* 1920 – † 2012
13th of December 2012
My Dear Fellow Music Lovers,
I am extremely saddened by the great loss we have all suffer
– the passing away of Sitar Maestro Ravi Shankar this month in the year of 2012.
My personal loss is not just of an Great Musician and a Noble Man…
but that of a guiding light and inspiration of sitar and Indian music in general which had been
a mayor and fundamental impact on my life..
I am deeply
grateful to all who take notice.
May the gods be with him….
The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar
From Chapter I
The whole world where I was born in Benares was like an India asit existed two thousand years ago. Apart from a fewautomobiles, cycles and other little emblems of modernity thatwere around me, everything was really old: the way of life, the city’s templesand ghats. Ghats (literally `sloping places’) are the tiered steps on the banksof the river, and Benares is famous for its ghats, because it is there that youwitness complete life itself, from childbirth to death. Everything happensthere: there are plays going on, songs being enacted by dancers telling thestory of Krishna and Radha, or the devotional kirtans sung in Bengali andbhajans sung in Hindi. Benares is so cosmopolitan; people come from all overIndia to this city of pilgimage. It has such power because these people’s faithmerges there; they come to Benares to die and to be cremated according to oldHindu rites, because they believe this will bring immediate nirvana and thusrelease them from the cycle of reincarnation.
Kashi is the oldest name for Benares. But it is another old name for thecity, Varanasi, that has come into use again. The British couldn’t pronouncemany of the place names in India so they distorted them, and for a couple ofcenturies Varanasi was known as Benares.
My greatest joy and excitement as a child was to visit the ghats with mymother, my brothers and my brothers’ friends. There was so much activity, somuch natural entertainment, so many different types of music. In Benares,sound is everywhere. To hear the shahnai being played in the temples andpalaces … All the maharajahs had their mansion or palace on the bank of theriver, and many of them had their own shahnai-player. These musicians hadfive or six duties per day — early morning, mid morning, afternoon, earlyevening, evening and night. Constantly one heard the beautiful ragas of thatparticular hour, and altogether it created a music of its own. They blended sobeautifully, into a harmony, really. That particular sound of the ghats inBenares was unique. It is still there, but no longer the same: now it is more ofa cacophony and has become commercialised, mixed in with Hindi film musicwith its elements of pop, rock and rap.
Growing up in this supremely spiritual environment was an auspicious beginning for a youngIndian destined to achieve the greatest heights in his nation’s classical music. But the path of Ravi Shankar’s evolution towards his accomplishments would not be a conventional one. His early years were to contain a blend of the sacred and the material, of deprivation and excess, of dedication and triviality, of East and West — an unconventional background for a distinguished Hindustani musician. Yet this diversity of ingredients fused in him to emerge ultimately in a truly global artistic concoction.
To begin at the beginning, Ravi Shankar was born on 7th April, 1920, at his family’s rented house in the city of Benares, in a lane known as Tilebhandeshwar Galli. Thousands of years old, Benares isthe most sacred place on earth for a Hindu, a city of two thousand temples situated along the banks of the great Mother Ganges, and reputedly the abode of Shiva.
Ravi’s father, Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, was a Brahmin (a member of the priestly caste, the highest in the Hindu caste system) from Jessore in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). A highly educated and cultured Bengali, he achieved distinction as a statesman, lawyer, philosopher, writer and amateur musician. From about 1905 he had served as Diwan (chief minister) to the Maharajah of Jhalawar, a small native state in what is now Rajasthan. During this period Shyam had become estranged from Ravi’s mother, Hemangini, and without divorcing he had remarried. (This was not an unlawful practice in India then, although it was rare and generally frowned upon. The Hindu marriage code prohibiting bigamy was only introduced after independence.) Shortly before Ravi’s birth, he left to practise law in Calcutta and London. When Ravi was only a few months old, Shyam’s eldest son Uday also left for London to study fine art at the Royal College of Art.
Hemangini was from the small village of Nasrathpur, about seventy miles from Benares. Her father, Abboy Charan Chakrabarti, had been a prosperous zamindar (landlord) — as had Shyam’s father — and in her youth she had lived in a beautiful stone mansion in the nearby town of Ghazipur. But those riches had disappeared as a result of the profligacy of the men in her family and, after Shyam had left, Hemangini brought up her children in Benares while surviving on a pension awarded to her by the Maharajah of Jhalawar. Ravi, or Robindra as he was named at birth, was her last child, nearly ten years separating him from the youngest of the four other brothers who survived infancy.
My full name as pronounced in Bengali is `Robindro ShaunkorChowdhury’. The name `Ravi’, meaning `the sun’, comes from Sanskrit, theorigin of almost all modern Indian languages. The pronunciation has changedgreatly from Sanskrit to Bengali, and thus `Ravindra’ and `Ravi’ in Sanskritbecame `Robindro’ and `Robi’ in Bengali. So in Bengali I was originally calledRobindro (although, strangely enough, in the English style it was written`Robindra’); it was only later, when I was about twenty or twenty-one, that Ichanged my name to Ravi, the equivalent used in the major part of India.
