The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- In praise of Ravi Shankar

Say “Ravi Shankar” in the town I live in, Bangalore, and most people think of a bearded fellow of forty-five with long black locks, these making an arresting contrast with his spotlessly white dhoti and kurta. This is the chap who, by all accounts, is the most successful of all postmodern gurus. Say “Ravi Shankar” to me, and I think of an old man of eighty-plus, his grey hair naturally curled, wearing a light-coloured kurta-pyjama. This is the person who is the most successful of Indian classical musicians.

The greater Ravi Shankar came visiting here recently. He was accompanied by his daughter, Anouskha, in a concert billed as a double act but which was widely regarded as a not-so-subtle attempt by the father to promote his progeny. In the event, the cynics were mistaken. True, Anoushka began the show, but after half-an-hour put down her sitar. Then, after a suitably long pause, her father walked in. I instinctively stood up to applaud, as one does when placed in the presence of the truly great. (I would have done the same if, say, I had been suddenly confronted by Sir Garfield Sobers in the flesh.) A thousand others stood up to clap him with me.

The spontaneity and scale of the greeting perhaps had bearing on what was to follow. Or perhaps Ravi Shankar had decided anyway that this was to be his night. He first played a slow and subtle Bihag, extending over an hour, and then his favourite Rangeela Piloo, the raga mixed with folk elements drawn from here and there. His daughter, still on stage, looked on and marvelled with the rest of us. She, and we, knew that this city would never again hear a concert quite like this. For one thing, there was probably never another sitar player born with this kind of talent. For another, there was certainly never another who had quite that kind of teacher. For a third, there was no one else who had been playing with such skill for so long — for seventy years now, the sitar has been, in effect, an extension of his own body. For a fourth, no Indian born in the age of globalized mass culture has had access to the dazzling range of songs and tunes that, in Ravi Shankar’s youth, were sung and played by the musicians of rural and small town India.

Born in 1917, Ravi Shankar Gangopadhyay joined his brother Uday Shankar’s troupe at the age of nine. Here he danced, and played all kinds of instruments — the sitar, the violin, the dilruba, and the flute. In 1935 the legendary musician and music teacher, Alauddin Khan, joined Uday Shankar. He left after a year, but took the younger brother with him. In 1938, when Alauddin Khan became the court musician at Maihar, in central India, Ravi also went along. For six years he took daily sitar lessons from his teacher. His fellow pupils were the guru’s son, Ali Akbar, who played the sarod; and the guru’s daughter, Annapurna, who played the surbahar. This, on Alauddin Khan’s part, was a well-crafted strategy; the cornering of all segments of the futures market.

In 1944 Ravi Shankar moved to Bombay. Here he gave concerts, taught his own pupils, and composed music for films. In 1949 he joined All India Radio as the conductor of the National Orchestra. He was a government servant for seven years, but in 1956 decided to become freelance once more. He now began to travel abroad, his talents attracting the attention of Western musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin, who became a lifelong friend, and Andre Previn, with whom he made a long playing record. In the Sixties, Ravi Shankar was taken up by the hippies and the counter-cultural generation. The Beatle, George Harrison, took lessons from him, while he was a star turn at the celebrated Bangladesh concert in New York. For the last thirty years he has moved with ease between the West and India.

Ravi Shankar’s long career mirrors the career of Indian classical music in the 20th century. He has been supported by, in turn, the princes, the state, the private consumer and sponsor, and the global economy. The profession as a whole has passed through these four stages of patronage — and each stage was necessary. For hundreds of years, nawabs and maharajas nurtured classical music, employing and encouraging musicians, and occasionally learning from them. The great gharanas are almost all associated with one or other princely court. Then, after the old order vanished with Independence, the state stepped in. The different stations of All India Radio employed talented, but now out-of-work, musicians. For decades on end, to be chosen to play or sing on the Saturday night National Programme of AIR was the summit of a musician’s achievement.

State support to classical music has increasingly been supplemented by the market. Wealthy individuals organize baithaks in their homes, Middle-class music societies allow the less endowed to collectively bring performers to their towns. In the larger cities, philanthrophic industrialists (or their wives) help subsidize four and five day events — the Dover Lane concerts in Calcutta, the Shankar Lal festival in New Delhi, the Sawai Gandharva Utsav in Poona. The final stage has seen Indian music going global. Ravi Shankar was a pioneer here — playing, in the first instance, for a Western white audience. However, from the Eighties, another kind of global market has emerged — this servicing the needs of the Indian diaspora. Thus the better classical musicians can count on making some handy dollars on annual visits to non-resident Indian communities living on the west and east coasts of the United States of America.

Ravi Shankar, however, is not just one of “the better classical musicians”. He is one of the holy trinity of great modern instrumentalists, whose other members are his own brother-in-law, Ali Akbar Khan, and the Banaras shehnai maestro, Bismillah Khan. In sheer musical terms, Ali Akbar shall be ranked a shade ahead of him. I said as much to my wife as we returned home after hearing Ravi Shankar play. “You are always making lists,” she replied: “It must come from your cricket training. Isn’t it enough that we have just heard a wonderful concert'” Her comments were fair, but then I had heard Ali Akbar in his pomp, and she hadn’t. Some days later I was able to pull out a book and wave it in front of her. This quoted the distinguished musicologist, Narayana Menon, as saying, in the Sixties, that he personally considered Ali Akbar Khan “the finest Indian musician performing today. In sheer depth and musical feeling I would put him above Ravi Shankar”.

What Ali Akbar lacked was Ravi Shankar’s discipline and gregariousness. He took little care of his body, so that as he aged his music declined. And by temperament he seems to be a withdrawn sort of character; one cannot imagine him making small talk to middle-brow Western audiences. Ravi Shankar, by contrast, has kept going at close to top form till the very end. and he can talk and charm the pants off anyone — Western or Indian, uniformed music lover like you and me or fellow genius like Yehudi Menuhin. Thus, while Ravi Shankar may or may not be the finest Indian musician of the 20th century, he has unquestionably been Indian music’s finest ambassador.

Strangely the appreciation of Ravi Shankar has been rather muted in his own home state. Bengalis have never really claimed him as one of their own. His achievements match those of Satayjit Ray and Amartya Sen; but, unlike those two, he has not become a bhadralok icon. (Why, in this respect, even a mere cricketer like Sourav Ganguly ranks above him.) My own Bengali friends continually disparage him. They say he is careerist, ambitious; that he deliberately kept his first wife who was also his guru’s daughter away from the concert stage; that he does not encourage younger artists; that in musical terms he is equalled or even eclipsed by Vilayat Khan and Nikhil Banerjee.

I ran this last judgment by Basudev Chatterji, professor of history at Delhi University, an accomplished sitar player himself, and — what is equally significant — a probashi Bengali who grew up in Lucknow. With due respect to Vilayat and Nikhil Banerjee, he nonetheless insisted that, like Ali Akbar and Bismillah, in his own realm, Ravi Shankar was supreme.

It seems to me that the undervaluation of Ravi Shankar in his native heath is a consequence of his being too cosmopolitan, that is, not Bengali enough. From the beginning, he has chosen to be a citizen of India, and later, of the world. Notably, when that other global citizen, Amartyada, returns home, he comes first to Calcutta and Santiniketan. But Ravi Shankar might choose instead to go to Banaras or Delhi or even Maihar. That, more than anything else, might explain why this very great Indian has not yet become a great Bengali.

[email protected]

Email This Page