From the pages of Sruti magazine
Issue 296 May 2009
Ravi Shankar: the man and his music
Many of us of the 1960s generation easily identified with the sitar music of Ravi Shankar (sick and tired of the number of Pandits in Indian music, he has renounced the prefix Pandit). We saw in him an iconoclast and a youth icon, an advocate of protest—Make love, not war. We were easily swayed by the purity of sound of his instrument, his fascinating collaboration with Ustad Allah Rakha, his tremendous success with the lotos eaters of the 20th century who flocked to his concerts for all the wrong musical reasons. We didn’t know then that they were the wrong reasons; we didn’t know that for all his dalliance with experimentation and crosscultural collaboration, even film music, he was a highly accomplished exponent of traditional music. We didn’t know then that among his contemporaries he was perhaps the one Hindustani musician who appreciated Carnatic music, not to mention his respect for its practitioners.
Yes, he was a matinee idol among classical musicians. For perhaps the only period in its 80 odd years of existence, the Madras Music Academy broke its own rules in the 1960s to accommodate the spillover of Panditji’s New Year’s Eve concert into the New Year. He would pause at the midnight hour and offer his greetings to his audience to thunderous applause. What could be more exciting for young people straining at the leash to be liberated from the conservative norms of Madras by arguably the most charismatic of India’s classical musicians!
Yet to listen to the lilting strains of the sitar, losing ourselves in the sensitive raga explorations of the maestro, was a transporting, spiritually elevating experience. Even to the uninitiated, it was quite obvious that this was no mere entertainment, not cleverly packaged razzmatazz. There was depth in the music, and the contours of the raga-s were so brilliantly etched, whether in the elaborate alap-jod-jhala that opened the concert, the shorter, brisk piece that followed, the Carnatic raga-s the maestro had made Hindustani music’s own, or indeed one of the raga-s he had created. The mastery of the music and the instrument was so complete, it seemed effortless, though we now know how much devotion, tireless practice and intelligent absorption of all his guru offered him it took to make him a complete musician.
Ravi Shankar travelled extensively in the West as a boy dancer in his elder brother Uday Shankar’s troupe that wowed audiences everywhere, but when he went West again as a sitarist in the 1950s, the audiences were small and unappreciative of Indian music. They dismissed it as limited, repetitive and simple. Ravi Shankar was determined to show the West what a great music he brought from India. He learnt to give it initially in small doses and educate his audiences step by small step. He held countless lecdems at university campuses, and with his natural charm and articulation, he won them over in time, aided in part by the handsome praise the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin showered on him.
Today, Ravi Shankar is one of India’s oldest living musicians of international fame. Awarded the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999, he has received some 15 honorary doctorates, the Ramon Magsayasay Award, two Grammys, the Crystal Award from Davos, the Fukuoka Grand Prize Award from Japan, and countless other awards and honours. He has played his music to a great variety of audiences, from the knowledgeable rasika-s of Varanasi and Pune, to wildly cheering young fans at the Woodstock and Monterey pop festivals. He taught the Beatles sitar music and he collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin in creating world music albums. He orchestrated Indian music for All India Radio, composed music for Indian and international ballets and films including Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Godaan, Anuradha, Gulzar’s Meera and Attenborough’s Gandhi, and with Ali Akbar Khan, kickstarted a whole new variety of Indian classical music–the jugalbandi.
Born in Benares on 7 April 1920 as the youngest of four brothers, Ravindra, named after Nobel laureate Tagore, hailed from a privileged background. His father, a bar-at-law, and a minister in princely states, was an amateur singer at local soirees, and there was plenty of music in the family. Elder brother Uday Shankar was to become a world famous dancer, taking his troupe, including his siblings, all over the West. Another brother Rajendra was involved in theatre, and stored his drama troupe’s musical instruments at home. Ravi would play those in secrecy, but his singing at house parties and school parties did not have to be clandestine.
His first guru and first major influence was brother Uday Shankar. Not only did Ravi Shankar travel with his brother’s dance troupe, he was also a permanent fixture at the Almora India Cultural Centre, as a singer and dancer–until one day he answered the irresistible call of the sitar, going from a life of comfort to rural Maihar and gruelling lessons from the great Ustad Alauddin Khan. It was after years of extraordinary hard work and perseverance that he became a successful instrumentalist and achieved fame.
