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George, I shall join you soon, he said

In a way it is strange this should have happened now, when I am in India and actually headed to a seminar in Chennai where I planned to close my presentation with a 1968 video film of Ravi presenting my mother Indrani’s performances.

It is a seminar on “Epic Women” in which my mother figures, and this video is a most wonderful introduction to her. I do not know how I am going to speak about this video now. A truly beatific presence has left us and I am filled with a sense I cannot describe. Ravi was so close to us, and Ravi was such a person of the world.

I was about to launch my book Dancing in the Family in 2000-2001 here in Delhi and my publishers were pushing me on a celebrity launch. Knowing how close our families were, they asked if I could request Ravi Shankar to inaugurate the book.

I wasn’t at all sure. He had been unwell and I thought it would have been too much to trouble him with such things. I was very reluctant, but my publishers kept pushing. Eventually, I picked up the phone and asked him, and his response was instant.

He said he was in the middle of reading my book and loving it and would be very happy to launch it. He was staying at his Lodhi Road house in Delhi those days, and he came and spoke and stayed a long, long time. And when he began to talk, he seamlessly went all the way back to the common history of our families in the Calcutta of the 1940s and he recalled how he used to come to our house with his brother Uday Shankar.

My mother Indrani, and her mother Ragini Devi, were part of that shared history with Ravi and he spoke very warmly about it. Much later, of course, he became an artist colleague of my mother’s in the US and internationally. They did many concerts and tours together.

He was very fond of me. When I was studying at the Ecole (Nationale des) Beaux Arts in Paris in the late 1960s, he would call each time he was passing by. I remember he took me along to the Paris screening of A Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles, and he would always be inviting me out to dinners and to cultural events. He was very, very warm.

My other connection with him came much later, when I was already in New York and had started dancing, after my mother. My mother was doing events with him, I remember the Festival of India concerts during which Ravi became acquainted with Frank Wicks, my mother’s manager. It was around that time that Ravi asked Frank to become his tour manager as well, and it so happened that Frank and I got married. So it was all like a family, like things had mysteriously come together for us in such a lovely way.

Frank’s great Ravi Shankar story is, of course, the Woodstock story from 1969. A big storm had come down and everything around Woodstock lay disrupted and Ravi and several others were stuck. So Frank hired a helicopter and took Ravi and Maharshi Mahesh Yogi and Alla Rakha and a few others choppering right into Woodstock and they were able to perform in time.

He always seemed to have great, legendary people around him and yet he was so utterly human. I remember being called backstage at one of his performances in New York and there was George Harrison, right there in flesh and blood. I was shaking with excitement and desperate to call people to tell them I was sitting beside the great George Harrison, but of course I had to struggle and keep my calm through it all.

If you knew him you also knew how lightly he wore his fame. He loved people around him, his friends, his fans, I never remember him being standoffish. He was gentle and soft and one of the handsomest and charismatic men I shall ever know. And probably the most passionate too.

One concert night long ago in Los Angeles, Ravi was playing with Ali Akbar Khan and soon after they began to play, some of us realised it was going to be quite a performance. They shook the hall up, the recital was so impassioned, I think Khansaheb broke his sarod strings while playing.

I sometimes feel we were connected in many ineffable ways. My mother and my grandmother made connections I inherited. Then came Frank, my husband. And when Frank stopped being his road manager, Sue Jones took over, and, of course, Sue became mother to Norah Jones.

We have lovely memories of the little Norah in a crib backstage while Ravi played. But there are so many memories, there are memories and memories of him and I think it is too soon to begin remembering. We were expecting this, of course, but that moment, when it arrives, is always sad, especially with people like Ravi.

About the last time I saw him on stage was a couple of years ago at the Carnegie Hall in New York. He was getting an award — probably a Unesco award — for his accomplishments and it was being handed him by Olivia Harrison, George’s widow. Many of us were there. Sukanya and Anoushka were there, and Norah and many other members of the family and many more friends and fans.

I remember that moment very clearly. As he came to receive the award from Olivia, he beamed as only he could and looked up and said: “George, I loved you very much and you knew that; I love you very much and I shall be joining you soon.”

It gave me goose-pimples to hear him say that in that fashion. And now he has left us to join George.

Sukanya Rahman, a US-based dancer and visual artist, is the daughter of
Indrani Rahman, renowned exponent of Bharatanatyam, Kathakali and Kuchipudi