In the process of becoming an international celebrity, he put Indian music on the world map

The stage is misty with incense, the accompanists await the maestro, and the star enters, spotlessly garbed, lit by his own smile, trailing irresistible charm. Truly, all the world was a stage to Pt. Ravi Shankar (1920-2012). And yes, he played several roles – as dancer, sitar player, dance choreographer, theatre director, teacher, and composer in different genres – classical, folk, film and fusion.

His range was astonishing. He could wrench hearts with a slow Hemant in an intimate chamber; stun a huge hall with lightning and thunder virtuosity; fascinate with radio broadcasts of an Indian orchestra; enchant flower children at Woodstock; exchange notes with legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin; guide the New York Philharmonic orchestra through his own composition; entrance a Beatle with his magic. In Madrid or Moscow, Cairo or Copenhagen, standing ovation erupted as soon as he entered the concert hall. This writer was lucky to hear him play in San Diego at age 90. The passionate response from an almost exclusively western audience made it clear that while Ravi Shankar is a Bharat Ratna, he belongs to the world.

India has had great musicians before him. But what makes Ravi Shankar stand out is the fact that, in the process of becoming an international celebrity, he put Indian music on the world map, and opened doors for Hindustani and Carnatic musicians to win laurels everywhere. He also taught them, by example, how to present their art outside their coterie.

A relentless traveller

Having spent his formative years in Paris and London, a young Ravi was angered to see Indian music dismissed by the West as exotic and monotonous. He made it his mission to dispel this prejudice. He was a relentless traveller who went not only to the big cities of Europe and America, but to out-of-the-way spots in Czechoslovakia, remote villages in Scandinavia, carrying his sitar and dragging an initially reluctant tabla partner Alla Rakha with him. He listened to the music of all these cultures, tried their instruments, and relished their traditions, folk and classical. He was intrigued by jazz. He had a questing spirit, an enquiring mind, and an insatiable desire to learn more.

Ravi Shankar was the first artist to develop an accessible performance style for lay audiences everywhere. To those who said, “We don’t know whether the musician is playing or tuning his instrument,” he explained what he was doing, shortened the alaap, trimmed repetitions, and offered a variety of heavy and lighter pieces. Like all risk-takers, he invited as much criticism for such strategies as acclaim.

From the beginning, there was a theatrical quality about his life, and the way he wrote about it. Born into a scholarly, arts-loving Bengali Brahmin family, at age 10, Ravi Shankar found himself as member of brother Uday Shankar’s dance troupe in Paris, appreciated for his self-taught attempts to play instruments from esraj to dilruba. Rave reviews greeted his dancing on prestigious platforms. But Baba Allauddin Khan who travelled with the group, told the child, even as he taught him the sitar, that he was a “butterfly,” frittering away his talent without focus. All of a sudden, a young Ravi spurns haute couture, stage glitz and a cosmopolitan lifestyle, shaves his head for a late upanayanam, and lands up in Baba’s house at village Maihar, a single tin trunk in hand, and a heart full of determination. “Play-acting? But I was also sincere,” he recalls. Ravi’s angry brother stops supporting him, but hardship steels resolve. The dragon guru’s taunts (“Go and buy bangles!”) cannot drive him away. Seven years of physical and spiritual torture strengthen fingers and mind, sensitising the heart to feel as it never did before. He marries the guru’s daughter... to get the best from the teacher?

Joining the cultural squad in Mumbai’s IPTA, he evolves music for plays, films and songs (‘Sare Jahaan Se Accha’ among them, which he was to proudly present at the Carnegie Hall, New York, on India’s 50th year of Freedom). A visibly moved Prime Minister Nehru says to him, “Your stage production of Discovery of India is better than my book.” Masterminding the vadyavrinda in AIR, New Delhi, he innovates a new genre of Indian orchestral fare.

Who can forget the music he made for landmark films -- Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali,’ Tapan Sinha’s ‘Kabuliwala’ and Hrishikesh Mukherji’s ‘Anuradha?’ Using Indian classical and folk instruments, the music underscores their narrative curve and emotional drama, without sentimentality.

The going was nevertheless tough for a musician without a gharana lineage. He confesses to suicidal depression, to making elaborate plans of exactly how he would hurl himself under a train. A holy man transforms his life. Then Shankar also admits, ruefully, “At different stages, women added drama, and trauma, to my life.” His family life was beleaguered, until, late in life, he found a devoted wife in Sukanya. He knew the heartbreak of losing a son, and being estranged for years from a daughter.

Stardom had its downside. The spectacular turnout at Woodstock and Monterey Pop Festivals might have pushed him into another orbit, but it sparked severe criticism and some personal regret. The new audience saw Indian music as trippy, psychedelic, a magical mystery tour. But when Beatle George Harrison approached him, Ravi Shankar knew how to insist on sadhana-discipline, and vinaya (humility), qualities he found essential for creativity.

Since his childhood encounters with the Veena Dhanammal family, Ravi Shankar had been intrigued by Carnatic music. He not only adopted ragas like Vachaspati and Charukesi from the South, but was influenced by Carnatic music to evolve the sawal-jawab dialogue with the tabla. Carnatic violinists made him shed his prejudice against the western instrument being used in Indian music. His eclectic generosity made him spread an awareness of the Carnatic tradition in north India and in the world.

Was Ravi Shankar happy? Was he satisfied? “I think I did many things ahead of my time and therefore failed to get appreciation. My commitment to my audience was misunderstood as diluting the quality of music. I never did that.”

He could be self-critical at age 78. “I wasted a lot of time. I spent energy in doing new things, in experiments. I have a chanchala (restless) mind, it is never still. If I had focussed on the purely classical approach to the sitar, I would have gone further, much deeper.” After a pause, he smiled disarmingly to admit, “But the truth is, even as I am saying this, I want to do so many things. I cannot change... I have to be myself...” Was he thinking of the austere grandeur of his rival? Of Ustad Vilayat Khan, nine generations of musicians behind him?

With the passing away of this colossus of the Beenkar tradition, the world has lost a great showman, a magnificent performer, a musical missionary, an inspired innovator. Sadhaka, seeker, he managed to remain his own man through a long, panoramic journey. We sigh with his luminous Purya and Yaman, lose ourselves in the romance of his Manj Khammaj and Rasiya dhun. His haunting Janasammodini song, whispers softly, “My veena is silent…” Sooni meri beena, sangeet bina...