Very few meetings have been etched as firmly in my mind as our family’s visit to the Ravi Shankar home in the summer of 2009. I had worked very closely with Lakshmi Shankar and it was while learning music from her that I got to know more about Ravi ji. I knew that Ravi Shankar was almost synonymous with the sitar, the instrument that he had singlehandedly made a global musical phenomenon. I had heard compositions from the film Anuradha. But, my first exposure to his large scale orchestral work was through the film Gandhi that I saw in Chennai in 1983. I had gotten to admire the spirit of his orchestral works even during my Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) days. I had later listened to his symphonic works on National Public Radio (NPR) in the 1980s and had been fascinated by recordings of his breathtaking ensemble performances at the Kremlin, his collaboration with Phillip Glass and had paid a great deal of attention to his works such as “Ghanshyam.”
It was therefore with great anticipation that our family of four pulled up onto his driveway and knocked on the door of his home in San Diego. We were escorted in and warmly welcomed by Sukanya Shankar; a few minutes later, the maestro himself walked in with his hands in the namaste gesture and welcomed us warmly.
What was to be a 20 minute appointment stretched to more than three hours and spanned through discussions of his earlier works.
He spoke at length about his experience with ensembles, his accompanists, his recordings, his travels and more. His memory was sharp and his attention to detail was amazing. Above all, his warmth and affection towards us (total strangers) were completely disarming. We sat with him to have an unscheduled lunch. He even seemed to gauge my sweet tooth and served me an extra piece of “sweet” and called for chai at the very moment that I felt like having some. He listened to my archival recording of the nottusvara sahityas of Dikshitar and recordings of my symphonic works and complimented me. He listened to my daughters sing and happily watched them play with his dog Sukhi. The whole meeting seems surreal now.
Ravi Shankar was a pioneer. He saw possibilities that no one thought of. He forged unimaginable alliances. He went to places where no world musician had been, yet. He took Indian shastriya sangeet and musical ideas from Banaras and Madhya Pradesh and shared them unabashedly with musicians and audiences in North America and the rest of the world in a manner similar to Swami Vivekananda who spoke Vedanta at the conference of World Religions in Chicago—again in unchartered territory.
We see a lot of musical collaborations today in a world where the Internet has brought unprecedented access to music; desktop recording facilities have also brought in a tremendous degree of flexibility for composers; giving them the ability to visualize music and hear it before presenting it to an audience. However in Ravi Shankar’s times, his musical ideas were just memorized or written down in ink. “His compositions and visualizations were absolutely magical,” says Lakshmi Shankar, recalling the days when Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar, Rajendra Shankar and herself would sit together after dinner and conceptualize the musical presentation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Discovery of India,” presenting the various stages of India’s history on stage.
Ravi Shankar who passed away in December 2012 was a living representation of a bygone era. He spoke of his guru Baba Allauddin Khan (1862-1972) with reverence. During our meeting with him, he discussed ragas such as “Adi Basant” which are no more in vogue. (His large scale project “Music Festival from India” from 1974 contains a dhamar in this raga sung by Lakshmi Shankar, Vijayashree Subramanian, T.V. Gopalakrishnan and others). A Bengali speaking global citizen born in Banaras, he bears no parochial feelings of “the other” when talking about Karnatik music or Hindustani music. It is clear that he looked at Indian music from a holistic perspective; he is a musician that has transcended the boundaries of the two systems perceived today. He speaks very highly of the pedagogy and the rigor of laya in the South Indian tradition. Indeed he was the first to adopt some of the scalar ragas from the South Indian system and render them popular in his inimitable style.
Yes, he was a bold pioneer and now ragas such as Kirvani, Charukesi and Vachaspati are common place amongst practicing musicians; even scalar ragas like Rasikapriya have rightfully gotten adapted and rendered in the alap/jor/jhala format by other musicians.
The recording “Music festival from India”—one of whose pieces I had rehearsed with my friends at IIT Kharagpur back in early 1980s—features the who’s who of Indian music. It was Ravi Shankar’s leadership along with George Harrison that paved the way for a galaxy of stars such as Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Alla Rakha, T.V. Gopalakrishnan, L. Subramanian, Lakshmi Shankar and others. There is an unpublished piece from this project—a short khyal in Kedar sung by Lakshmi Shankar and T.V. Gopalakrishnan that I heard at Lakshmi Shankar’s place that is captivating. So is the chaturang in Yaman Kalyan.
Ravi Shankar was the first person to see the possibilities of collaboration, and that too, on his own terms. His partnerships saw geniuses such as Yehudi Menuhin play compositions based on ragas Gunkal, Tilang and others. His work for the flute and harp (“Enchanted Dawn”) in raga Miyan ki Todi has been performed by many a western musician. Of course, his collaboration with George Harrison is well known to all. He has created concertos for sitar and orchestra, has collaborated with the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Symphony Orchestra on one hand, and on the other created a feeling of vastness when he builds a musical soundscape with minimal instruments in the background against Gandhi’s touring India on steam engine pulled trains, soon after his return to India from South Africa.
Equally moving is the music that accompanies the final titles in the film.
Few living musicians command the widespread awe and inspiration that Ravi Shankar did, particularly from people of non Indian origin. My students at the University where I teach have consistently expressed their admiration for him. They have expressed the desire to study his life story; they speak of him in awe. A post graduate student even analyzed one of his works as part of her doctoral research.
Kudos to Sukanya Shankar for the initiatives taken by her during the past few years that would go a long way in preserving his musical legacy. The documentary “Between the Two Worlds” made in 2002 is a must see for anyone interested in Indian music. The Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts (RIMPA) located in New Delhi is the center for Ravi Shankar Archives and more.
Here was a man whose one facet of life involved Uday Shankar’s traveling dance company; another involved a gharana immersion with Baba Allauddin Khan in the old-world beenkar tradition and a literal connection with Tansen of the 16th century. Then you have the creator of fine musical scores in films such as Anuradha and the Apu trilogy (by Satyajit Ray). Then you have the path breaking work that he did in the west, bringing Indian music to the west, collaborating extensively and influencing the likes of Coltrane and others.
I do believe that the greatness of Ravi Shankar shines even more as he sits next to you at the dining table and serves you an extra serving of mishti, completely oblivious of what he has created and the number of people that he has touched.
Kanniks Kannikeswaran is an internationally renowned musician, composer and music educator, whose award winning research on the Indo-colonial music of Dikshitar is beginning to influence Indian music pedagogy. Kanniks is considered to be a pioneer of the Indian American choral movement. He teaches Indian classical music at the University of Cincinnati. www.kanniks.com