Like a true teacher, he taught me not just about music but about life too

It fills me with great sadness that I have to write this tribute today to my Guru, Pandit Ravi Shankar. With his demise, an era has come to an end. The last of the legends of that generation is no longer physically with us. But artists like Ravi Shankar never die because they will live on through their music. Millions of people across the world have been deeply influenced by this charismatic genius who was always way ahead of his time, and they will continue to be.

I was fortunate to be born into a family where my Guru was worshipped as God. My father, the late N.R. Rama Rao, was one of his earliest disciples — from the late 1940s, when this legend himself was in his twenties. Their close bonding as guru and shishya is still spoken about in music circles as “Ram bhakt Hanuman, Ravi bhakt Rao.”

My father, his shishya

My father was the epitome of a perfect shishya and I grew up with lots of stories of their beautiful relationship. Father sitting behind on a bicycle with the sitar and Guruji riding the bicycle to All India Radio for his work; father listening to hours of Guruji’s practice sessions with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurnaji as he gave accompaniment on the tanpura; about the festive atmosphere that would set in weeks before Guruji arrived at my hometown, Bangalore.

They shared a beautiful relationship, one that continued until my father’s death due to Alzheimer’s disease in 2004. I remember the time Guruji went all the way to Bangalore to see him one last time. By then the disease was in a very advanced stage but the one person who my father could still recognise was his guru.

Even in the last few months, when, for all practical purposes, my father was not in this world and unable to recognise his wife and children, there was only one thing that could bring a semblance of a response from him — his guru’s music. We could detect some movement in his eyes and his fingers would start moving involuntarily.

Surely, the world knows Guruji as one of the greatest musicians and countless articles have been written about him for decades. Aside from the music I was privileged to learn from him; I was fortunate to see the human side of this great artist as well. His childlike enthusiasm to learn and live life to the fullest, his humility, and his humour — like a true “guru,” he taught me not just music but about life itself.

Every single day was a learning experience — right from my first lesson in 1973 in Mysore (where he taught me Raga Bhairav), to the nine years of living and learning with him from 1984 onwards, to the numerous concerts I played with him.

Despite his tight schedule during the two weeks in Mumbai in 1982 when he was working with Richard Attenborough composing music for the film “Gandhi,” he would teach me for three to four hours in the morning before going to the studio.

The Asian Games

In late 1983, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave Guruji a house in New Delhi’s Lodi Estate (where senior government officers live) as a token of appreciation for the music he had composed for the Asian Games.

At that point in his life, he wanted to spend more time in India and asked me to move to Delhi. The nine years that followed in the guru-shishya parampara are the foundation of my life. I learnt from him not just music or raga and tala but how to be a complete artist and to live the life of my music. For him, music was always a spiritual quest and I found this in every raga that he performed. He was the perfect naad yogi.

I will never forget two of his blessings — the first was when his wife organised a surprise party to celebrate my wedding to Saskia as they could not attend the wedding in Bangalore; the second, when he visited the hospital a day after my son was born. Taking Ishaan in his arms, he said that he was only the second two-day old baby that he had held apart from his own son, Shubhendra Shankar (after whom my parents named me).

Last year, when I visited him at his home in California after finishing my U.S. tour, he told me, “Beta, I feel bad I could not give you enough time when I had to because I was busy with my concerts and tours. Now I have the time and want to give you everything that I have, but you don’t have the time because you are busy with your own concerts. I am really happy that you are doing well and my blessings are always with you.”

For sure, I will feel the void his passing has left, but I know he is always with me. His smile, his mesmerising eyes, his easy sense of humour, his passion for life and most important, his music will always live with me all my life.

(Shubhendra Rao, a disciple of Ravi Shankar, is a leading sitar artist and composer. Email: sitar@shubhendrarao.com)