Few of India’s great musicians have had to handle as much adverse criticism as Ravi Shankar has had to endure in a lifetime of constant endeavour to project the greatness of Indian music to the world. For long accused of diluting Indian classical music to please Western audiences, the maestro was deeply hurt by such charges. Over the decades, however, his critics and the vast majority of lovers of Hindustani music have come to recognise the value of his contribution and the purity of the sound produced by his sitar, his brilliance as a composer and creator of ragas, his unparalleled eclecticism that resulted in the transmission of some of the finest ideas and attributes of south Indian classical music to its north Indian counterpart.
Yet another criticism aimed at Ravi Shankar has been his alleged promotion of daughter Anoushka as a sitarist when she first came on the scene, back in the late 1990s. It was perhaps no fault of his that the media made a superstar of her even before she had proved herself in the big league of classical instrumentalists. Any charge of nepotism against Ravi Shankar cannot wash because he produced many excellent disciples, presenting them on stage alongside him long before Anoushka made her debut. And the daughter’s talent is unmistakable.
Ravi Shankar is an old friend of Sruti magazine, of its founder editor N. Pattabhi Raman in particular. His decision to perform free of charge to launch SAMUDRI, an archival initiative of the magazine in 2001 was a magnificent gesture (Sruti 198). So was his warmhearted cooperation with us when we profiled him in depth back in 1996(Sruti 147), a sequel to an issue devoted to his guru Alauddin Khan (Sruti 135). Reading those issues and the material collected for it, it becomes immediately clear that more was to have followed in subsequent issues of Sruti.
Lakshmi Shankar and her sister Kamala Chakrabarty had put down their thoughts on Ravi Shankar for our use. More recently, we spoke to his disciple Janardan Mitta about his “Guruji”.
Lakshmi Shankar first came into contact with the Shankar family in March 1940, when she joined Uday Shankar’s India Cultural Centre in Almora, where she went as a Bharatanatyam dancer along with her guru Kandappa Pillai. Ravi Shankar’s guru Alauddin Khan, his son Ali Akbar Khan, and Uday’s Kathakali guru Sankaran Nampooodiri were all there, each stalwart supervising his part of the ballet.
Soon afterwards, Ravi Shankar, a dancer in his brother’s troupe so far, became a erious convert to the sitar, and accompanied his guru to Maihar, where he stayed for the next four years doing gurukulavasa.
The young man showed rare dedication and grit in his pursuit of music, forsaking his position as a reputed dancer. He was 20 years old when he decided to start from scratch as a musician. He did riyaz for 14 hours a day! Lakshmi said, “I’ve seen blood coming out of his fingers. Baba would ask him to do something and Ravi Shankar would achieve it in the shortest time possible–and Baba would be pleased and give him some more. It was a wonderful guru-sishya relationship.”
Lakshmi was a dancer all right, but was also interested in music and had a malleable voice. Celebrity visitors to the centre, including the Paluskar family, Prof. B.R. Deodhar, Dilip Kumar Roy and Vinayakrao Patwardhan and Pandit K.S. Bodas, all loved Lakshmi’s voice. Through these greats, Lakshmi learnt the rudiments of khayal music and Bengali songs.
By 1945, when news arrived that Ravi Shankar was seriously ill at Maihar, Lakshmi was already married to his brother Rajendra Shankar, and Ravi Shankar to Alauddin Khan’s daughter Annapurna Devi, and the Almora Centre had closed down owing to financial difficulties. Rajendra and Lakshmi had moved to Bombay, and Rajendra brought his brother home and nursed him back to good health. The Rajendra Shankars found a house nearby for Ravi Shankar, his wife and two-year old son. Ravi Shankar’s sitar career just about began then and he was soon performing regularly at chamber concerts. He also found a job in HMV as a sound recordist.
Ravi Shankar joined IPTA (The Indian People’s Theatre Association) hereabouts, composing the music for ballets like India Immortal. Lakshmi sang for some of these ballets and Rajendra dramatised Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India. Lakshmi was the prime ballerina for the ballet which debuted in New Delhi in March 1947. The ballet was a superhit, and Ravi Shankar’s music for it was “unbelievable”, but Lakshmi had health problems, her husband broke a leg, and her son had to be looked after. To top it all, Lakshmi was acting in the Tamil film Bhakta Tulsidas, with music by Veena S. Balachander. Though her mother helped her, she also did all the housework, and paid a heavy price for all the stress and strain. She had pleurisy, which ultimately meant she could not dance any more.
