That the superstitious buzz about the world ending on 12.12.12 proved to be a dud, was no consolation for millions of music lovers across the globe yesterday. Their universe ended with the news of Pandit Ravi Shankar breathing his last in a hospital in San Diego on the night of December 11. Over the past seven decades, he had come to be identified the world over with his iconic Sitar, the complex string instrument which became the ambassadorial face of Indian classical music. As the violin legend Yehudi Menuhin, himself a close friend of Shankar, remarked in an afterword to Shankar’s 1999 autobiography, “…from mastering an instrument, we ourselves became instruments of something that possessed us”.

Till the last, Ravi Shankar was admittedly at the peak of his creative enterprise. Even as recently as the first week of November, aged 92 and braving deteriorating health, he had performed in concert with his daughter and shaagird Anoushka Shankar Wright at Long Beach, California. It was a passion and a creative journey that began in the narrow Tilebhandeshwar galli in the ancient city of Benares in the 1920s and soon spun out into a fairy tale romp across continents and cultures into a comprehensive insemination of the imprint of Indian classical music on global music.

Today, trying to talk of ‘Ravi Shankar’ to an average Indian is akin to trying to talk of ‘Mount Everest’ to a group of Sherpas. His name has inveigled into the nooks and crannies of popular culture as ubiquitously as ‘Taj Mahal’ or ‘Jantar Mantar’. From music clubs to hair cutting saloons, from tailors of desi attire to the corner paan shop, there was something suave and ‘international’ about appropriating him for local name-boards. Why India, even in Manhattan, New York, I once counted three ‘Ravi Shankar Indian Diners’ on 5th Avenue alone. The name became the stamp of India.

Admittedly, in the early decades of the twentieth century, there were as, if not more, accomplished sitarists in the country. Ravi Shankar’s own guru Baba Allauddin Khan, who set up the Maihar gharana, Ustad Enayat Khan who held up the Etawah gharana, Shankar’s younger contemporaries Ustad Vilayat Khan and Nikhil Banerjee, his one-time wife Annapurna Devi and such. But it was Shankar who captured the imagination of post-Independence India with his effortless contemporisation of an ancient style of music making, even as he contributed to the idea of a new aesthetic nationalism. Musical identity effortlessly fused with national identity.

Looking back on Shankar’s life, one can be pardoned for feeling a sense of inevitability at the way it all panned out. Born into an affluent Bengali family to Shyam Shankar Chowdhury and Hemangini Devi, Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury as he was then known, was the youngest among a brood of seven male siblings, of whom one was stillborn and another who died within a year. Of the remaining, Uday Shankar was the eldest and was to go on to become among the legendary figures of the Indian cultural revival alongside the national movement. The other brothers Rajendra, Debendra and Bhupendra too were phenomenally talented. ‘Robu’, as Ravi Shankar was then called, was by far the baby of the pack and naturally received all their affection.

By the time Ravi was born, his father, a lawyer, philosopher, amateur musician and former Diwan to the Maharaja of Jhalawar in Rajasthan, had moved to Europe with his new English wife. Soon Uday Shankar too moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art. Ravi would meet his eldest brother only when he himself was nine years old. Within a year, in 1930, all the brothers were in Paris to help Uday Shankar launch his new performance troupe. Between then and 1938, Ravi Shankar was to tour Europe four times with the celebrated troupe and by the time he was eighteen, he was a stage veteran. However, all the while, his primary role in the troupe was that of a dancer. In 1935, Ustad Allauddin Khan had joined Uday Shankar’s troupe and it was this association that triggered the musical instincts in Ravi Shankar. There was also the company of the Ustad’s son, the young Ali Akbar Khan, already a phenomenon on the sarod.

Debut performance

In 1938, Ravi Shankar moved to Maihar for direct tutelage under Allauddin Khan Saheb, which was to last seven grueling years. His debut performance was at the Allahabad Music Conference in 1939. It was in Maihar too that he was to meet Allauddin Khan’s charismatic and hugely talented daughter Annapurna Devi and get married to her in 1941. It was a turbulent relationship with several ruptures – first in 1956 and then in 1967. However, a formal divorce happened only forty years after the marriage, in 1981. Their one son from the marriage Shubhendra Shankar too was to emerge as a talented musician. The 1940s were a very productive period for Ravi Shankar as he assisted Uday Shankar in setting up his India Culture Centre in Almora in 1940 and, upon its closing down in 1944, joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1945. The family moved to Bombay and got involved in some of the most radical artistic projects of the time – like the landmark films ‘Dharti ke Lal’ by K A Abbas and ‘Neecha Nagar’ by Chetan Anand. Ravi Shankar also produced musicals like ‘India Immortal’ and composed a new melody for ‘Saare Jahan se Accha’ – both of which become hugely popular. From then on, it was a roller coaster ride of recordings and projects and tours and setting up of musical collectives like the Jhankar Music Circle and the Vadya Vrinda, so closely associated with the development of a musical ethos in Delhi.

