Life with the sultan of strings

Love through the years: Ravi Shankar and Sukanya Shankar.  

Some relationships survive the test of time.

In 1973, Sukanya accompanied Ravi Shankar on the tanpura in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London. She gave birth to their daughter Anoushka in 1981 and eventually married Ravi Shankar in 1989. Sukanya Shankar’s story of how she loved and lived with the maestro for nearly 30 years until his demise is remarkable.

When she first met Shankar in London, Sukanya knew she wanted to go on her life’s journey with him. “Anyone who met him, was bound to fall under his spell. And I was no exception,” says Sukanya.

She calls their marriage, “a miracle, a divine meeting of two souls who were capable of unconditional commitment.”

Sukanya is a Tamil Brahmin hailing from a family that was at ease with music from the east and the west. Her family introduced her to eastern and western classical music and the opera.

So, music naturally was the first connection. Was age ever a barrier? Her answer is witty. “A big barrier! I wish this barrier had been wider, because as I started getting older, he retained his youthful looks, charm and his flirtatious energy. He never grew old until the very end.” On a serious note, she adds, “In our society, there have always been relationships that have thrived despite vast differences in age. The Hungarian composer Kodaly married his 19-year-old student when he was in his late 70s and lived very happily until the end. I personally wouldn’t want it any other way. The only disadvantage is that losing your partner earlier is inevitable, unless otherwise.”

Sukanya raised Anoushka as a single parent for the first seven years with Ravi Shankar visiting twice a year. “Those visits kept me going till the next one.” She taught Anoushka to call him ‘baba’ and when she (Anoushka) was old enough to understand, also told her about her half-sister Norah Jones and half-brother Shubho.

The fact that Anoushka and Norah are the best of friends today is testimony to Sukanya’s parenting abilities.

Recollecting those years, she feels, “The good and the bad will always be there. But what made it beautiful was that Anoushka resembled him both physically and musically. Her growing-up took away much of my pain. My pregnancy was not an accident, she was very much a wanted daughter.”

A day in the life of the Shankars was “anything but boring,” says Sukanya and adds, “He kept me on my toes for most of the time. There was music, fun and humour all the time. He loved playing word games and could beat anyone on the carrom board. To hear him telling jokes or stories was an experience by itself.”

Panditji was a movie buff and a foodie and they spent much of the afternoons watching films from the black and white era. He preferred Bengali cuisine over anything else and sometimes insisted on it while on tour. His favourites — the tadka dal, macher jhol, chachodi (vegetable curry) and saag — were made by Sukanya even when they stayed in a five-star suite.

Ravi Shankar had millions of fans across the globe and this was not for his music alone. His benevolence (towards king and commoner), charming personality, communication skills, and wit and humility made him endearing.  The world may see his relationships with three other women — Annapurna Devi, dancer Kamala Shastri and New York producer Sue Jones — as failed, but they always had only love for him.

What made his relationship with Sukanya special? Sukanya attributes this to the fact that she is a Virgo, a perfectionist, a task master. And perhaps, as Shankar always said, “You have not changed a bit since the time I first saw you! We always discussed a lot of things and I respected his judgment. Thankfully, there were never any clash of egos .”

Their love seemed to transcend human understanding. She worshipped him as a ‘20th century Krishna, an avatar of sorts’.

As she put it, “My motto was always, my house is my temple, he is my god and my service to him is my prayer.”

Any logical person would have questioned this and so did I. “It is not unnatural that great artistes fall in love with different people in different situations. Didn’t it make you feel insecure at all as a woman?” She says matter-of-factly, “Not when the man treated you like a goddess and gave you so much when he was with you. He was very honest about his relationships and laid out everything on the table and then, it was my choice.”

The Bharat Ratna and Grammy award-winning Ravi Shankar that Sukanya knew was childlike and inquisitive. He was a linguist, fluent in various Indian and European languages. “He treated me as if each day was my birthday. From leaving love notes under the pillow, on the wall, near the shower, to boldly holding hands while watching a film, giving a romantic glance at the dinner table, he always displayed his affection for me.”

Sukanya found his sense of humour irresistible. “Can you think of anyone who was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance to the emergency room and telling the nurse there ‘I missed you so I came back!’”

Ravi Shankar died in November 2012. Today, Sukanya relives every moment of their togetherness with the tune of their favourite Raga Yaman echoing in each nook and corner of their house.

Even as Oliver Craske is working on his biography, she is working towards spreading his mission of peace through music — the EMWM (East Meets West Music) label, which the maestro had launched, to bring his archives to the public. The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles is going to have a year-long exhibition, beginning April 7, 2015, commemorating his 95th birthday. The Royal Opera is launching his first Magnus Opera in 2016. Sukanya also takes care of the Ravi Shankar Centre of Music and Performing Arts in New Delhi. Back home, grandson Zubin, who has much of his grandfather’s playful traits, is there to keep her hands more than full.

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Printable version | Sep 11, 2021 2:31:00 PM |

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