Ravi Shankar had moved to Delhi. He had joined All India Radio but was also a successful concert musician. Not long afterwards, he was so busy performing that he had to give up the AIR job. Lakshmi was singing playback for films. When they met after a gap, he said, “Why don’t you take up Hindustani classical music? Your grounding may be in Carnatic music, but your voice is ideally suited for Hindustani music.”
In her search for a good teacher, Lakshmi was lucky. The music director Madan Mohan introduced her to Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and by April 1954, the classes were underway. The guru was keen on Lakshmi taking the place of his successful disciple Nirmala Devi with whom he had had a parting of ways. In Lakshmi, he found a hard working student determined to make it as a classical vocalist, well supported by mother and husband. He worked as hard as she did, and the lessons and practice sessions went on for hours together. Lakshmi progressed so rapidly that she became an A grade artist of AIR within six months. Unfortunately, Karim Khan stopped teaching her, owing to some misunderstanding, and she then took lessons from Prof. B.R. Deodhar.
An MKT fan
There was a time when Ravi Shankar was crazy about the song Manmatha leelaiyai venrar undo sung by M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar for the old Tamil film Sivakavi. The team would be motoring down 200 miles to a concert venue or going by an intercity bus and he would ask Kamala to sing it. ‘Aha, what Charukesi!’ he would say. He even went around collecting MKT’s songs while in Madras.
He was deeply, reverentially appreciative of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s compositions. He had tremendous fascination for the Sanskrit language, too. His love of music was broadbased and generous.
His childlike love for TV was in sharp contrast–especially the way he lapped up serials like Mission Impossible. Sometimes he would be pacing up and down on the veranda, sometimes sitting with a paper and pencil deep in thought. “How can I wait to find the answer to the mystery? Shall I phone TV and ask them?”
This was the time Ravi Shankar came back into Lakshmi’s life, musically speaking. She recalled, “I was fast making a name in Bombay, singing here and there. He told me, ‘I’ll coach you in new aspects of music.’ It was an advanced course in khayal, vilambit and drut, in raga-s like Jog, Behag and Keeravani. There were no songs in Hindustani music in raga-s like Keeravani (Kirvani), essentially south Indian as they are. Ravi Shankar would instantly make up a composition in half an hour, teach it to me and there it was, one khayal in my bag. He did it so beautifully, you’d think he did vocal riyaz everyday! What he could not demonstrate vocally, he played on the sitar. He was terribly busy, but would snatch a few half-hours, come up hurriedly and say, ‘Fine, let’s sit down and do this raga.’ Sometimes we would both be travelling and he would sing on the plane for me to note down.”
Shamanna Kothi was a record based on a small poem by Rabindranath Tagore. Uday Shankar had made a fabulous ballet on the theme, a roaring hit. Ravi Shankar composed the music for it. This was in 1961 during the Tagore Festival. Lakshmi Shankar sang throughout, while Ravi Shankar sang a few pieces in the record. She also sang for his music in a few Bengali films. Back in 1946, she had sung for his music in a few films like Dharti ke Lal.
In 1968, Lakshmi accompanied Ravi Shankar on a trip abroad for the first Festival of India and again in 1974, to sing as well as help him organise. “I was really very fortunate to learn close at hand how his creative genius worked,” Lakshmi recalled. “Most of the time I would write down the music. Like all geniuses, he would forget what he created. Writing down also helped me when I rehearsed with the other musicians.”
Ravi Shankar composed a ballet for a record on that tour. One side of the record featured a piece in Vachaspati, in 7-1/2 beats. Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Shiv Kumar Sharma were part of the orchestra, so the complex piece was shaping well. A shehnai player in the ensemble played beautifully, but his lack of formal training made it difficult for him to grasp the tala. Ravi Shankar made several attempts to teach him, but he repeatedly made mistakes. Finally Ravi Shankar lost his patience and told Lakshmi, “Boudi (sister-in-law), please teach him. Make him understand it.” The shehnai player waited till Ravi was out of earshot and said: “Didi, mujhe to saat hi nahin aati, saade saat kahan se aayegi?” (I can’t get seven beats right, how can I ever get 7-1/2 right?”) Feeling sorry for the poor man, Lakshmi explained the problem to Ravi Shankar. A remorseful Ravi changed the piece for the shehnai into something easier.