In the 1950s, he is also associating with theatre personalities like Shombhu Mitra and film makers like Satyajit Ray and creating award-winning compositions for milestone films like the Apu Triology and Kabuliwala. He’s performing in Moscow, Tokyo, Prague and Edinburgh. This was to lead, in the 1960s to his meeting with the Beatles, his friendship with George Harrison and his rave appearances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. Ravi Shankar had arrived at the centre of the counterculture in the West. He emerged from it a full-blown icon for both the East and the West. While there will be many narratives tracking his continuous achievements at home and abroad, it might be more useful here to concentrate a bit on what exactly he achieved with the sitar.

Tweaking the sitar

What is undeniable is the extraordinary depth of the talim, the pedagogy, he received from his guru. One of its primary cornerstones seems to have been a prodigious openness to all forms and variations of music. Ravi Shankar’s musical legacy is precisely this wealth of blends and joineries of an abundance of forms and traditions. He imbibed the control of dhrupad, the rich melody of khayal and the playfulness of the thumri. Over and above what he learnt, he was constantly adding innovations and fresh approaches and evolving a distinct style over the decades. He tweaked the sitar in constantly new ways, working closely with the instrument-makers. He tuned it and strung it differently, plucked it in his own unique way with variations in volume and touch and, most significantly, emphasized new bass strings developed from the many early years he spent with the more complex surbahar. He combined many salient features of the surbahar in the jod section of the alap, which was to become his signature. In particular, his transit from the ati vilambit (very slow) to the drut (fast) gats in different taals with infinite variations had left its mark on subsequent musical practice and it is common now to see younger musicians seamlessly negotiate these innovations.

Ravi Shankar has claimed over thirty new ragas as his creation – including Nat Bhairavi (created way back in 1945), Bairagi, Manamanjari, Parameshwari, Jogeshwari, Rajya Kalyan (composed on the occasion of his relinquishing membership of the Rajya Sabha, 1986-1992) and so on. It is interesting to note that Shankar was always effusive about the debt he owed to Carnatic music for his inspiration. In his 1999 autobiography ‘Raga Mala’, he writes, “I fell in love with Carnatic music in Madras at the age of twelve or thirteen when I first heard the great singer and veena player Veena Dhanam… As the first Hindustani instrumental musician to perform regularly in Madras, over many years I came to know all the great Carnatic musicians of their day… It has therefore been extremely satisfying to have succeeded in popularizing among musicians in the North the ragas Kirwani, Charukeshi, Vachaspati, Simhendra Madhyama, Nata Bhairavi and others which are all of Carnatic origin… The Carnatic system’s mathematical approach to rhythms and accurate application of them are also stunning. One of my greatest loves is for intricate sitar passages of mathematical precision filled with metric patterns and ending with complex tihais, all spontaneously improvised. As far back as 1945, I was absorbing the essence of these from the fixed calculative systems of the Carnatic form.”

Indeed, a typical Ravi Shankar concert would incorporate and syncopate around all these elements that he absorbed – a dhrupad kind of invocation, a khayal kind of mid-concert colour, a Carnatic inspired climax and a racy finale created from a semi-classical thumri or a folkish dhun. He was ever supportive of the accompanying artists and even an artist of the caliber of Ustad Zakir Hussain would say: “He has been one of the few instrumentalists – probably the first one – to offer a spotlight to an accompanist. Before him you never heard of an instrumentalist putting his instrument down, keeping time and letting the tabla-player take off”.

Ravi Shankar’s own claim is, in fact, in having made a huge difference to stage presentation of classical music. He credits Uday Shankar for having taught him stage and lighting techniques that made his concerts stand out when compared to the otherwise dowdy and shoddy presentations that musicians are usually prone to make, being quite innocent of the ‘visual’ language.

One could echo Yehudi Menuhin in stating that what Ravi Shankar won for himself in music was an enviable sense of ‘freedom’ in music. He was part of an intricate system and structure and yet always out of it, always open and receptive to new impulses, always seeking a new threshold. Combined with the ‘progressive’ politics he imbibed during his IPTA years, it is this special quality that made him, for a larger public, the ‘representative’ musical genius of the last century. His music came to stand for a democracy of openness, a catholicity of free conversations divested of narrow corralling or pigeon-holing. His music acknowledged a cultural boundary even as it transcended the limit. It is another matter that, in later years, he slipped into a sort of sedentary celebrityhood. What is important is that whenever he picked up his sitar the meend, the mukri and the gamaks rang true. And as you listened, the musician evaporated and the music is what you heard.

With Ravi Shankar’s passing away, the pancham-taar (middle string) of the sitar may have snapped. But close your eyes, the dhwani remains.