1. Ravi Shankar started his performing career as a dancer in (his eldest brother) Uday Shankar’s troupe. He toured with the troupe from the age of 10 and started his study of the sitar only at 18.
2. When he heard Amiya Kanti Bhattacharya play the sitar in Kolkata, Shankar decided that he too must study under Bhattacharya’s guru, Ustad Inayat Khan (Ustad Vilayat Khan’s father). The night before the ganda bandhan or thread-tying ceremony (where a guru officially accepts a disciple), however, Shankar was hospitalized with typhoid. He felt destiny wanted him to have another guru. Otherwise, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar, part of perhaps the greatest rivalry ever in Hindustani instrumental music, would have ended up being guru bhais!
3. Shankar became a disciple of Baba Allauddin Khan. Baba was known to have a violent temper and almost all his disciples (most of all his son Ustad Ali Akbar Khan) found themselves at the receiving end of his wrath. Shankar was the only student to escape his ire. On one occasion, when Shankar could not play a passage to Baba’s satisfaction, Baba told him to buy some bangles and wear them like a girl. This offended Shankar so much that he almost left Maihar in Madhya Pradesh (where Baba lived and taught). However, at the last moment, emotion got the better of both guru and disciple. From then on, Baba never reacted to Shankar’s mistakes. He would leave the room to take his anger out on other people, sometimes even on stray dogs. Shankar later became his son-in-law (through his marriage to Annapurna Devi).
4. When George Harrison of the Beatles came to India to learn from him, Shankar asked the guitarist to assume a disguise to avoid people recognizing, and flocking around, him. Harrison changed his hairstyle and grew a moustache (an attempt that he himself later described as naïve). He managed to clear customs and immigration, but got caught out by the elevator boy at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel in Mumbai. Soon enough, there was a crowd outside. Shankar and Harrison fled to Srinagar, where they lived on a houseboat and continued Harrison’s study of the sitar.
5. The song Sare Jahan Se Achha was set to tune by Shankar. Written by Muhammad Iqbal in 1904, it had a more drawn-out tune until Shankar was asked to reset it in 1945. Most people are unaware of this, including HMV, which attributes the tune as “traditional” in an album featuring patriotic songs by Lata Mangeshkar.
6. Following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Shankar was asked to play “some mournful music without tabla accompaniment” on All India Radio. Drawing from the name Gandhi, he took the three sargam notes that approximate it—“Ga” (third), “Ni” (seventh) and “Dha” (sixth)—and developed a new melodic theme. He called this new raga Mohankauns, since it was similar to raga Malkauns. He later used the same raga as a refrain in his score for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
7. Shankar provided the score for Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar). When Shankar heard of Ray’s death, he spontaneously composed a piece that he named Farewell, My Friend. It was subsequently recorded and released by HMV.
8. Shankar was nominated by Rajiv Gandhi to the Rajya Sabha and served as a member of Parliament between 1986 and 1992.
9. His performance at Woodstock (1969) remains one of Shankar’s great regrets. He termed it a “terrifying experience”, where the stoned audience reminded him of “the water buffaloes you see in India, submerged in the mud”. He was so put off that he stopped performing in the US for a year and a half. He resumed only when he found agents who organized concerts at classical venues, as opposed to the pop and rock agents who were handling his concerts during the period leading up to Woodstock.
10. The Concert for Bangladesh, held in 1971, was Shankar’s initiative, and he organized it alongside George Harrison. Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan opened the show. The two had just finished tuning their instruments when the audience burst into applause. Shankar spoke into the mike: “If you like our tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”
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