He was a legend. He was an icon. He was a maestro. He was the one who put Indian music on the world map. His name was synonymous with Indian music. His music opened up new vistas for Americans and men of other countries in the 1960s. My husband Frank Bennett was one of them.
During his undergraduate college days Bennett first heard a lecture-demonstration by Pandit Ravi Shankar at Duke University, North Carolina. His son Subho Shankar was also playing with him. Bennett was taken by the complexity of the rhythms since he was a percussionist. Raviji announced that they were going to play a composition from the veena repertoire of Carnatic music. My husband recalls that the music was spellbinding and mesmerising, and he could not believe that the father and son could play a composition in such perfect unison with all kinds of subtleties and nuances, for ten or more minutes. It sounded like only one instrument. It made Bennett curious about the veena, and Carnatic music. This changed his life from that point onwards.
I also had a few meetings with Raviji since my father Dr. S. Ramanathan was his good friend. In 1972, I was fortunate to attend the ceremony when Raviji was awarded an honorary doctorate by Colgate University, Hamilton, New York. My father asked me to play the veena for him before the ceremony.
After that incident I only had the opportunity to meet him twenty or so years later in California. When I introduced myself, right away he mentioned, “you are S. Ramanathan's daughter. You played veena for me at Colgate.” Wow... I was thrilled. Later I found out that Raviji had such a memory for faces, names, and incidents, and this quality was one of the reasons for his enormous success.
The one thing I learned from the performer Ravi Shankar was to make friends with one's audiences. Of course his music took the listener to a different plane. But he would also talk to the rasikas, explain what he was going to play, and by doing this his charismatic personality made them feel at home. This rapport with the audience has really helped me in my career, and this I owe to Raviji.
Two years ago I had a chance to meet him at the Indian Fine Arts Academy event at San Diego, California, near his home town in the U.S. He was with his family, sitting in the front row, listening to the Carnatic musicians. Outside when I talked to him, he mentioned that he enjoyed reading my Tamil stories translated by his wife Sukanya. That comment was a feather in my cap, a diamond in my tiara. He was very generous with his comments about other musicians and I guess it was because of his confidence in his own musicianship, self-esteem, and genuine love for Music.
He has passed on all these qualities to his star student, his daughte Anoushka Shankar. And we are lucky that she carries the torch of this truly great musician.