A universally acclaimed performer, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s impact on Indian classical music is immeasurable

I was exposed to Pandit Ravi Shankar at the age of six by my parents when he visited our residence-cum-institution of Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya, then at Connaught Place. There were memorable concerts by him in the courtyard of the residence. However, my memories of him were really visual as I was not then old enough to understand the impact of his music.

Ravi Shankar’s initial exposure to music was at the age of 13 when he accompanied his celebrated brother Uday Shankar’s dance troupe as a member where he learnt to dance and play various Indian instruments. Ravi Shankar heard the maestro Allaudin Khan for the first time in 1934 at a music conference in Calcutta. Thereafter, in serious pursuit of knowledge, he trained under the hard task master Ustad Allaudin Khan of Maihar Gharana, along with the illustrious son of his Guru, Ustad Ali Akhbar Khan, for several years. A keen observer, Ravi Shankar had the ability to assimilate musical knowledge. His immense talent and diligence, coupled with his winsome personality, soon made him a celebrity without peer.

After moving to Bombay from Maihar in 1944, he first composed music for ballets of the Indian People’s Theatre Association. He recomposed the music for the popular song ‘Sare Jahan Se Achcha,’ He joined AIR, Delhi, as a music director and founded the Indian National Orchestra there. He was the music director for the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray, and several Hindi movies including Godaan and Anuradha.

No name, both in India and overseas, is more synonymous with Indian classical music than Pandit Ravi Shankar. He was the pioneer and, indeed, the most influential in spreading the awareness of the great tradition of Indian classical music internationally.

In the 1960s when I first seriously started listening to classical music, Pandit Ravi Shankar had already attained fame as a concert artist. Listening to his concerts was an unforgettable experience. His magnificent stage presence, his striking good looks and his charisma preceded his recital. One was struck by his minute attention to the tuning of the accompanying tanpura and then the tabla. To watch him meticulously tune his tarab strings and finally his main strings enhanced the expectation of a doting audience. He always played to packed auditoria and, in fact, started the trend of the overspill of the audience occupying the stage. The moment he struck his first note in the alaap, one was transported to another world. The pristine purity of the raag, and the systematic development of its structure through his alaap were only a precursor to better things to follow. After the conclusion of the alaap, he took up the vilambit gat which gave scope to the tabla accompanist to display his virtuosity. His layakari and the unshakable grip on the taal were spell-binding and eventually led to the crescendo of the jhala through the drutgat.

His whole concert was planned thoughtfully. The first raag was invariably a popular one like Bihag or Yaman Kalyan. The second item was usually a raag which was less common such as Nayaki Kanhada and after the intermission which led to a change in attire, he picked up a Carnatic raag like Charukesi. He would conclude with a Khamaj or Bhatiali and eventually Bhairavi.

One saw an amazing variety of taals in his concert varying from Teentaal, Jhaptal, Roopak, Sawari and many more complex ones. His exposure to Carnatic music in AIR, Delhi led him to introduce what is now known as sawaaljawab i.e., the interaction between the tabla and the sitar in his concerts. This has now become an inseparable part of the repertoire of instrumental music concerts.

Apart from being a universally acclaimed performer, Ravi Shankar was a guru to several outstanding artistes. His collaborations with giants of the world music such as Yehudi Menhuin showed his virtuosity. His influence in creating and shaping the present day instrumental concerts is phenomenal. Most instrumental concerts today are based on the format first popularised by him. Not only did he shape a legion of worthy disciples but several percussion accompanists performing with him have attained fame. Innumerable were his awards, including the Bharat Ratna.

A legend in his lifetime, Ravi Shankar’s impact on Indian classical music is immeasurable and his passing is truly a great loss to all performing arts in India.

(The writer’s email: mudgalmukul@gmail.com)

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