Neelabh Banerjee on how he brought alive historic moments from Pandit Ravi Shankar’s life in a graphic book.
After two autobiographies (My Music, My Life and Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar) written at various points of Pt. Ravi Shankar’s life — the former in 1969 as a response to growing criticism from purists — it is not surprising that the late musician wanted to tell his story in the graphic format also with Yours in Music.
Artist Neelabh Banerjee, whose family has known Pt. Ravi Shankar for years, turned the 100-page book into one large canvas with sketches that brim with originality, seamlessly merging photographs and sketches. He explains, “Despite being a traditionalist and classical musician, Guruji was a ‘pop’ person. He had his finger on the pulse of his time and young people.”
The idea of telling his story in the graphic format came about because, according to Neelabh, Panditji knew that it was a widely popular genre. “At nearly 90, he knew what young people were interested in. He was tweeting and was on Facebook,” he adds. The book reproduces Ravi Shankar’s last written words while in India and that too resonates with this very idea. He writes, “Don’t grow up, but if you must, don’t lose those wonderful qualities you have!” Neelabh, who has followed the course graphic novels have been taking over the last 10 years, calls his work in this book highly personal. In his earlier graphic novel Indian by Choice; he collaborated with diplomat Amit Dasgupta.
Yours in Music isn’t a comprehensive autobiography; rather, it focuses on select events from the Pandit’s life — tracing his journey from being little Robu in Benares to Pandit Ravi Shankar in the U.S.; from being a young dancer under his prodigious ‘Dada’ Uday Shankar to an ace student of Baba Allauddin Khan. Journey, in fact, seems like the right word to describe Pt. Ravi Shankar’s life as it seems to have taken him to shores far and wide, away from home. Neelabh’s sketches triumph in telling us these stories, painting vivid pictures of his amazing travels. In the book, there’s a sketch of Robu’s jaw dropping in wonder when he sees the Manhattan skyline for the first time. Neelabh says, “He actually acted that expression out to me while narrating the story.” The project began a few years ago when Pt. Ravi Shankar called Neelabh with the idea of explaining his vision for this book. “We met and he told me his entire story — from his childhood days in the ghats of Ganges.”
Neelabh’s connection with the musician goes a long way back. “My mother was a young girl living in Maihar; her father was an artist. He knew Baba Allauddin Khan well and when Panditji lived in Maihar learning under him, they would often visit my mother’s house. Bengali artists visited each other a lot back in the day. There was no television or Internet to keep them indoors, you see. That’s how my mother knew Panditji from the days when he was called Robu.” Neelabh muses, “Our relationship was like that of a guru-sishya and that I got to hear his life’s story at such a personal level makes this book even special for me.”
The book required a lot of research, for Neelabhhad to recreate the Europe, America, Benares and Bengal of 1930s. “I relied a lot on his description besides researching and looking at photographs, of course. It was, in a way, weird that my artistic vision met with immediate approval from him when he saw the sketches even though I was apprehensive,” says Neelabh. His sketches are indeed the life of the book. “Graphic novels require the pictures to speak more than the text — so it needed us to blend information in the form of dialogue and sketches without getting too carried away,” he says.
Whether you are a fan of the graphic format or of Panditji, there’s something to take away from this autobiography. The book, for instance, reveals that it was Ravi Shankar who re-composed the music for ‘Sare Jahaan Se Achcha’. There’s even a reproduction of the sheet in which the Pandit has written the notes for his version that would go on to become immensely popular thanks to AIR. The musician has rued that due to poor copyright laws back then, he was never acknowledged for this. The images of his meeting with Satyajit Ray, George Harrison, Rabindranath Tagore and Marie Dressler (who wanted to adopt him as a young boy) are all telling of the grand life, full of twists, that Pt Ravi Shankar lived.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum (Of the dead, nothing but good), they say. One can’t help but make one small transgression to the principle when writing about Yours in Music. While it reveals a lot about Pt Ravi Shankar’s life, his frustrations and happiness, his life in poverty and glory, the graphic format might have been most certainly made richer if the story were told in a more casual manner revealing more of his life at a personal level; of his relationships with the people (besides his guru) around him. The book, instead, takes on the tone of a guru talking to sishya of his good old days.