My nickname from childhood was `Robu’. That’s what a few of my familyand friends call me. Similarly my brother Rajendra was known as Raju, andDebendra was Debu. I also called Raju `Mejda’ (meaning `middle brother’),and Debu, `Sejda’ (`third brother’).
Our original family name had been Chattopadhyaya. (The British couldnot pronounce that word either, so when they arrived they turned it intoChatterjee, which is why one now comes across so many Chatterjees, as wellas Banerjees and Mukherjees — originally Bandopadhyaya andMukhopadhyaya.) Later the Muslim rulers of the day gave my ancestors landand made them zamindars. Along with that they were awarded the title`Chowdhury’, which from then onwards replaced Chattopadhyaya as our lastname. For a few generations we were actually known as Hara Chowdhury,because we used to worship at a Shiva temple (Hara is another name forShiva). While in Udaipur, where my brother Uday was born in 1900 (and fromwhere his name was taken), my father had dropped the `Chowdhury’ andthereafter just used `Shankar’ — which we have all maintained since.
My mother actually had seven sons but, believe it or not, no daughters.She so much wanted to have a daughter — and I missed having a sister. Udaywas the eldest son (and therefore known to us brothers as `Dada’), the nextchild was stillborn, and then came Rajendra (born in 1905), Debendra (1908),and Bhupendra (1911).
Next was an unusual child, nicknamed Puchunia, who died at only tenmonths, although everybody thought he was two years old. He was big andhealthy, and from the age of five or six months he used to do strange thingsthat no one could believe. He started walking and talking very early, and washighly intelligent; there are baffling stories about the things he could do. TheMaharajah used to visit sometimes because he was fond of this baby boy.Puchunia liked the Maharajah to smoke his cigar, and would even mimesmoking a cigar and blowing out the smoke!
Bhupendra, whom I called Chhotda, was the tallest of us, about five footeight inches. He was very handsome, with curly black hair, and used to writepoetry and songs, which my brothers would tease him about. He wasn’tinterested in playing football or any other sports, though he was quite robust;sometimes they would say he was a sissy, and he would stay at home andthen cry like a girl. I used to be the closest to him. We were like friends.Sometimes we would sit on the rooftop together: he would play theharmonium and we would both sing.
* * *
In 1917 or 1918, while my father was in Jhalawar, he had married anEnglish lady named Miss Morrell. That was where the gulf between myparents had widened; they had been living separately, and then my motherwas given a mansion there in Jhalawar. Miss Morrell died around 1925 or 1926,at a time when my father was in Calcutta practising law; they had nochildren. He then returned to the West to spend the rest of his life, splittinghis time between London, Geneva and New York.
After he left Jhalawar for Calcutta in 1920, my mother came to Benaresand lived there with me and my three brothers (Dada having already lefthome). Along with all of our belongings, she brought from Jhalawar two orthree trunks that were full of presents she had received over ten or twelveyears. She was a great consort of the Maharani (the Queen) and, as was thecustom in those days with royalty, on a festival day or on the birthday ofanyone in the royal family, they would give presents — gold or diamond ringsfor the nose, a diamond earring, a gold bracelet, locket or chain, as well asexpensive saris made of gold brocades.
It was fixed that we would get a pension sent to us from Jhalawar everymonth. Two hundred rupees was the amount set, which was very substantialin those days — but those were also the princely days when there were suchthieves and robbers on the staff of the aristocrats, and some of these took fiveor ten rupees each. Within a year or two, by the time it reached us thepension had dwindled to sixty rupees, even though it was still officially twohundred in their books. Sixty rupees was nothing, really (about two Americandollars at today’s rate), for a mother to pay for her children and theireducation in college and school, house rent and household expenses, andmyself the youngest of the four!
My father never sent anything to us, presumably because he believed thatwe were provided for. I don’t know whether my mother was too proud to lethim know that these people were not sending us the full amount. I think mybrothers did try to contact him about it. To me it was a mystery, this side ofmy father; because whatever he was doing, he was always earning money – maybenot fabulous amounts, but he had an income through his legal-advicework or his teaching. He would help a few students in Calcutta with theirstudies by sending them each one pound (and in those days one pound wasquite a sum), and he would also send money to my aunts (his sisters), someof whom had become widows. With all these people he was very generous,but as far as we were concerned he never sent any help. It seemed very strangeat the time, although I did come to understand it better much later on.
