Few musicians have earned the recognition in their lifetime that he did; fewer perhaps have retained their position as a colossus of the music world for as long as he has done. Pandit Ravi Shankar was born in India. But perhaps he was a citizen of the world; perhaps he belonged to music alone, perhaps he was someone who could not be hemmed in by the narrow boundaries of nationality; perhaps he could only be defined as an artist.
Born on 7 April1920 in Banaras, Ravi Shankar was the son of Shyam Shankar Choudhury, the Dewan of the state of Jhalawar. Yet the arts became a part of his life as early as his teens when he joined the dance troupe of his (then) better-known brother Uday Shankar.
It was on one of these tours to Europe that the young boy first came in contact with the man who was to be his guru—Ustad Allaudin Khan, court musician at the court of Maihar. For, having heard him play in Kolkata, a short while before, Uday Shankar persuaded the Maharaja of Maihar to permit Khan Saheb to tour with his troupe as a soloist for a year. During this year, Ravi Shankar received some lessons from Khan Saheb. Alongside this initial training, the young boy was also exposed to other forms of music too—Western classical music, jazz, cinema; he heard and was fascinated by opera, by classical guitarist Andres Segovia, and singer Feodor Chaliapin.
Initially, it appears, that he had planned to study under Ustad Inayat Khan, father of Ustad Vilayat Khan. If that had indeed happened, perhaps the recent history of Indian music might have been somewhat different. For these two—Ravi Shankar, and Vilayat Khan, each in their own way an unparalleled maestro of the sitar—would then have been gurubhai, and perhaps would have performed in very similar styles! As it happened, on the day of his gandabandha initiation ceremony with Ustad Inayat Khan, Ravi Shankar fell seriously ill, the initiation had to be postponed, and life and music took an altogether different turn.
Now, meeting and learning from the doyen of the Maihar style, Ravi Shankar decided to abandon his dance career and focus on music—on the sitar. He moved back to India, went to Maihar and lived with his ustad, learning from him in the traditional gurukul system from 1938 to 1944. His training included studying sitar, certainly, but also surbahar along with learning the playing techniques of older instruments like rudra veena, rabab and sursingar. In 1939, a year after he began his in-depth training, Ravi Shankar gave his first concert—a jugalbandi, along with the late sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akkbar Khan (Ustad Allaudin Khan’s son). Through their lives, these two musicians often performed together. Musical associations with his tabla players were also long-lived. For years he always performed with Pandit Chatur Lal and thereafter with Ustad Allah Rakha Khan.
Moving to Mumbai in 1944, Ravi Shankar worked in a series of creative ventures. He joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and composed music for several of their plays and ballets; he composed the music for several films—Dharti ke Laal, Neecha Nagar, Kabuliwala, then , in the early 1950s for Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, and much later for Attenborough’s Gandhi. Between 1949 and 1956 he also served as Music Director at Akashvani (All India Radio). It was during these years that he also founded the Indian National Orchestra at AIR using both Indian and Western instruments, and also composed the music for India’s iconic song, Saare jahaan se acchha.
In 1952, a meeting with the Western classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin preceded another momentous change. Shortly after this meeting, in 1956, Ravi Shankar toured Europe and the United States introducing rapt (and sometimes slightly puzzled) audiences to the beauty of Indian classical music. Soon thereafter, he began a series of musical associations and experiments with various Western musicians—Yehudi Menuhin, Andre Previn, and even the Beatle George Harrison. These experiments, hugely successful, even popular, are perhaps most remarkable for the willingness of these musicians to engage in a dialogue, to try and meld musical forms together in ways that had perhaps not been attempted before. This required both a willingness to experiment but also an extraordinary courage to accept possible failure—exemplifying Kabir’s words—‘agam panth ik sure ka’—the brave one travels the pathless path. That these experiments met with acclaim and success is now well known. Ravi Shankar was by now an international name; equally Indian classical music was an important part of the world cultural forums.
Apart from concerts in his homeland, and on the global stage, Ravi Shankar, along with George Harrison contributed to the growing understanding that music could also be a means of raising awareness and also funds for charity and aid. In 1971 the two artists organised benefit concerts for Bangladesh at Madison Square Gardens. Then in 1985 Ravi Shankar also organised the Live Aid concerts to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia and for the Hope for Haiti telethon.
He received many awards: the Silver Bear in 1957 for his music for the film Kabuliwala at the Berlin Film Festival, the Sangeet Natak Akademy Award in 1962, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowhsip in 1975; the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan and the Bharat Ratna in 1967, 1981 and 1999 respectively; the UNESCO International Music Council’s award in 1975; the Kalidas Samman in 1987; the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 1991; the Ramon Magsaysay award in 1992; the Polar Music prize in 1998 and an OBE in 2001. He also received no less than three Grammy awards. He was bestowed with honorary degrees by various universities; taught at several others (City College New York and UCLA among them) and was appointed Chair at the Department of Indian Music at the California Institute of Arts (1970).
Living and working in two continents, he set up institutes in both the US and India to further the cause of performing arts. Thus, he set up the Ravi Shankar Institute of Music and the Performing Arts in Delhi, which became fully functional in 2003 and which now receives and trains students from all over India and the world. He wrote two autobiographies— My Music, My Life, in 1968, and in 1996, with George Harrison’s inputs, a second autobiography—Raga Mala. A third account of his life was published in 2002—Bapi: Love of My Life— authored by his daughter Anoushka Shankar.
What stands out is the depth of his contribution to Indian music—something that might get lost in the other more colourful narratives of his experimental work, his many achievements in so many artistic fields, and even his controversial relationships. For Ravi Shankar did indeed redefine Indian music and sitar playing. He took Indian music to the world stage. But closer home, perhaps more subtly, he also redefined the notion of sitar playing. In contrast to the gayaki ang of sitar which was more popular then, Ravi Shankar highlighted a style that drew heavily from his training under Ustad Allaudin Khan—a style that foregrounded the beenkar style of playing, and that focused on a deeper, more bass range of sound, and the style of elaboration traditionally used by the rudra veena players.
Ravi Shankar brought in influences of Carnatic ang into Hindustani music, popularised several unconventional and complex talas hitherto not commonly used by sitar players, and composed several new ragas such as Tilak-Shyam, Nat-Bhairav and Bairagi. It would be difficult to map the vast range of his accomplishments and his contribution to music in general and Indian music in particular.
The maestro last performed in California on 4 November 2012. Though we will never hear his sitar again, his memory will always remain with us and with all those who love music.
The writer is an acclaimed singer of thumri-dadra and ghazal. A disciple of the late Smt Naina Devi, she is has performed in India and abroad. She also researches and writes on music.