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“Let him be born again as Ravi Shankar”

Madhur Tankha
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Sitar maestro remembered by those charmed by his humility, warmth and compassion

Fond memories:Kathak exponent Birju Maharaj sharing his memories of the legendary sitar maestro Ravi Shankar during a memorial session at India International Centre in New Delhi.— Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma
Fond memories:Kathak exponent Birju Maharaj sharing his memories of the legendary sitar maestro Ravi Shankar during a memorial session at India International Centre in New Delhi.— Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar was remembered here earlier this week by people who appreciated his music and were charmed by his humility, warmth and compassionate nature.

Remembering Panditji at a memorial meeting at India International Centre here, former Ambassador to the U.S. Lalit Mansingh noted that he used Indian classical music as a great national unifier.

“When he started off, the caste system was rigid. While classical music was appreciated by the elite, the common man would listen to folk or film music. So Panditji desegregated music...His music was Hindustani. It was not Carnatic, even though he played the Southern ragas. For the world he presented classical music in a way that they could easily understand and appreciate it. He would talk to the audience and even crack a few jokes. He was a natural diplomat.”

Once Mr. Mansingh had invited the legendary sitar player to perform in the erstwhile Soviet Union. To his complete surprise, Panditji did not object to the remuneration offered. “We were offering only Rs.5,000 to each artiste. He did not raise a single question. All he asked for was two first class tickets — one for himself and the other for his sitar. And he wanted his group to get a proper venue for rehearsal. While performing in Moscow, he even asked the Russians to play their music.”

For someone who kept the whole world spellbound with his brilliant music and ability to explain the contours of classical music in an articulate yet simple way, Panditji had simple habits.

“Once when I went to congratulate him for an outstanding performance, he simply said it was due to the vegetarian food sent from my home,” said Indo-American Friendship Association founding president Surendra Kumar.

In his concluding remarks, Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj said he was treated with genuine warmth and regarded as a brother by the sitar maestro. “While Panditji was in Delhi, I would often drop by at his Ferozeshah Road residence. He would call me Birju Bhaiya . He was a master of rhythm, gayaki and dance. His fingers used to dance on the sitar. It was Panditji who made the sitar beautiful. I hope his disciples and daughters will keep his legacy alive. Let him be born again as Ravi Shankar.”

Recalling Panditji’s magnanimity, former Ambassador to Germany Meera Shankar said while she was Director-General of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) an invitation was despatched to the former. “He was relatively modest. He readily agreed and even waived his fees because he recalled that he was helped by ICCR when he was a junior artiste… He never shied away from experimentation. He would imbibe from other cultures and not stick to his idiom. He demonstrated that one must be grounded in one’s own culture but open to other cultures.”

The U.S. Embassy Deputy Counsellor for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy at the American Embassy, Adele Ruppe, and eminent danseuse Sonal Mansingh were among those who addressed the gathering of diplomats and musicians.

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