I saw my mother suffering. With that small amount of money she wouldmanage the house, pay for our education and never let us be hungry — but welived in a very frugal manner. She was a great cook. Whatever she cooked waslike nectar to us; even if she made plain spinach, it would be so tasty withthe rice. My brothers would bring some of their friends round and they wouldall say, `Oh, Auntie, we want to eat! We hear you cook so well.’ My motherwould never refuse, no matter whether she was prepared for it. They wouldask for more and more, and we would all eat, too. But when they had left,there would be no food remaining and she would take some jaggery (a coarsebrown sugar lump) and a pot full of water from the tap. I saw her do that somany times and I really felt for her. I was close to my mother. I saw all herpain and her loneliness, but even then she didn’t show her bitterness; shewas full of love.
When we were getting poorer she would open one of the trunks and takeout a golden bangle or earring, or an expensive sari, and in the evening whenthe streets were emptier she would cover herself with a shawl, so peoplewouldn’t recognise her, and take me with her to a shop in the main road atthe end of the lane. This was a shop that sold all the different oils. The shopowner was also our landlord and very rich, and he accorded her a lot ofrespect, calling her `Mother’. (It is an Indian tradition that elder ladies arecalled `Mother’ by a younger person, just as women of a similar age are called`Sister’, and much younger ones, `Daughter’.) She would pawn one of thearticles and get maybe twenty or twenty-five rupees. For those few years thiswas how she brought us up.
She also bought a Singer sewing machine, and to earn some extra moneyshe would sew ladies’ blouses for a person who would come and take themaway. Her cousin Brija Bihari came to live with us in order to help her in this.My mother really struggled so much.
* * *
By now we were living in a different house, in the same street where I wasborn but on the other side. Opposite us there was a very rich Bengali familyof landlords who lived like maharajahs. They had a mansion and tenniscourts, plenty of land with flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables, and a motorcar, which was quite something at that time. They held special functionsthat brought many famous musicians to the house. It was a joint family — twobrothers, their children and their grandchildren. Amongst the grandchildrenthere was a boy called Bulu, who went to the same school as I did, and webecame good friends. I used to go to their house and play, and my brotherMejda also used to visit for games of tennis.
Mejda was a sportsman, a champion at badminton for some time inBenares, and he used to play cricket also. He was a member of a social-culturalclub called Sangeet Samiti, where he used to play musical instruments: cornet,harmonium, dilruba, esraj and even a small sitar, which was kept in thecorner of a room in our house. There were a few instruments of his at ourhome, and they were the most important playthings I had. Whenever mybrothers were away and my mother was busy in the kitchen, I would strum thesitar as best I could. The harmonium was easier, because all I had to do waspress the keys as on a piano keyboard and operate the squeeze-box with theleft hand. Whatever few songs I knew — and I was learning some songs byRabindranath Tagore (we call them Rabindra Sangeet) from Bechu-da, a friendof Mejda — I would play and sing as well as I could train myself to.
In the afternoons I was passing my time playing with my friend Bulu inhis large house opposite, and this was where I saw riches for the first time.The ladies upstairs there — the mothers, sisters and cousins — used to adoreme. They fed me with such delicacies as puri, halua and a variety of sweetsand fruits, all served on marble plates, with juices in marble goblets, onmarble tables! You can just envisage what a big impact this had on me, as myown family were going through that very tight period financially at this time.
These were my early years, seeing everything all around, poverty andriches, and soaking in the sights, sounds and spiritual aromas of Benares.
* * *
Reading was my childhood passion from the moment I learnt to recognisethe alphabets, principally in Bengali and then in English. At about the age offive I started reading in Bengali, mostly children’s books, and I picked it upso quickly that within a year or so I was reading anything I could lay myhands upon. Around the house there were plenty of books belonging to mybrothers: detective books, romances and other stories. I acquired a taste forTagore and Dwijendra Lal Roy — who wrote wonderful songs as well as books,stories and plays — and the works of my favourite author, Sarat ChandraChatterjee. Then, again and again, I became drawn to mythological books. Thegreat epics Mahabharata and Ramayana soon became my favourites, just as mydaughter has now become hooked on them as well.
Whatever I read stimulated my imagination, and because I was a loner itbecame my passion to stand in front of the mirror and act out all the stories: Iwas the hero, the heroine, the lover or the villain. There was hardly anyoneto play with since my brothers were at school or college, so I entertainedmyself until I joined the school and made some friends there.
I studied at the Bengalitola High School for a couple of years only,between 1927 and 1929. I remember one curious thing that happened aroundthe age of eight. A class friend of mine, who was very naughty, kept tellingme for many days that his family was having a house built and electricity wasbeing fitted, which very few houses had. Eventually he said, `Come with meand I’ll show you something fantastic there which will give you a nice feeling.You won’t believe it! We have sweets and fruits, and you can have them.’
So one day after classes he took me to the unfinished house, which wasnot far from school. Like any new house being built, there were thingsscattered around. He took me to a wall and made me touch a raw electric wire— and I was electrocuted! What a traumatic experience! You can picture methere: furious, shouting and crying at the same time, and wanting to hit him.It was so cruel of him, and so stupid of me — even now I think of it andcannot understand my foolishness. I never saw him again after that — I didn’twant to!
