Shastriya sangeet ka suraj dhal gaya. Sangeet ka bura din aa gaya hai. Aaj bahut kharab din hai. Itne bade kalaakar ko Bhagwan ne kyon bula liya, mujhe samajh mein nahin aa raha. Hamare ghar ki chhat nikal gayi aur hamare saamne deewar bankar khadi ho gayi hai (The sun has set on Indian classical music. It is a bad for music. It is a very bad day. I cannot understand why God has called away such a great artiste. The roof of our house has blown away and is standing in front of us like a wall).” 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. He was 92.
Shankar was the recipient of numerous honours, including India’s highest honours—the Padma Bhushan in 1967, Padma Vibhushan in 1981 and 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 which 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.
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 Concert for Bangladesh, which was held in 1971. He made appearances at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, California, and Woodstock Music & Art Fair, 1969 Catskills, Bethel, New York, 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.
Pandit Somesh Mathur, son of Pandit Sarvesh Chandra Mathur and violinist Sudha Mathur, recalls growing up around Shankar’s visits to their Kolkata home in the transition days from dancer to musician. “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 than that 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, who was gearing up to perform at an ashram near the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, said he was unsure if he would be up to the performance, which would nevertheless be dedicated to the sitar maestro, if it took place.
Chaurasia, who toured with Shankar for four months in Europe, and then shared the stage with him numerous times, considered him a family member and an evangelist of Indian classical music. “I have never yet come across such a gem of a human being in the classical music circuit. He was a teacher and guide. To him, Indian music was a religion and he made it his mission to spread it beyond India’s shores; that was his zeal and his reach. 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 opinion, he did not perform with, John Coltrane, composer Philip Glass, and more recently, violinist Joshua Bell—came from a place of 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.
Music composer Ranjit Barot, who was part of an ensemble band that played with Shankar in 1980, explains his influence on the extended music scene internationally as spearheading 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; his constant search was to find those points at which connection occurred,” Barot says.
Shankar’s greatest influence, that of what he calls his extraordinary aalaapchari, says Jasraj, should not be sought on the following generations of classical music. “Forget what comes next. He even influenced us. He was fearless. 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 students of Panditji. Those who did not study with him, copied him, listened to him, and were equally influenced by him,” says Jasraj.
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. There was always agarbatti (incense sticks) on the stage when he played. 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. He was perfect. He was larger than life. One was always in awe of him when he entered a room. He woke up every morning and first looked at the large life-size photograph of Baba Allauddin Khan that hung next to his bed. That says it all about him. He remained a student his entire life,” she says.
On hearing of his death, Ustad Zakir Hussain conveyed that he was too shattered to pay extended tribute; choosing simply to release a media statement saying: “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.”