Publisher Shobit Arya on the recently released graphic autobiography of Pandit Ravi Shankar

In a country used to putting its classical musicians on a pedestal, rarely referring to them without the title ‘Pandit’, ‘Ustad’ or ‘Guru’, one does not expect to see their pictures in comic book format. But the graphic autobiography of Pandit Ravi Shankar, “Yours in Music” (Wisdom Tree) reminds us that the great sitarist who put Indian classical music on the world map was always game to try something new, had a great sense of humour, and, in hindsight, seems just the right kind of artiste to be made the subject of a graphic work. The music world is still expressing sorrow at the demise of Panditji that took place in the U.S. in December 2012. Not least among those who regret his passing is Shobit Arya, publisher, Wisdom Tree, who was involved with the project since its inception and hoped to release it in his presence. The work was originally intended as a biography.

“This was supposed to be a surprise birthday gift for Guruji,” says Arya, “and the idea came from Sukanyaji.” However, he explains, Sukanya Shankar could not long keep the secret from her husband, and after just one meeting, Ravi Shankar was part of the discussions. This was a welcome development, notes Arya, given the doyen’s keen eye for detail. “He had such a sharp memory. He would describe things from 80 years back, when he first went to the U.S. All those little things which only he could tell us, like the fact that he would get fever from excitement (as a child and even later in life) — it all became possible because she couldn’t hold it back from him.” Soon it became an autobiography.

Although Panditji saw the whole book, which was ready by March 2012, when the family last visited India, says Arya, his subsequent illness meant that the final touches could not be completed for it to be released in his presence. However, those involved in its creation, particularly Arya and the illustrator, Neelabh, are satisfied that his blessings were firmly with the project. “He looked at each and every page, and looked at it minutely.” Arya gives and example: When Ravi Shankar was seven, his father visited him and took him for a ride in a shining new automobile. The original lines attributed to his father were, “Do you like my new car Robu?” Arya says, “He circled it and said it wasn’t his car — and corrected it to ‘Do you like the car Robu?’ That is how he was…. He remembered everything and corrected it.”

At the idea of being depicted through a graphic publication, Panditji was “very fascinated,” says Arya. “He got along with Neelabh very well.” To add to the magic, Neelabh too is from Varanasi on his mother’s side, and it became a special project for the well known illustrator too. “We used to have such a good time with him. He used to make us laugh,” recalls the publisher.

The autobiography talks about Shankar’s early days, when young Robu, as he was affectionately known, lived in Varanasi, admiring and hurting for his mother, bringing up her family alone with grit and sacrifice. Then it takes the reader through changing times, as Robu’s elder brother, the glamorous and brilliant Uday Shankar, sought to bring his family out of penury even as he established a name for himself as a great choreographer and brought Indian dance and music to the notice of the West. From there onwards there was no looking back it seems. Robu was destined to be a globe trotter and like his elder brother, establish Indian classical art on the Western stage.

The autobiography makes no mention of Shankar’s personal life after his childhood. Marriage and fatherhood are themes absent from the narration.

Arya says this was by design. “The idea was to reach out to the young generation. His life was supremely inspirational. Somewhere we tried to rekindle in young hearts a love for music, to reach out for the impossible. Because his life was almost fictional.”

Therefore, he says, “We decided not to delve into the personal life because it really doesn’t matter to the target audience.”