(This reminds me of another `electric’ experience! In January 1995 mywife Sukanya and I were staying in Calcutta at a friend’s house, where I waselectrocuted while taking a shower. It seems there was a leakage from thewater-heating geyser onto the wall, and when I touched the wall my wholesystem was jolted into a million vibratos and tremolos at the same time!With water and electricity involved together, it was a miracle — one of themany miracles in my life — that I survived.)
Another school friend told me one day that the Lord Shiva, one of ourholy trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), and his wife Parvati (the MotherGoddess) had come as human beings to a house. Naturally I was very curious,so we bunked a class and around one o’clock we went to a rich man’s house.There were a lot of people sitting in a room singing bhajans, and I saw agentleman with a beard like Shiva’s, and coiled, matted hair. Around hisneck he was wearing a garland of rudraksha, which is made from reddish-coloureddried fruit stones and is supposed to radiate spiritual powers. (It isworn by most devotees of Shiva). The lady was so beautiful, of fair colour,wearing an off-white silk sari with a red border; she too had matted hair, andhad a round red tika on her forehead. They were so radiant, especially thelady, that I felt they really were Shiva and Parvati.
Many years later I discovered that she was the very famous lady yogi MataAnandamayi (meaning `mother full of bliss’). She had ashrams everywhere,with hundreds of thousands of disciples, but she was not affected by hersuccess; she continued to be the same fantastic soul. After a few years ofmarriage, her husband became her disciple and remained so as long as helived. I met her again in the early Sixties, and when I told her about theincident from my childhood days, she laughed! I became a devotee of hersuntil she died in the early Eighties. She was one of the greatest souls that Ihave ever encountered: a true ever-loving mother! I loved her so much, andwas lucky to have received her love and blessings.
* * *
When my family had been in Jhalawar, there had been many chances tohear music. Jhalawar had no musicians of its own, but famous musicians anddancers often visited to perform at the court, so my mother heard some ofthem, especially the lady musicians and singers — famous names like GoharJan, Malka Jan, Zohra Bai and Kajjan Bai. After their regular progamme in theMaharajah’s court, these female musicians would attend a zenana (ladies’)court in the presence of the Maharani, who was accompanied by her closerelatives, her friends and the wives of senior officials. Male musicians alsoperformed sometimes, but on those occasions the ladies had to sit in the darkbehind a curtain made from chik, very fine straw matting through whichthey could see but which veiled them from the men’s gaze.
To this day there exists a tradition throughout India whereby the womenfrom all generations sing together accompanied by the dholak (a drum). Theladies sang so beautifully for the different festivities, such as the birth of achild, a marriage, the harvest festival, the colour festival (Holi) or the lightfestival (Diwali). My mother had considerable musical talent, and wasblessed with a soft but very melodious voice; she also knew a variety of folkmusic and semi-classical music such as thumri, kajri and dadra.
In Benares, I loved to lie on our flat third-floor roof in the evenings withmy head on my mother’s lap. She would pat me, and I would listen to hersinging in her beautiful voice,looking up at the clear night sky(free from pollution in thosedays). I used to admire the skymuch more without the moon; thelight from the stars was sopowerful that they would shedtheir own light. She would tell methe names of all the stars, andmythological stories about ourgods and goddesses. Sometimes,because she had no one else totalk to, she would speak of herJhalawar days, and how mybrothers used to live like princes:they had been to the best schoolsand even had a little tiger cub toplay with. She described themansion with its large retinue ofservants, maidservants andgardeners, and the sentries whowould give a military salute to herand my brothers each time theypassed. To me, all those storiessounded like a fairy tale, andmade me feel slightly jealous.
She also related stories about her childhood, in particular theeccentricities of her grandfather, who was hot-tempered and big-hearted atthe same time, with an insatiable appetite for enjoying life and spendingmoney on keeping the best wrestlers, horses and — as you might expect — concubines.He had been a very rich landlord. Indeed it was he who had hadthe mansion in Ghazipur built, and he also owned cottages and houses inNasrathpur. He used a fast two-horse cart to travel between the two places,although he had more fun staying in Ghazipur which was really in its primethen. The mansion had been a fantastic house built entirely from stone andbeautifully decorated with traditional-style filigree work, but after his deatheverything was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. His sons started thefamily trend for living more in Nasrathpur, so that in my childhoodwhenever we went away from Benares, as we did every summer (during mybrothers’ school or college holidays), it was to Nasrathpur, not Ghazipur. Idid go to the mansion, and stayed there for one or two nights, but by the timeof my first visit there were only a few rooms worth living in.
