I met Pandit Ravi Shankar sometime in early 1970 in New York City while he was transitioning from teaching Indian music at the City College to the U.S. west coast. He was immensely popular at the time, having worked with George Harrison of the Beatles. He had been more into fusion and pop music and he wanted to be back in pure classical music. My friend V.K. Viswanathan, a scientist, told me about him and as I was in business in New York City at that time, I went and met him.
He enjoyed cult status at the time and I expected him to be distant. I was surprised to find him very warm, open and friendly. We were just starting to arrange Carnatic music concerts in the U.S. those days, and he was curious to know the audience size and response. In particular, he wanted to know whether we were reaching out to the non-Indian audience.
He made one thing very clear. He said that the richness, the depth and sophistication of Indian classical music needed to be brought out and its rightful place in the world stage should be secured. I told him that in the U.S., Indian music denoted Hindustani music only, Hindustani music was identified with sitar music and sitar music meant Ravi Shankar. He laughed and said he wanted to bring all classical arts to the western stage.
He was very intense and it was obvious that he meant to carry that mission to its most spectacular success. He discussed our organising philosophy and the challenges. He also asked whether our energies would be spent in promoting only Carnatic music. I had no answer at that time because our own thoughts had not crystallised then.
We started organising both North Indian and South Indian concerts from then on. Along with K.V. Narayanaswamy, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Ramani, and Sheikh Chinna Maulana, we also started introducing Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Prabha Atre, and Shiv Kumar Sharma.
Our paths crossed again a few years later, when I arranged his concert for a fundraising program for the Dayton Temple and a programme at Oberlin College.
I gave him a list of the concerts that we had arranged and pointed out that it included Hindustani music, Bharata natyam, Kathakali and Kathak. He was pleased and he said: “South Indians take their culture seriously and they are open to all classical arts. Few people can match them in promoting classical arts”.
He pursued talents and spared no expense or efforts in training them both in India and in the U.S. He created opportunities for them and watched over them. And he was gentle with all of them.
We started interacting again in the last few years when I started working with Dr. Sekhar Viswanathan of San Diego in helping him with his annual art festival. Panditji was the patron. His energy was infectious. I remember his concerts in which he would walk onto the stage, meditatively play a few bars, and slowly, the whole atmosphere would be electrified. The audience would become one with him and his music. He could mould his music to ensnare them. When you talked to him, he was gentle, probing, and never sought to dominate.
He was childlike in his queries but there was profoundness behind them. He had a very clear idea on who has merits in the contemporary scene irrespective of their popularity. He recently said to us: “One cannot divest one’s personality from one’s music. The music will show the artiste’s true personality.” We know that his music was pure, as was his heart.
It is an honour that our paths crossed. Something that my wife and I will cherish forever.
(Better known by the moniker ‘Cleveland’, the author is one of the founders of the annual Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana.)