One of the maestro’s greatest contributions, the music for Saare Jahan se Achchha, brought him to the Indian People’s Theatre Association
When Pandit Ravi Shankar and his disciple, Beatles guitarist George Harrison, performed at the 1971 ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ at Madison Square Garden in New York, I asked the Communist theorist of culture, the late Chinmohan Sehanabis why Ravi Shankar was the only maestro of Hindustani or Carnatic music to make this unique humanitarian effort in aid of Bangladesh’s war and famine victims
Chinuda smilingly replied: “After all, he was with the Indian People’s Theatre Association [IPTA] in the formative years. Perhaps he still has some remnants of his sincere commitment.”
When Ravi Shankar took over as the music director of IPTA in 1946, Chinuda was a key figure of the Communist Party of India fraction overlooking the Left-leaning progressive cultural association. The 1971 concert was a milestone amidst the social, artistic and commercial shifts of the 20th century. The sitar maestro showed the way by showing his solidarity with a genuine emancipation struggle in South Asia.
One of the lasting contributions of Ravi Shankar in the very beginning of his IPTA days was the music he scored for Iqbal’s lyric, ‘Saare Jahan se Achchha/Hindostan Hamara’. The incident has been recounted by Preeti Sarkar, who was then living at the IPTA Commune of Andheri in Bombay as a fulltime performer and CPI activist. Now 90, she said in an interview: “In 1945, when Panditji used to stay at Malad, IPTA requested him to set ‘Saare Jahan se Achchha’ to music. Robuda, which is what we used to call him, readily agreed. I went to his apartment. He played the song on the sitar and asked me to sing along. I learned the song and came back to the commune at Andheri and sang it before all. Everyone was enthralled and felt inspired to learn it from me. Then it became the opening song for any IPTA programme”.
“Nowadays, we preserve the song as a treasure, credit for which goes to Ravi Shankar.”
Parliamentarian and scholar Hirendranath Mukherjee told a group of IPTA artists in the early 1990s. “It’s a song for winning the world. It opened a new horizon that brought into IPTA’s fold Ravi Shankar, the sarodist Timir Baran and dance-exponent Santi Bardhan along with several other stalwarts of the time”.
In those days, Ravi Shankar made it a point to “visit the IPTA commune with his wife Annapurna and son, Subhendra Shankar frequently”, recalls Preetidi. That was even before he formally joined IPTA. She wrote in the golden jubilee special of the West Bengal IPTA: “Pandit Ravi Shankar joined IPTA in 1946 as its music director. The tunes of the IPTA songs drew heavily from folk songs all over the country. His first creative contribution for us was the ballet, Amar Bharat (Immortal India). The entire music was scored by him. The two streams — classical and folk — got mingled and under a trainer like him, the ballet reached a unique high. The very tune and versatility of Indian culture in totality was imbibed by IPTA.”
Ravi Shankar plunged headlong into IPTA and its work for a progressive culture. “He used suitable ragas to welcome the monsoon and inspired us. We were mesmerised and spellbound. And we never felt tired. He used to train us rigorously, at times throughout the day and at night too. He never scolded anyone. Generally, he used to teach me first and I used to transmit the same to others by singing what Robuda taught,” said Preetidi in an interview to the CPI newspaper Kalantar.
While in IPTA, “he scored music for a few films such as Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, a Hindi adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths. Or take Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s Dharti ke Lal. One of the lyrics he put music to was ‘hum rukenge nahin/hum jhukenge nahin [I shall neither stop nor bend].”
Galaxy of talents
Ravi Shankar apart, talents like Timir Baran, Santi Bardhan, Sachin Sankar, Abani Dasgupta, Sambhu Mitra, Sobha Sen, Tripti Mitra, Jyotiprasad Agarwal, Anna Bhau Sathe, Vallathol, Dr. Raja Rao, M. Nagabhushanam, Balraj Sahani, Eric Cyprian, Bimal Roy, Tera Singh Chann, K. Subramaniam, Dina Gandhi (Pathak), and Toppil Bhasi, who wrote Ningal Enne Communist Aakki (You made me a communist’) joined IPTA. Then there was also Bijan Bhattacharya, Nemi Chandra Jain, Venkat Rao Kandilker, Salil Chaudhury, Hemango Biswas, Jyotirindra Maitra and Amar Sheikh. What or who was the centre of gravity? Undoubtedly, the then CPI general secretary P.C. Joshi. Hemango Biswas revealed in an interview to the progressive Bengali literary monthly, Parichay, “One day, Benoy, then a top party functionary in IPTA, told me, “There are gaps in the political outlook of Ravi Shankar, Timir Baran, Sachin Shankar, Santi Bardhan and others. They need a political orientation through classes. I shall write to Comrade PCJ”.
He wrote, and the answer from Joshi came the same evening: ‘They are your polit bureau. Learn at their feet.’ That was Joshi who made stalwarts gravitate towards IPTA.”
Ravi Shankar left IPTA before 1949 and joined AIR as music director in 1950. Later, many of the other talents also left due to the sectarian and suicidal party line of CPI at its second congress (1948). There was no second P.C. Joshi. Nonetheless, many of the artists remained true to the humanist commitment they had imbibed during their IPTA days. Ravi Shankar was a shinning example.
(Sankar Ray is a Kolkata-based writer)