Those couple of months I spent each year in Nasrathpur wereunforgettable. Mostly we stayed at the large house of Chhoto Dadamoshai’s,my mother’s uncle. His single-storey home was arranged around a centralsquare courtyard with a veranda. There was a huge garden — some parts of itwith so many trees that it seemed like a forest — filled with about twentydifferent types of luscious tropical fruit: sitaphal (custard apples), jamuns(large blue berries with stones), mangoes, lychees, guavas, jack fruit. Therewould be about a dozen of my young aunts, uncles and cousins at the house,aged between four and fourteen, and together we would roam around thegarden all day long, playing hide-and-seek, climbing trees and gorgingourselves on the fantastic fruits. In the sweltering weather, withtemperatures of up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit, we were so grateful for thedeep well in the garden. The water in it used to be ice cold, even in theseverest summer. We would all sit down in a row and wait our turn as theservants collected water in a balti (bucket) from the well and then poured iton us one by one. We would shriek with pleasure!
Those of us from the cities were made to take an afternoon nap indoors ina dark room cooled by ingenious methods. In the centre of the ceiling was aspecial pankha (fan), which was operated by means of a cord pulled by ayoung servant who sat beside the wall. The windows and doors were blockedup with khus khus tatti, blocks of scented straw kept moist by being sprayedwith water at intervals. The hot breeze from outside would blow through thestraw as cool air. The effect was like air-conditioning with an addedfragrance. It was so delightfully cool. How inventive were the people of oldendays, surviving without the electricity upon which we are so reliant today!
I must also tell you about the great feasts we had in Nasrathpur (foodalways being a favourite topic of mine). All my elder mamas (maternaluncles) were hunters and every morning they would go off with their guns,returning with killings in abundance: ducks, pheasants and partridges,sometimes wild deer and once even a wild boar! They would also catchshrimps, crabs and other fish from their own large ponds and from distantlakes. My mother’s aunt was in charge of the cooking. She was a tall, strong,attractive lady and a magnificent cook. We called her `Boudi’, the name weuse for a sister-in-law, instead of `Grandma’, because she was so young for agrandmother. With the assistance of my mother and all the young aunts shewould prepare dozens of delicious dishes — chicken, mutton, the hunters’catches of fish and meat, vegetables from the garden, salads, hot and sourcondiments and chutneys, special breads and rice. All the cooking was donein pure ghee or mustard oil. Home-made rich creamy yoghurts were madefrom the milk of the cows and buffaloes which were kept at the house, andwe ended each meal with malai, rabdi, kheer or other sweets. They wereamazing feasts. Mind you, this all happened twice a day! We would havelunch at about two in the afternoon and then, after we overactive youngstershad collapsed, exhausted, at the end of our day’s fooling around in thegarden, we would be forced to wake up again for dinner at about ten or elevenin the evening. On top of all this were the hearty breakfasts and tasty snackswith our late-afternoon tea. I can still recall the aromas of all the exoticspices, and the food cooked with such expertise and invested with such love.
At home in Benares, every full moon we would perform SatyaNarayan Puja, a special celebration worshipping Lord Vishnu. I used to lovethe food made as offerings for those occasions too: the chopped fruits andsweets, and especially sinni, a special sweet made out of milk, flour, choppedbananas, raisins, cashews, pistachios and other nuts. It tasted so good,especially as we never had much variety of food. My brothers had known itall during their earlier period in Jhalawar, but to me all of these simplethings meant so much.
I felt so near to my mother at that period of my childhood. That was abeautiful time. She knew plenty of Bengali songs from theatrical plays. Inthose days there were only silent films, so the popular songs came mostlyfrom famous musical stage plays. Each night at the time of Dassehra one ofthese stage plays would be put on. (Dassehra, also known as Durga Puja, isthe annual festival held around September or October to celebrate Rama’sdefeat of Ravana, as told in the Ramayana. For four or five days of its durationwe would visit the Durga temple very early in the morning, along with mybrothers and a huge crowd of other worshippers.) There were severaltheatrical clubs, including Mejda’s club Sangeet Samiti and some fromCalcutta, which each rehearsed for three or four months to prepare a play.These were the main attractions at the Dassehra festival, and my motherknew many songs from them.
I would go along to some of these plays, and found them exciting,although I usually fell asleep after some time — as all children do! On oneoccasion, when I must have been seven or eight, a bizarre incident occurredduring a performance by Sangeet Samiti of a play called Bilwa Mangal,variously attributed to several great fifteenth- and sixteenth-century saints.This was a story about a wealthy and likeable man who had a beautiful wifebut became infatuated by a courtesan. She liked him, but she always told him,`You have such a beautiful wife in your house. How can you leave her to cometo me?’ He lost his mind completely, and used to visit her again and again, tohear her sing and be with her.
