‘Throughout his life, Ravi Shankar was political’

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Pandit Ravi Shankar’s most famous political statement came with The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, when he performed with leading singers and musicians of the world to raise money for the humanitarian crisis in then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh. Shankar and his brother the famous dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar were politically active since early 1940s. Both were part of the initial team of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) which was formed during the devastating man-made famine of Bengal in 1943. Even as late as 1992, Shankar issued a statement against LK Advani’s rath-yatra which was followed by the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. He had also served as a honourary member in Indian Parliament’s upper house. Ankit Agrawal spoke with Ram Rahman, photographer and founder of Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), about Shankar’s politics.

Ravi Shankar and Left-wing politics

Ram Rahman. Photo: Vijay Pandey

Ravi Shankar was part of IPTA when it was set-up in 1940s, during the Bengal famine by PC Joshi, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India. He composed the music for a number IPTA productions including a ballet based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India. Incidentally, this was also the first modern ballet in India. After collecting some money in 1943-44 by performing this ballet and a Bengali play on Bengal famine ‘Nabonno’ across India, IPTA made a Bengali film Nabanna in 1943-44. In 1945, it was remade in Hindi and was titled Dharti Ke Laal which was directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and the music was given by Ravi Shankar. The film also marks the debut of Zohra Sehgal and Balraj Sahni.

Similarly Ravi Shankar also gave music for Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946). Chetan and Uma Anand were involved in theatre in Bombay’s mills for mill-workers and they made film based on Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths.

After Joshi was pushed out of the party in 1947, the initial energy of IPTA dissipated. Many of these people came toDelhiand got involved with various agencies like All India Radio or Sangeet Natak Akademi and Song and Drama Division of Government of India. Ravi Shankar went on to work as the director of All India Radio. He composed music of ‘Sare Jahan Se Achha’. Throughout his life, he was political. In 1971, during Bangladesh war, he organised ‘The Concert for Bangladesh’ with his ‘shishya’ George Harrison, in Madison Square,New York. This was the first socially conscious rock concert in the world history. Along with Harrison, rock stars like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton came together with him to support Bangladesh. This became a model for people like Bono and Bob Geldof.

Ravi Shankar and Right-wing politics

When LK Advani went on country-wide rath-yatra, SAHMAT organised ‘Artists against Communalism’, in a concert in Delhi in 1991 and Mumbai in 1992, where Ravi Shankar was present. Though he could not perform due to some contractual obligations, he issued a statement criticising communal mobilisation by Hindu right-wing. He said and I quote “As a sensitive musician, I am deeply pained by what is happening in our country today. This discordant cacophony has to stop. It is the duty of all of us to try our best in our own way to bring back sanity and harmony amongst our people.”

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