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A home in music

Ravi Shankar first came to Calcutta in 1932-33, after a US trip with elder brother Uday Shankar’s troupe during which Hollywood actress Marie Dressler had wanted to adopt the little boy. Ravi was 12 or 13 then. They stayed in Calcutta for about a year.

Many firsts happened to Ravi Shankar in Calcutta. He visited Bolpur, saw Tagore and was dazzled — by the whiteness of his beard and the piercing black eyes. A year later, after an India tour, the troupe was back in the city. Ravi Shankar saw Allauddin Khan for the first time, he says in his autobiographical book Smriti, co-written by Shankarlal Bhattacharya. Allauddin Khan, who taught Ravi Shankar his music and whom Ravi would call “Baba”, was wearing a short dhoti, a cap, had very short, dyed hair, was strikingly simple in appearance. But he exuded power. “(He) played like a tiger,” says Ravi.

In Calcutta, during this stay, Ravi suffered a bout of typhoid that stopped him from becoming a pupil of Enayet Khan. Later he said that was fate, to enable him to become Allauddin Khan’s pupil. In Calcutta the troupe was staying in two houses in Elgin Road. When Ravi got well, it was as if he got a new life. “There was a new awakening — in my whole body. In my whole mind. I all of a sudden became an adult and I had my first real experience in my life — at that age — and that was fantastic,” he says in Smriti.

He also lost his virginity in this city. Calcutta was special for Ravi Shankar all his life. He would come to the city every year, till the end of his life, and often stay for long stretches. There were houses — he stayed with Annapurna Devi, his first wife, Allauddin Khan’s daughter, at Presidency Court in Ballygunge Phanri for a few years in the 50s, till he began to spend the better part of the year in the West. Later when he visited the city he used to stay at Lala Sridhar’s residence in Ballygunge. It is only in his last years, after his marriage to Sukanya Rajan, that he would stay in a hotel. There were people. There were women — the names of several beautiful, accomplished women in the city pop up in connection with the sitar great. There were men — the best of them, with whom he made music — and politics.

At an adda in Calcutta in the early 80s. The sitar maestro had come to visit Satyajit Ray (back to camera), who was recovering from a heart attack. At the far end are actor Soumitra Chatterjee and Bijoya Ray (picture by Nemai Ghosh)

In the early 50s, when Ravi Shankar was staying in Gyanprakash Ghosh’s house in Dixon Lane, a young man called Satyajit Ray approached him to compose the music for his film that he was making with great hardship. Ravi Shankar watched the rushes of the film at Bhavani cinema and was so moved that he agreed instantly to compose music for the film. Ravi Shankar went on to compose the music for the other two films of Ray’s Apu trilogy and Parashpathar, Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala and Kalamati, Purnendu Patri’s Telenapota Abishkar and Utpal Dutta’s play Angar.

Ravi Shankar was part of the IPTA movement, which made him interact closely with progressive cultural activists from Calcutta at a time the city was still the undisputed cultural capital of the country.

He preformed with Zubin Mehta in this city three times, starting from the early 80s. What was written about him in the Calcutta papers could sting him into writing rejoinders. Only another city was dearer to Ravi Shankar than Calcutta, says Bhattacharya: Benares. Paris, where he went to school for two years as a boy, was also very dear to him. He had once wistfully said he wanted to die in Calcutta, says Bhattacharya, moved by the tribute the city had paid to Uday Shankar after his death. And Calcutta, discerning and undiscerning, loved him back, loved his melody, the sweetness of his music. So much so that the Bengali is ready to compare any accomplishment of excellence, be it a dish, a dress or a dance, to “Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the jhala”. But as one searches the connections that a musician like Ravi Shankar built with a place like Calcutta, endearing as they were to him, one also sees what they were not. This city, or any place, even Los Angeles, where he had lived for decades, were stops, short or long, in his one continuous journey in music. He belonged to no one location, not even to Benares, where he had lived his earliest years with his mother, a single woman raising five sons, and to which he returned in his dreams.

Like the ancient archetype, Ravi Shankar was a travelling performer. He had only one constant house, his gharana, his school of music that came from Allauddin Khan in Maihar, the word “gharana” also being rooted in “ghar” (house/home). For if Ravi Shankar has left any true legacy, it is the purity of the ragas that he took abroad, say fellow musicians. Traditional criticism has said that to popularise music abroad, he compressed the many parts of a raga and diluted its essence, but many feel that what he played, here and abroad, could qualify as standard forms of the ragas. Sitar player Subrata Roychowdhury, who saw Ravi Shankar from close, traces in detail Allauddin Khan’s musical lineage to Wazir Khan of Rampur, whose school could be traced to Tansen and who also taught Hafiz Ali Khan, vocalist Mushtaq Hussain Khan and veenkar Pramathanath Banerjee. “Allauddin Khan was summoned to his deathbed and taught,” says Roychowdhury. Ravi Shankar got the advantage of that knowledge. “He was generous. But Allauddin’s music in its full authenticity can only be found in his son, daughter and son-in-law,” says Roychowdhury.

Ravi Shankar came from a formal, rigid tradition — he was no maverick, points out Roychowdhury. He edited and reset the ragas, but that is part of the tradition of classical music. “The Bhimpalasri alaap that he played at the Montreaux festival in Canada was played in its minutest detail without in any way diluting the traditional raga for the foreign audience. The raga was played so purely that it can be used as an archive reference,” Roychowdhury adds.

At a concert abroad, Ravi Shankar would fight for a whole evening instead of a small slot, says Roychowdhury. He made his name because of the purity of his music, not for the fusion. “He never fooled around,” says Roychowdhury. In his music, he was always rooted. Ravi Shankar himself saw the contradiction. If he was not always faithful in his life, he was in his art. “I don’t know how pure a moral character I have but the ragas that I have played are pure,” he told several times, says Bhattacharya.

Faithfulness has a different meaning in Indian music. “In Western music, land is cleared, a new building is raised, music is created. In Indian music, it is always a blend, an improvement,” says Roychowdhury. He feels that contemporary fusion music can threaten the purity of Indian classical.

Tabla player Tanmay Bose, who played with Ravi Shankar till the last, stresses that it was Ravi Shankar who established Indian classical music as classical music, with its rigour, grammar and training, which was not another kind of ethnic music. He played music the way his audience would appreciate. “You should listen to the 78rpms of Abdul Karim Khan and Enayet Khan’s three-minute performances,” he says. Ravi Shankar has left many legacies, Bose adds. An artiste is known by his “tone”, his individuality. Ravi Shankar, moreover, created an instrument that was individual, a cross between the surbahar and the sitar. He allowed the tabla player prominence, raising his status in the performance, and he demanded that he be taken seriously as an artiste abroad, raising the status of Indian artistes abroad. “Classical musicians from here go abroad and earn money from the performances there, on which they can survive. This is because of Ravi Shankar,” says Bose.

He did it by treating the world to pure Indian classical.