In the heap of obituaries and appreciatory notices on Ravi Shankar’s life and works that have appeared in the past few weeks, there is one glaring omission. Not one reference is to be found to the role Uday Shankar, the brother 20 years Ravi Shankar’s senior, played in shaping the latter’s destiny. There would be no Pandit Ravi Shankar had not the senior brother, already on his way to be a legendary figure, taken charge of young Robu from the very beginning. None of the obituary notes acknowledge this datum; one is left wondering whether this is an instance of collective amnesia.
Banaras, the early 1930s. Robu, the youngest of the brothers, was a problem child. He was unmindful of studies, a habitual truant from school, given to prankish ways, which included stealing fruits and flowers from neighbours’ gardens. Uday Shankar persuaded their mother to let Robu accompany him during his first professional foray into the United States of America, the brat would learn a great deal more from exposure to the big, wide world than what a conventional school education could impart. The senior brother was right. Always indulgent to the youngest sibling, Uday Shankar wanted him to grow in his own manner without let or hindrance and yet find a footing in life. After America, it was time for Uday Shankar’s ambitious European tour in 1934. Robu became the youngest member of the troupe, which crisscrossed the major cities in the continent, presenting to the stodgy inter-war European bourgeoisie Uday Shankar’s synthesized narrative of India’s classical music and dance forms. Ravi Shankar would be a demure junior constituent of the Hara Parvati ballet ensemble that featured in the programme. It was only a brief interlude. Ustad Alauddin Khan, Baba to one and all, joined the group as its music director. Baba, always effusively affectionate in spite of occasional bursts of fury, playfully introduced young Robu to the tambura, the sitar and the sarod. Robu was not yet an instrumentalist, but was half-ready to take the plunge.
Travelling across Europe from Belgrade at one end to Stockholm at the other, with halts in between in Rome, Basle, Dresden and Paris, was itself a tremendous liberal education for the teenager. Was he not travelling with greatness? For, besides Alauddin Khan, such soon-going-to-emerge-as-luminaries as Vishnudas Shirali and Timir Baran Bhattacharya, too, were with the troupe. Robu listened as the senior members performed with their instruments. He felt the stirring inside. Stirring by itself meant little. The hard grind, which is the passage to worthwhile creative work, lay ahead.
The young Shankar siblings had inherited talent that ran in the family, and had daring and imagination as well. These attributes by themselves are not enough for an artiste to attain greatness whatever his or her field. He/she also needs to slog away, day after day, month after month, for years on end. Uday Shankar himself had it relatively easy. A dilettante by nature, he had, after an indifferent stint at London’s Royal College of Arts, absentmindedly drifted away from painting. Drawing ideas from Ananda Coomaraswamy, he got fixated on the notion of empiricizing Coomaraswamy and chanced upon a formula: collect an assortment of ideas on aspects of India’s classical as well as folk tradition in music and dance, gather the musicians and the performing artistes, seek advice from experienced choreographers and then mix the ingredients. Uday Shankar concocted a pastiche, marrying kathakali with kathak, a folk dance form from Kangra valley with Bharatnatyam, the ersatz with the real. It nonetheless took the West by storm. Why the West alone? — in those distant 20s and 30s of the last century, the northerners in the country woke up from their colonial slumber and discovered the culture of the South while watching Shankar’s ‘Hindu’ music and ballet team perform; it was a similar experience for the country’s southerners: Uday Shankar introduced the nation to its heritage.
But his pastiche was not much more than a bit of a period piece, a transitional phenomenon; its lustre vanished once the particular period passed, the vacuousness of his so-called creations was laid bare. There was something else too. Because he had at that point of time no competition, Uday Shankar could afford to be easygoing in his approach and proceed in a somewhat disorganized manner. He was also lucky with his local impresario, Haren Ghosh, who took upon himself the chores of planning the detailed scheduling of tours both within the country and overseas. Uday Shankar, had only his potpourri and his charm to contribute. All this went well in a naive, amateurish milieu, but was unlikely to click in a professional climate. Uday Shankar learnt this truth during his second trip to the US. Sol Hurok, then the most celebrated among American impresarios, had signed the contract with him for a two-month long programme of performances around the country. The schedule was as tight as it could be, every detail of it meticulously marked out, with no scope for any sloth, nor for any off-the-stage dalliances. Uday Shankar failed to pass Hurok’s test. There were drinking brawls among members of the troupe and other casual goings-about as well. The tour was abruptly cancelled and Uday Shankar was chucked out. His reputation in the West took a beating he could never recover from, however hard he tried in the subsequent years. World War II intervened. Uday Shankar pottered around. There was a foray into the world of films with Kalpana, but again, it gave the impression of disparate things slapped together, and could not create much of a stir. His labours with the so called shadow plays were equally unsuccessful. It was a tragic epilogue to a pioneering celebrity’s career, Uday Shankar was a back number even before he reached his fifties.
Ravi Shankar owed it to the senior brother for setting him on course, he also learned a great lesson from Uday Shankar’s tragedy. It was the eldest brother’s decision that Robu should, once the 1936 tour in Europe was over, travel to Maihar and have rigorous training under the tutelage of Baba Alauddin. For the younger sibling, it was banishment, but it in fact put the seal on the process of his being transformed into Ravi Shankar. At Maihar, it was a regime of rigid discipline for three long years. Ustad Alauddin Khan instructed Robu to concentrate on the sitar, and no further questions were to be entertained. Baba ordained long hours of practice, mornings, afternoons and evenings. He was a relentless task master and would not stop with mere tongue-lashing; it was accompanied by the occasional whip-lashing too. To be the complete artiste, Ravi Shankar was made aware, grasping the grammar of music was not enough; innate talent was not adequate either; what was additionally called for was total involvement and absolute discipline.
The Maihar phase stretched to a couple of years at the cultural centre Uday Shankar had set up at Almora in the late 1930s. Baba was around in Almora too and Ravi Shankar had no escape from discipline. It was both nerve-racking and physically exhausting, but the world’s finest sitarist was in the making. Baba taught Ravi to enter into the ecstatic mysteries of the ragas and of how to attain perfection inplaying the ragas; but the key to that passage was devotion; concentration and the willingness to slog away for hours. Baba guided Ravi Shankar; it was Uday Shankar though who guided him to Baba.
The centre at Almora folded. But Ravi Shankar had yet another rendezvous to keep with a school of discipline. This time the venue was the commune of the Indian People’s Theatre Association at Bombay: another kind of discipline where one learnt the craft of integrated living with fellow artistes who, alongside devotion to the arts, had to cultivate devotion to ideology too. The arts, one further learnt, were for the people and it was the people who provided the inspiration to strive for perfection and fresh discoveries. Ravi Shankar was perhaps untouched by the ideology: he was, however, by now shrewd enough to take the other hint: always keep it in mind for whom you are performing.
The IPTA phase was over and Ravi Shankar was ready for All India Radio and the world. The rest is conventional history, with narrations of excitements and achievements, reaching one peak of achievement after another. In due course, Ravi Shankar was discovered even by the Beatles; by then, it could do him no harm.
Robu, a predatory menace of a teenager to Banaras neighbours, ended up as Pandit Ravi Shankar, the global celebrity. When he died early this month, the media had a hard time coping with the flood of evocative pieces on his music and its genesis. There was not a single reference to Uday Shankar.
The raga begins, everybody knows, when the alaap ends. Uday Shankar was the alaap. Ravi performed the raga; there could be no raga if it is not preceded by the alaap. The lacuna in the obituaries is preposterous.