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‘Music is a spiritual quest'

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CHAT Shubhendra Rao, student of Pandit Ravi Shankar, goes down memory lane

RECASTING Shubendra Rao: Today's music is not what it was 3,000 years ago. It is evolving every day, every moment
RECASTING Shubendra Rao: Today's music is not what it was 3,000 years ago. It is evolving every day, every moment

For Shubendra Rao, making the sitar an extension of himself was but natural. The son of sitar maestro Pt. N.R. Rama Rao and disciple of the legendary Pt. Ravi Shankar, Shubendra is simply carrying forward a hoary music tradition of the Maihar Gharana. Besides, accompanying his guru on many occasions, Shubendra has also emerged as a much-sought after soloist. Along with Dutch-born wife and cellist Saskia Rao, the young sitar whiz is testing new frontiers by way of collaborations such as “Strings Unattached”, “Yathra” and “East Marries West”. Shubendra and Saskia have performed at various prestigious platforms across the globe, including Broadway and Carnegie Hall in New York. Shubendra Rao shares his thoughts on his illustrious guru, his music and some memorable musical moments.

Early days and father's role…

My father was one of the earliest and closest disciples of Pt. Ravi Shankar (Guruji to me), and perhaps the first from the South to learn the sitar. He would practise for several hours daily and just listening to him was enough for me to learn the instrument. Whenever Guruji came to Bangalore, he would spend quality time with us. Needless to say, I was drawn to the sitar. I remember, in our puja room, along with the photographs of Dattatreya and Ganesha, there stood a picture of Guruji. I must add that my mother was as much an influence on me. A trained Carnatic vocalist, I can safely say that she was much more musical than my father!

The gurukul days with Pt. Ravi Shankar…

I started learning from Guruji when I was seven or eight. One incident shaped my career move. Guruji came to Bangalore for a performance.

He asked me to accompany him and wanted me to practice with him in the afternoon. But the diligent student that I was, I refused saying I had school. My father then met my principal and explained the situation to her. She said to me, “It's not often that such a great musician asks somebody to accompany him. Such opportunities never come twice. Just go…” Well, that was the beginning…

Guruji would call me whenever he stayed in one place for more than a week and teach me the nuances. Then, in 1984, everything changed when Mrs. Gandhi gifted him a house to use as a music school. I was one of the few students who got to reside there. I spent the next ten years in this gurukul, fine-tuning my knowledge of the sitar and Hindustani music. Guruji not only shaped my music but my whole life… He taught that music is just not about the seven notes and 20 ragas. It's a spiritual quest, a way of life. He has been the biggest influence in my life.

An unforgettable incident…

The date that will remain etched forever in memory is February 20, 1985. Panditji, 65 then, had a concert that evening. I had gone out and returned by noon only to be told that he was waiting for me to fill his bath! That sounded strange, but not one to question his actions, I filled up his bath. He said to me, “You will sit on the stage today.” I nodded, thinking he wanted me to play the tanpura. Then, he quietly added, “With your sitar.” I was stunned. I came out of his room in a daze, and my fellow musicians patted me saying my time has come. I had exactly five hours to practice, which I did. That was the first time I shared the stage with him, playing before a 2000-strong crowd!

Saskia, my partner in music and life…

Saskia may be of Dutch origin but she's an Indian at heart. For a Western classical cello player to take to Hindustani music must have been quite a daunting task.

But she did it with utmost ease and a happy smile. She had to tune her instrument differently by adding more strings and modify it so that she could sit with it on the floor. I admire her determination and respect her musical prowess.




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