Late one night it was raining and her front door was closed. He wasshouting, desperate for her to let him in, but she refused. Then he saw a ropehanging from the veranda, and climbed up it to her room. Shocked to see him,she asked, `How did you get in the house?’ When he told her, she wasperplexed since there was no rope hanging outside. They both went to look — andsaw it was a snake! So she told him off: `Why are you doing this? Just forthis body of mine? You are so mad that you didn’t know the differencebetween a rope and a snake! This love you say you have for me: if you couldgive one fourth of it to God you could have a darshan (glimpse) of him, and beliberated.’ These words gave him a jolt, and he turned back and went home.Thereafter he became one of the greatest saints, and wrote beautiful bhajans.
That evening I could not sleep during the play! I was watching it withsuch intensity. In the intermission one of Mejda’s friends was teasing me:`How do you like that girl who is the heroine?’ To me she really looked sobeautiful, with wonderful make-up and costume. I was in love with thatcharacter! He asked me if I wanted to meet her. I thought it was not a properthing to do, and I was shy — but still very excited. He took me backstage, towhere all the actors were relaxing.
However, in those days it was men who took the female parts in theseplays. Backstage, the actor had taken off his wig, blouse and artificial boobs.Sitting there, with the sari folded for comfort, he was quite dark-skinned,and he was smoking, of all things, bidi, a cheap cigarette made from dryleaves rolled with tobacco inside — mostly smoked by poor or working-classpeople. I couldn’t understand it, since I had been told that `he’ was a `she’.Mejda’s friend was now in hysterics, repeating again and again, `Robu is inlove with you!’ The actor looked like a hijra (eunuch) with a dark hairy chestand legs! Everyone else was laughing, but I started crying and wanted to gohome, so I didn’t see the whole play after all. What a shocking let-down !
End of Chapter One
Sitar master and composer Ravi Shankar died Tuesday 11th of December at a hospital near his home in the San Diego area. Shankar’s foundation released a statement that says the musician had suffered from upper-respiratory and heart issues over the past year and underwent heart-valve replacement surgery last week. He was 92.
When he was just 10 years old, Pandit Ravi Shankar began performing in Europe and the U.S. with his family’s Indian dance troupe. It was a glamorous life: the best hotels, the best meals, celebrities coming backstage to say just how much they’d enjoyed the concert. But at age 18, Shankar gave up all the glitter and went back to a dusty little town in India to study with a guru who taught him the sitar. He apprenticed for years, then started to play in public on the ancient and difficult string instrument. Eventually, he became a master.
Musician Ravi Shankar performs at the Concert For Bangladesh benefit at Madison Square Garden in New York on Aug. 1, 1971. Shankar died Tuesday. He was 92.
Shankar’s music is like a fine Indian sari — silken, swirling, exotic, it can break your heart with its beauty. He was a respected classical musician, but in 1966 he became an international superstar when George Harrison studied with him. Shankar’s goal to make Eastern music known in the West was achieved with help from The Beatles, though he grew discouraged by the hippie scene, where drugs clouded the attention of his audience.
Back in India, Shankar wrote sitar concerts for Western symphony orchestras and continued touring. The composer and performer remained a teacher, too. In December 2004, when I visited his home in New Delhi, the sitar master was still giving lessons. He sat on the carpeted floor in an old brown sweater vest playing simple exercises; his sitar filled the room with feeling.
“[This music] is a combination of shanta and karuna, which means tranquility and sadness,” he said of the piece he was playing. “This sadness is … like wanting to reach out [for something] and not finding it, whether for a lover or for God.”
Shankar’s music reached out to some of the West’s finest musicians. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composer Philip Glass were friends and collaborators. One of today’s top pop stars, Grammy winner Norah Jones, is Shankar’s daughter. Another daughter, Anoushka, learned sitar from her father, and now takes his classical tradition and makes it more contemporary.
A few winters ago in Delhi, remembering those demanding early years of sitar studies, Ravi Shankar said his guru’s most important lesson was this: “He says that we have to earn our livelihood, and for that we have to perform and accept money. But music is not for sale. The music that I have learned and want to give is like worshipping God. It’s absolutely like a prayer.”
Shankar once said he felt ecstasy when he made music — the world was erased, and he experienced great peace. His music embraced and lifted those who heard and loved it, his widow, Sukanya, his daughters and his many fans.
( NPR )
A Genius and a Noble Man
Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitarist and composer whose collaborations with Western classical musicians as well as the Beatles and other rock stars helped foster a worldwide appreciation of India’s traditional music, died on Tuesday in San Diego. He was 92.
Mr. Shankar died in a hospital near his home, his family said in a statement, adding that he had suffered from upper respiratory and heart ailments in the last year and underwent heart-valve replacement surgery last Thursday.
Mr. Shankar, a soft-spoken, eloquent man whose virtuosity transcended musical languages, was trained in both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Although Western audiences were often mystified by the odd sounds and shapes of the instruments when he began touring in Europe and the United States in the early 1950s, Mr. Shankar and his ensemble gradually built a large following for Indian music.
