TRIBUTE Sitarist N.R. Rama Rao, who brought Pandit Ravi Shankar’s style to Bangalore was his most devoted student. Till his last days, Panditji used to remember Rama Rao, with whom he shared a unique bond SHUBENDRA RAO
The year was 1948 and the national programme of Music by All India Radio had just been started. A young adult in Bangalore of about 21year who had just finished his graduation heard the Sitar for the first time, and it changed his life forever. The artiste was the 28 year old Ravi Shankar who had started making a name for himself as someone to reckon with in the music world. The young adult was my father, N.R. Rama Rao, popularly known as Sitar Rama Rao in Karnataka. This incident started off the most beautiful “ Guru-Shishya ” relationship that lasted till my father’s death in 2004. In the music world, my father’s devotion to his Guru was widely known as “Ram bhakt Hanuman, Ravi bhakt Rao”. He was the epitome of how a shishya should be and Karnataka owes a lot to this relationship for the popularisation of North Indian classical music to this Guru-Shishya combination.
Fortunately, after that national programme of music, Guruji was performing one of his first concerts in Bangalore at the Town Hall and my father would not have missed it for anything. He drew up the courage to go and meet the great artiste and said that he wanted to learn from him. Guruji smiled and said that since he lived in Delhi, he would have to go there to learn. Such was his determination that with the support of his mother and elder brother, he moved to Delhi soon to start his learning. During those years, moving from Bangalore to Delhi was like taking a trip to the moon. There, in Delhi, he survived many a day eating just one meal a day, the severe Delhi winters with just a half-sleeve sweater but his devotion to his Guru never dimmed.
Guru Ma Annapurnaji and their son, Shubhendra Shankar (after whom my father named me), also took a liking to this unassuming young lad who was very devoted to his Guru. On his return to Bangalore, after many years in Delhi, my father started to teach sitar and perform in small venues and festivals. He would go around from house to house, collecting 25-50 paise to arrange Guruji’s concert and when he had collected Rs.150, he would send a telegram to Delhi that he had collected enough money for Guruji’s concert in Bangalore. Sometimes, Guruji would come along with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and perform duets with either Chatur Lal ji or Kishan Maharaj ji on the tabla.
I grew up with lots of stories of their beautiful relationship. My father, sitting behind on a bicycle with the sitar, and Guruji riding the bicycle to All India Radio for his work, listening to hours of his practice with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurna ji while accompanying them on tanpura or the festive atmosphere that would start weeks before Guruji would grace my home town, Bangalore. Years later, Guruji even started staying at our house in Jayanagar and I think it is the most beautiful feeling for a shishya to be able to serve his Guru in such a way. Of course, by this time, Guruji was a world-renowned musician and had become used to staying at five-star hotels with all its comforts. But in Bangalore, he always preferred to stay at his favourite disciple, Rao’s house!
They shared a beautiful relationship, which continued till my father’s death due to alzheimer’s in 2004. I remember when 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 whom he would recognise was his guru. Even in the last few months when for all practical purposes he was not in this world and had stopped recognising his wife and children, the one thing that would bring in a semblance of a response to this world was when he heard his guru’s music. We could see some movement in his eyes and his fingers would start moving involuntarily.
Even last year when I visited Guruji at his house in California, he said: “I miss Rao and there is not a day when I don’t remember him.” I am sure they have resumed their beautiful relationship up there in heaven having missed each other for the past seven years.
(Shubendra Rao is an accomplished sitarist and a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar. He is N.R. Rama Rao’s son.)