — the directorial debuts of Chetan Anand (Neecha Nagar) and Khwaja Ahmed Abbas (Dharti Ke Lal), both in 1946. But it was a directorial debut nine years later that would become the high point of Panditji’s filmography — Ray’s Pather Panchali.
“Baba was a great admirer of Uday Shankar and it was through the Shankar family that he first got introduced to Ravi Shankar,” recalls son Sandip Ray. “I believe Ravi Shankar had looked through the rushes of Pather Panchali and was very impressed, after which they started working together and turned into friends. They developed a kind of mutual admiration.”
He added: “Whenever Ravi Shankar was in town, he would make it a point to call Baba to either his private concerts or for an adda at the Elgin Road house of the Sens (as a guest of businessman Kalyan Sen), popularly known as Jahajbari, where he would often stay or perform privately.”
Till this day, much like the film, the Pather Panchali background score is celebrated worldwide and has earned praise from Hollywood masters such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Ravi Shankar would go on to score the music for Ray’s other two Apu films, Aparajito and Apur Sansar, and also for the comic satire Parash Pathar.
Sandip Ray also remembers the time Joi Baba Felunath was being shot. “Ravi Shankar also happened to be in Benares and he invited Baba and all of us over to his place. So Baba, myself, Soumitrakaku (Chatterjee), Santosh Dutta and some others went and spent an entire day with him. He came across as quite a cinema buff.…”
Ray and Ravi Shankar remained friends throughout. When he passed away, the sitar guru did a tribute album called Farewell, My Friend.
“Everyone talks about how Pather Panchali the film inspired the score but the association with Ravi Shankar and his music inspired Satyajit Ray so much that he actually wanted to make a documentary on the sitar,” said filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh.
“Despite his classical music background, Panditji came up with a simple, relatable tune in Apu’s theme that is still universal and evergreen. He didn’t want to showcase his sitar-playing skills in his film score and had cinematographer Subrata Mitra play the sitar for the film.”
Among the rest of his scores, Gandhi (1982) rang out the loudest and earned Ravi Shankar Best Original Score nominations at the Oscars, Baftas and the Grammy Awards. From capturing the collective grief of a sea of people walking at Bapu’s funeral to grabbing the nuances of a private moment in Gandhi’s life, the sitar legend matched the size and scope of Attenborough’s ambitious biopic note for note.
Mrinal Sen’s Genesis in 1986 was one of the last feature films Ravi Shankar worked on, marking their first and only collaboration.
“I really wanted to work at least once with a musician as brilliant as him,” Sen said. “He was not only a great sitarist, he was effortlessly youthful and you could always hear that in his music.”