Ravi Shankar’s presence on the Indian aesthetic plane has been so constant, that with his passing an essential part of what being an Indian means has disappeared— as if the gulmohur tree is now bereft of flowers; the spring fields are without the flame of the forest; the monsoon sky weeps without the dancing peacock.
Throughout the past century, Ravi Shankar had been around, enveloping India with his music, interpreting the Indian ethos, celebrating India’s identity, its meaning. He was among the first and finest cultural ambassadors of India. He is there, wherever you look for a signpost of Indian culture, from the earliest days, when as a child he danced with his brother Uday Shankar. If Spike Lee and Francis Ford Coppola have turned to Indian music in their films, an early subconscious element influencing their choices has to be the familiarity they felt with Indian melodies, introduced successfully in the West in the mid-50s by Ravi Shankar—through his virtuoso sitar performances and his music for path-breaking films like Satyajit Ray’s perennial classic, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). Then the Beatles discovered him and he gained mass appeal—he was now at Woodstock, educating audiences with his good humour—“If you enjoyed the tuning so much, I hope you enjoy the show,” he said, when they started applauding when he had stopped tuning the sitar. And he affected the conscience, being part of the original charity event, the Concert for Bangladesh. He affected many lives. A random example: I recall cooking one evening in 1986, at home in New York, with Ravi Shankar’s raga Ananda Bhairava in the background, when a friend who was a banker said that the music reminded her of the 60s. It made her wistful, thinking of the roads she could have taken; the music bringing her back to an innocent time when everything seemed possible.
From large public arenas, Ravi Shankar moved to concert halls—at Carnegie Hall and at the Lincoln Centre; fusing the east and the west with André Previn at the London Symphony Orchestra and later with Zubin Mehta at the New York Philharmonic; playing intricate melodies with Yehudi Menuhin, exploring what a violin could perform; providing the rhythmic leitmotif for Gandhi’s “discovery of India” in Richard Attenborough’s film; inviting the world to New Delhi with the hymn, Atha swagatam, shubha swagatam at the Asian Games in 1982; reimagining Sare Jahan se Achchhaa in his composition for Doordarshan’s visual montage; staging religious hymns in the communist-era Kremlin; and inventing new ragas.
This experimentation and improvisation showed Ravi Shankar’s enormous zest for life and love affair with creativity, but some purists became unhappy. His fusion diluted the purity of Indian music, according to them. But Ravi Shankar wanted to soar; he thought beyond boundaries – in a sense, embracing the Tagorean notion of nationalism, of striding confidently outside your shores with your culture as your talisman, and meeting other cultures on equal terms and embracing possibilities to create something new. He did not wish to keep Indian culture imprisoned in a cage; he wanted it use its wings; his music was not meant to be fossilized. And so he dipped into other forms, including the Japanese rokudan with Miyashita Susumu and Yamamoto Hozan, creating a new kind of music; he played the ragas in minor scale with Philip Glass.
Traditionalists compared him—unfairly and unnecessarily—with the late Vilayat Khan, his great contemporary, who was known for his speed and gayaki ang, or vocal style. Once when I asked him about it in an interview, he said: “Speed is not everything in music. This is not Borg versus McEnroe,” he said, his ear tuned to the contemporary metaphor, sharp as ever.
I first met him in 1985, when he had come to our small town in New Hampshire where I was a student, and had played before excited students. That night I walked home with tears of joy in my eyes, head held high, and felt slightly taller, basking in reflected glory, seeing the mesmerized audience leave the hall, awed. The next day, an Indian family invited some of us to meet him and the great Allah Rakha who had accompanied him on the tabla for a meal. We went on a long drive admiring the foliage. Watching the White River in Vermont, he started humming a tarana, Allah Rakha began clapping his hand in a rhythmic beat, creating an unlikely, impromptu, and unforgettable concert that stays embedded in the mind.
And I heard him last in 2008, at the Barbican in London, in what was billed as his farewell tour of Europe. He performed energetically, caressing the sitar with his light fingers, whispering to its strings to sing with his heart, becoming one with the sitar. He played raga Bihaag, before moving to Mishra Piloo. Later that evening, his early hesitancy lifted like the London fog and the old confidence returned, and stagelights created an orange halo around him. He plucked the strings at times, and his daughter Anoushka joined, a lively musical conversation, between two sitars, followed. As he played Mishra Piloo, he winked at the tabla player, smiled at his daughter. He’d pause unexpectedly, hoping to catch the tabla player unawares, but the young player was alert, matching the tempo and pitch.
That night, Ravi Shankar’s performance sounded like tropical rain in cold London, where it rains all the time, but as drizzle. Close your eyes, and you could see the swaying trees, the dancing peacocks, you could listen to the wind whistle.
“Tomorrow it won’t be the same,” he often said about his compositions, since each performance was different from the previous one—the music’s grammar the same, the interpretation different.
Tomorrow it won’t be the same.