Mr. Shankar collaborated with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and was a mentor to the jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane. But Western interest in his instrument, the sitar, exploded in 1965 when George Harrison of the Beatles encountered one on the set of “Help!,” the Beatles’ second film.
Harrison was intrigued by the instrument, with its small rounded body, long neck and resonating gourd at the top, and its complexity: it has 6 melody strings and 25 sympathetic strings, which are not played but which resonate freely as the other strings are plucked. He soon learned its rudiments and used it that year on a Beatles recording, “Norwegian Wood.”
The Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Byrds and other rock groups quickly followed suit, although few went as far as Harrison, who recorded several songs on Beatles albums with Indian musicians rather than with his band mates. By the summer of 1967 the sitar was in vogue in the rock world.
At first Mr. Shankar reveled in the attention his connection with popular culture brought him, and he performed for huge audiences at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969. He also performed, with the tabla virtuoso Alla Rakha and the sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, at an all-star concert at Madison Square Garden in 1971 that Harrison organized to help Mr. Shankar raise money for the victims of political upheaval in Bangladesh.
Last week Mr. Shankar was told that he would receive a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in February, said Neil Portnow, the head of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
In addition to his frequent tours as a sitarist, Mr. Shankar, the father of the singer Norah Jones and the sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar, was a prolific composer of film music (including the score for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” in 1982), ballets, electronic works and concertos for sitar and Western orchestras.
In 1988 his seven-movement “Swar Milan” was performed at the Palace of Culture in Moscow by an ensemble of 140 musicians, including the Russian Folk Ensemble, members of the Moscow Philharmonic and the Ministry of Culture Chorus, as well as Mr. Shankar’s own group of Indian musicians. And in 1990 he collaborated with the Minimalist composer Philip Glass — who had worked as his assistant on the film score for “Chappaqua” in the late 1960s — on “Passages,” a recording of works he and Mr. Glass composed for each other.
“I have always had an instinct for doing new things,” Mr. Shankar said in 1985. “Call it good or bad, I love to experiment.”
But he came to regard his participation in rock festivals as a mistake, saying he deplored the use of his music, which has its roots in an ancient spiritual tradition, as a backdrop for drug taking.
“On one hand,” he said in a 1985 interview, “I was lucky to have been there at a time when society was changing. And although much of the hippie movement seemed superficial, there was also a lot of sincerity in it, and a tremendous amount of energy. What disturbed me, though, was the use of drugs and the mixing of drugs with our music. And I was hurt by the idea that our classical music was treated as a fad — something that is very common in Western countries.
“People would come to my concerts stoned, and they would sit in the audience drinking Coke and making out with their girlfriends. I found it very humiliating, and there were many times I picked up my sitar and walked away.
“I tried to make the young people sit properly and listen. I assured them that if they wanted to be high, I could make them feel high through the music, without drugs, if they’d only give me a chance. It was a terrible experience at the time.
“But you know, many of those young people still come to our concerts. They have matured, they are free from drugs, and they have a better attitude. And this makes me happy that I went through all that. I have come full circle.”
Ravi Shankar, whose formal name was Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, India, to a family of musicians and dancers. His older brother Uday directed a touring Indian dance troupe, which Ravi joined when he was 10. Within five years he had become one of the company’s star soloists. He also discovered that he had a facility with the sitar and the sarod, another stringed instrument, as well as the flute and the tabla, an Indian drum.
The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer.
“My brother had a house in Paris,” he recalled in one interview. “To it came many Western classical musicians. These musicians all made the same point: ‘Indian music,’ they said, ‘is beautiful when we hear it with the dancers. On its own it is repetitious and monotonous.’ They talked as if Indian music were an ethnic phenomenon, just another museum piece. Even when they were being decent and kind, I was furious. And at the same time sorry for them. Indian music was so rich and varied and deep. These people hadn’t penetrated even the outer skin.”
Mr. Shankar soon found, however, that as a young, self-taught musician he had not penetrated very deeply either. In 1936 an Indian court musician, Allaudin Khan, joined the company for a year and set Mr. Shankar on a different path.
“He was the first person frank enough to tell me that I had talent but that I was wasting it — that I was going nowhere, doing nothing,” Mr. Shankar said. “Everyone else was full of praise, but he killed my ego and made me humble.”
When Mr. Shankar asked Mr. Khan to teach him, he was told that he could learn to play the sitar only after he decided to give up the worldly life he was leading and devote himself fully to his studies. In 1937 Mr. Shankar gave up dancing, sold his Western clothes and returned to India to become a musician.
“I surrendered myself to the old way,” he said, “and let me tell you, it was difficult for me to go from places like New York and Chicago to a remote village full of mosquitoes, bedbugs, lizards and snakes, with frogs croaking all night. I was just like a Western young man. But I overcame all that.”
