Pandit Ravi Shankar: The great connector

Sitar maestro spread Indian classical music beyond borders, influencing peers and subsequent generations
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First Published: Wed, Dec 12 2012. 10 24 AM IST
Winner of the Bharat Ratna in 1999, Pandit Ravi Shankar had received three Grammy Awards during the course of his illustrious career. Photo: HT
Winner of the Bharat Ratna in 1999, Pandit Ravi Shankar had received three Grammy Awards during the course of his illustrious career. Photo: HT
Updated: Thu, Dec 13 2012. 10 32 AM IST
Shastriya sangeet ka suraj dhal gaya. Sangeet ka bura din aa gaya hai. (“The sun has set on Indian classical music. It is a bad day for music.” Pandit Jasraj is in tears on the way back to Mumbai from Pune.
Sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar, whom he considered an elder brother, died at the Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla in San Diego, US, of a cardiac-related illness on 11 December at 92.
He was the recipient of numerous honours, including India’s highest—the Padma Bhushan in 1967, the Padma Vibhushan in 1981, the Bharat Ratna in 1999—and even an Order of the British Empire in 2001.
Shankar, born Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, on 7 April 1920, in Varanasi, came to the sitar late in the day by classical music standards, taking it up at the age of 18 under the gurukul-style tutelage of Baba Allauddin Khan, founder of the Maihar-Senia Gharana of Hindustani classical music. Until 1938, he was a dancer in his brother Uday Shankar’s troupe, touring Europe, which is where he picked up English, French, and influences of jazz that would later inform his playing. He married Baba Allauddin Khan’s daughter Annapurna Devi; he sent her brother, sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, in his stead when Russian musician Yehudi Menuhin, blown away by Shankar’s performance for him when he visited India in 1952, invited him to perform in New York in 1955.

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      In partnership with Menuhin, Shankar later won his first Grammy in 1967 for Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East. In 1972, he won his second Grammy for his collaboration with George Harrison and Eric Clapton, among others, for the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.
      He played at iconic international music festivals such as Monterey Pop (1967) and Woodstock (1969), and most recently on 4 November at Long Beach, California, along with his daughter Anoushka. He had three children: sitarist Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Sukanya Rajan; American artist Norah Jones, daughter of Sue Jones; and the late sitarist and painter Shubhendra Shankar, son of Annapurna Devi. Both Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka are nominated separately for a 2013 Grammy; Anoushka for Traveller and Ravi Shankar for The Living Room Sessions Part 1.
      Pandit Somesh Mathur, son of Pandit Sarvesh Chandra Mathur and violinist Sudha Mathur, recalls growing up around Shankar’s visits to their Kolkata home. “He was simply sheer genius. He brought a new dynamic. He introduced the mandra saptak ki aalaapkaari in the sitar, which wasn’t prevalent before; he introduced the meend ka kaam in lower khadaj and the purity of the notes were only unique to him. He took forward the legacy of Ustad Allauddin Khan by introducing raga-based orchestras, which helped build the brand that Indian classical music became in the West. But more, was the force of his personality: He brought all the various influences around him into his music. Because of his dance background, his fingering technique and his sense of rhythm were incomparable.”
      On hearing the news, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, preparing to perform in Kerala, said he was unsure if he would be up to performing. (He did, dedicating the performance to the sitar maestro.)
      Chaurasia, who shared the stage with Shankar numerous times, considered him an evangelist of Indian classical music. “I have never yet come across such a gem of a human being in the classical music circuit. To him, Indian music was a religion and he made it his mission to spread it beyond India’s shores. Today when I go overseas to perform, I do not have to explain the nuances of Indian classical music to anybody. If they understand, it is because of him.” His peers tried to emulate him, learn from his playing. But his experiments—with jazz, electronica, and Far-Eastern influences; elements that attracted disciples like Harrison of The Beatles, who, contrary to popular belief, he did not perform with, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Philip Glass, and more recently, violinist Joshua Bell—came from a deep knowledge of the tenets of classical music, its boundaries and grammar. “He was also the first to extend the understanding of classical music as a spiritual practice,” Chaurasia says.
      Composer Ranjit Barot, who was part of an ensemble that played with Shankar in 1980, explains his influence on the extended music scene, spearhead of the crossover.
      “He was a giant of an Indian classical musician in his own right but he also opened a door on both sides of the divide. He connected India and the West harmonically and spiritually and when working with him, one got the sense that that was his quest; to find those points of connection,” Barot says.
      Shankar’s greatest influence, his extraordinary alaapchari, was felt strongly by his contemporaries. “Forget what comes next. He even influenced us; his peers. He was fearless,” Jasraj said. “He was our leader. Jo lena-dena hai, adaan-pradhan hota hai sangeet ka, unki mehfil mein chahe-unchahe par bhi jadoo sa asar pada (The give and take of his music was such that its influence in his concerts fell on those who loved it, equally as it fell on those who didn’t hold any special liking for it). Those who studied with him were marked for life as his students. Those who did not study with him, copied him, listened, and were equally influenced by him.”
      His daughter, Durga Jasraj, recalls sharing a green room in rotation with Shankar at an all-night concert in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1988. “I discovered small things about him then. He would dilute alta (a red decorative liniment used by dancers) till very light and smear it on his hands for a sheen that would reflect when he played. He would change his clothes between every appearance. For him, the presentation of music was as important as the performance itself.” Her last meeting with Shankar was in March.
      “How does one describe a man who was always perceptive, always intelligent, his brain always ticking. One was always in awe of him. He woke up every morning and first looked at the life-size photograph of Baba Allauddin Khan that hung next to his bed. He remained a student his entire life,” she says.
      Ustad Zakir Hussain, too distressed to pay extended tribute, released a media statement: “Beings like him don’t die, they just go back to heaven to take their rightful place amongst Gods. Today, with his presence, heaven is enriched. Farewell, Uncle Ravi.”
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      First Published: Wed, Dec 12 2012. 10 24 AM IST
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