In a letter dated December 31, 1977, Ravi Shankar confides that the photographer, Aloke Mitra — whose collection of candid images has gone into the making of the book, RAVI: THE COLOURS OF THE SUN (Alchemy, Rs 1,895) — has followed him like a “shadow” in London, and even landed up at the dentist’s chamber. What the maestro was alluding to in the note — which has been reproduced in the book — in his inimitable style and impish tone, was Mitra’s skill at capturing unguarded moments on film. Ravi, thus, is a visual tribute not only to an exceptional artist but also to the rare vignettes that made up his life and times.
Yehudi Menuhin, who has written the foreword, describes Ravi Shankar fondly as a “warm human being”. Two images in particular — one showing Shankar playing cards with his companion, Kamala, and another depicting the aged artist showering affection on his daughter, Anoushka — perfectly capture the warmth of Shankar’s personality that was treasured by friends like Menuhin.
But the strength of the book lies not merely in the depictions of such private moments. Sankarlal Bhattacharjee, who has written the accompanying text, states unerringly that Mitra’s photographs provide a sense of “retrieval” in terms of time and space. While pursuing the artist, Mitra had found himself travelling to Banaras, London and Calcutta. Thus, his photographs can also be interpreted as a visual narrative of three cities that differ greatly in terms of settings and moods but, nonetheless, share a sense of timelessness. What is noticeable is that even though Shankar remains the focus of the camera, Mitra dexterously weaves in elements that are central features of his immediate surroundings. The alleys of Banaras, the pigeons in “Picadelly Square” (sic) and the smoky Hooghly function not only as tools of identification but also as a testimony to the unchangeability of spaces.
The reproduction of some of the photographs — the one showing Shankar roaming London’s streets carrying a sitar, for instance — could have been improved upon. But these photographs are a pleasing addition to the vast body of work that aims to explore what went into the making of the artist and his world.
Left and bottom right are disarming portrayals of the artist, one showing him savouring an ice cream and the other capturing his sense of enjoyment in a game of cards. The mood turns contemplative, even sombre, in the photograph of Shankar in the courtyard of a famous Kali temple. Top, showing Shankar in a ghat in Banaras — a city markedly different from bustling London — reveals his comfort in worlds both old and new.