Remembering the maestro of sitar

Narendra Kusnur

In one-to-one meetings, those eyes, that forehead and his smile were an amazing combination. They were like the sitar, tabla and tanpura in concert. Like his stringed masterpiece, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s eyes shone like diamonds. His forehead lines moved in percussive tandem and his smile was constant, like the drone instrument.

The late maestro has been in the news. Sukanya, his first opera, will be premiered in the U.K. next May. There will be previews, reviews, analyses and discussions about his amazing contribution. So what’s new? Having interviewed him five times in person and once on the telephone, let me talk about his personality.

In 1997, I was on a sudden assignment. I knew some basic details but wasn’t technically knowledgeable. I landed as a bundle of nerves at a Nepean Sea Road guesthouse. An attendant led me to a living room filled with agarbatti fragrance. The wait was agonising. Suddenly, Shankar entered with his characteristic namaste. In height, he was like Sunil Gavaskar or maybe Sachin Tendulkar. And extremely charming.

Two ladies accompanied him. “This is my wife Sukanya and daughter Anoushka,” he announced, while Prashant Nakwe’s camera rolled. I called him Pandit-ji. He said: “I am Ravi.” We settled for Ravi-ji. For 15 minutes, he interviewed me. Later, I figured he did that to gauge my exact knowledge, so that he spoke in a language I would completely understand, and spread through my article. His focus was clear: he wanted younger readers to appreciate Indian classical music. I extracted some interesting facts about ex-Beatle George Harrison.

The combination of his eyes, forehead and smile struck me then. Over the next interactions, it almost became a research thesis. His hair symbolised the concert stage. I next met Shankar in February 1999, after he was named Bharat Ratna. We were at the Oberoi (now Trident). His priority was to talk of the time and toil musicians need to put in.

I requested an autograph. Sukanya didn’t recognise the cassette cover. Apparently, the record label had repackaged an old recording. “Please don’t sign,” she insisted. Shankar signed, smiling: “It’s not his fault.”

Move to March 12, 1999, the day my son was born. I had told someone else to cover his 4 p.m. press conference. But on receiving news that violinist Yehudi Menuhin had passed away the same day, I decided to make the trip myself.

Disturbed, Shankar cut short the media interaction. Thanks to Anoushka, I was given 10 minutes. He spoke about Menuhin for 40 minutes. The following year, he flew specially to attend his friend Ustad Allarakha’s last rites.

I next met him in 2002 and 2003. The first was before his first appearance at the Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan. A journalist asked how he felt to be called the ‘Godfather of World Music’. Shankar stood up, faced the cameras, and replied: “Do I look remotely as handsome as Marlon Brando?”

Finally, that telephone conversation. When legendary sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan passed away in March 2004, I took a chance. Their rivalry was famous, and his disciple bluntly refused to connect. I asked for Sukanya, and she coordinated.

“Vilayat Khan was one of the greatest musicians of our generation. As a sitar player, he had such a soulful technique, which I observed and admired very closely,” Shankar said. And their rivalry? He replied: “There were technically musical contrasts but nothing personal.”

From his voice, I could sense sadness in Shankar’s sitar eyes and an uncomfortable twitch on his tabla forehead. The tanpura had obviously been kept aside. That was Ravi Shankar, the gentleman.

Narendra Kusnur is a freelance music writer

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 11:36:11 AM |

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