After studying with Mr. Khan for seven years and marrying his daughter, Annapurna, also a sitarist, Mr. Shankar began his performing career in India. In the 1940s he started bringing Eastern and Western currents together in ballet scores and incidental music for films, including Satyajit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy, in the late 1950s. In 1949 he was appointed music director of All India Radio. There he formed the National Orchestra, an ensemble of both Indian and Western classical instruments.
Mr. Shankar became increasingly interested in touring outside India in the early 1950s. His appetite was whetted further when he undertook a tour of the Soviet Union in 1954 and was invited to perform in London and New York. But it wasn’t until 1956 that he began spending long periods outside India. That year, he left his position at All India Radio and undertook tours of Europe and the United States.
Through his recitals, as well as recordings on the Columbia, EMI and World Pacific labels, Mr. Shankar built a Western following for the sitar. In 1952 he met and began performing with Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he made three recordings for EMI: “West Meets East” (1967), “West Meets East, Vol. 2” (1968) and “Improvisations: East Meets West” (1977). In this period he also made some recordings with Jean-Pierre Rampal.
John Coltrane had become fascinated with Indian music and philosophy in the early 1960s and met with Mr. Shankar several times from 1964 to 1966 to learn the basics of ragas, talas and Indian improvisation techniques. Sitar performances are partly improvised, but the improvisations are strictly governed by a repertory of ragas (melodic patterns representing specific moods, times of the day, seasons of the year or events) and talas (intricate rhythmic patterns) that date back several millenniums. Coltrane named his son Ravi Coltrane, also a saxophonist, after Mr. Shankar.
Mr. Shankar loved to mix the music of different cultures. In 1978 he collaborated with several prominent Japanese musicians — Hozan Yamamoto, a shakuhachi player, and Susumu Miyashita, a koto player — on “East Greets East,” a recording in which Indian and Japanese influences intermingled.
Mr. Shankar maintained his friendship and working relationship with George Harrison, who released a recording of a 1972 performance by Mr. Shankar on the Beatles’ Apple label. In 1974, Harrison also produced a recording on his own Dark Horse label by a group billed as Shankar Family and Friends performing in a more popular style — short, bright-edged songs with vocals, rather than expansive instrumental improvisations.
The “friends” included Harrison, listed in the credits as Hari Georgeson, as well as the bassist Klaus Voorman, the pianist Nicky Hopkins, the organist Billy Preston and the flutist Tom Scott. Mr. Shankar toured the United States with Harrison the same year. They last worked together in 1997, when Harrison produced Mr. Shankar’s “Chants of India” CD for EMI.
Mr. Shankar continued to be regarded in the West as the most eloquent spokesman for his country’s music. But his popularity abroad and his experiments with Western musical sounds and styles drew criticism among traditionalists in India.
“In India I have been called a destroyer,” he said in 1981. “But that is only because they mixed my identity as a performer and as a composer. As a composer I have tried everything, even electronic music and avant-garde. But as a performer I am, believe me, getting more classical and more orthodox, jealously protecting the heritage that I have learned.”
Mr. Shankar was a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, from 1986 to 1992.
He taught extensively in the United States. In the late 1960s he founded a school of Indian music, the Kinnara School, in Los Angeles. He was a visiting professor at City College in New York in 1967. Recordings of his City College lectures were the basis for “Learning Indian Music,” a set of cassettes that explain the basics of the style. Mr. Shankar was the subject of a documentary film, “Raga: A Journey Into the Soul of India,” in 1971, and published two autobiographies: “My Life, My Music” in 1969 and “Raga Mala” in 1997.
In 2010 the Ravi Shankar Foundation started a record label using a variation of the name of his collaboration with Menuhin, East Meets West Music, which began by reissuing some of his historic recordings and films, including “Raga.” Mr. Shankar’s first marriage, to Annapurna Devi, ended in the late 1960s. They had a son, Shubhendra Shankar, who died in 1992.
He also had long relationships with Kamala Shastri, a dancer; Sue Jones, a concert producer, with whom he had a daughter, Ms. Jones, in 1979; as well as Sukanya Rajan, whom he married in 1989. Ms. Shankar, the sitar virtuoso, is their daughter, born in 1981. He is survived by his wife and two daughters, as well as three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“If I’ve accomplished anything in these past 30 years,” Mr. Shankar said in the 1985 interview, “it’s that I have been able to open the door to our music in the West. I enjoy seeing other Indian musicians — old and young — coming to Europe and America and having some success. I’m happy to have contributed to that.
“Of course now there is a whole new generation out there, so we have to start all over again. To a degree their interest in India has been kindled by ‘Gandhi,’ ‘Passage to India’ and ‘The Jewel in the Crown,’ ” he added, referring to popular Western films. “What we have to do now is convey to them an awareness of the richness and diversity of our culture.”
Ravi Shankar died on 11 December 2012 at around 4:30pm PST