The other side of the record was another story altogether. As Ravi Shankar and the two sisters entered the studio, he was saying, “What am I going to do? My mind is blank.” He then asked them both to tune the two tambura-s there. When he said “Play”, the women kept strumming the tambura-s and that was the only sound for ten minutes. And then he said: ‘Ok, here we go.’ “He composed such a beautiful piece, I can’t describe it,” said Lakshmi. “It had a ragamalika which I sang, and Jai Jagadeesa harey sung by Jitendra Abhisheki in the end.”
Ravi Shankar went abroad on a concert tour as early as 1958. As a pioneer, he underwent much difficulty in the West and suffered criticism in the East. He trained Western audiences to listen to Indian music. They had no notion of his music and he had to do the training slowly, little by little. In the beginning, he wouldn’t play a raga for more than 15 minutes; he increased the duration slowly, till there was an Indian music boom of sorts in 1966 in the US–partly because of the hippie movement, partly because the Beatle George Harrison started learning the sitar. The criticism was nasty: that Ravi Shankar was playing the guitar not the sitar, that he was ruining tradition and so on. Lakshmi Shankar defended him. “All wrong. He played sitar to the hippies, yes. But he played good, chaste, Indian music with alap, jod, jhala. He did many experiments, yes. But a creative mind like Ravi Shankar’s cannot be static–it needs some experimentation all the time. His experiments never resulted in any dilution of his music. When he played with Yehudi Menuhin, for instance, or when Zubin Mehta teamed up with Ravi Shankar, Menuhin or Zubin Mehta’s orchestra played Ravi Shankar’s music; it was not the other way around.
Ravi Shankar’s Beenkar gharana goes very deep into the traditional mould and is highly classical. It comes from the dhrupad style. It is not at all light, contrary to all the criticism levelled against his music. “Quite the reverse,” Lakshmi said. “Even when he plays a thumri or a gat, he is strictly classical. It so happens that in a thumri you are allowed to flirt a little bit, stray from the raga’s notes slightly to add colour to the rendering. You can’t call that light music. I think it was just plain jealousy–people just wanted to pull him down. Even newspapers. And he has survived all that, so has his music, our music. He once said, ‘Yes, I did some format changes to basically attract the Western audiences to our music.’ If he had not done that, if he had tried a one-hour alap, jod and jhala to begin with on an audience that didn’t have a clue to our music, it could have meant curtains for our music in the West. Now everyone goes and plays or sings there and people there understand our music. He went to almost every university in the US and explained Indian music through lecture demonstrations. Of course, in the beginning and in the boom period, there were superficial audiences. That’s all gone now. Now you have elite listeners who know what they are getting, who are genuinely interested.
Whether abroad or at home, classical music is an acquired taste, you have to develop an ear for it. That to this day Ravi Shankar is heard and revered everywhere is proof that he gave nothing but top class classical music, not light music. He’s still tops in terms of pulling crowds.”
“Ravi Shankar’s music has remained largely unchanged, except what Father Time has dictated,” Lakshmi Shankar continued. “As you grow older, you get weary of speed, the body doesn’t cooperate. So you substitute depth for speed, spend more time in leisurely, reflective, analytical music. Maturity, refinement, bhakti rasa–these come automatically with age.”
“The creative urge is still there in him, very much alive. The one sensible outlet for him is teaching. As you grow older, you cut down performances and start teaching. When you teach your mind opens.”
Lakshmi’s sister Kamala met Ravi Shankar first in Almora. She was twelve then and he 19 or 20. She remembers, “He was with Dada (Uday Shankar) in his troupe and even then he would compose little songs and make us all sing. As a dancer he was simply fantastic, which is why he was able to make so many memorable ballets. He knew every little step. I was fascinated by his music, his dance, his way of putting things. I was one of the dancers in the troupe too at the time. We did two tours then all over the country. I was the baby of the troupe–Dada selected me as the best dancer among 60 girls.”
“After Raviji went to Maihar, he came to Almora once in a while and even participated in the tours. After some years I lost touch totally, except for seeing him in his concerts in Bombay. I got married and everything changed.”
“I then met him in 1959-60. My husband Amiya Chakrabarty had made the Hindi film Seema for which he won five national awards posthumously. (Daag starring Dilip-Nimmi, Patita with Dev Anand and Usha Kiran–were also great hits he directed. All of them had music by Shankar Jaikishen). Raviji saw my photograph and the news of my husband’s death in the Illustrated Weekly in London, and sent me a condolence message–he keeps in touch with people despite all his schedules. Our contact was revived when he came back to India. As my sister happened to be his sister-in-law, we met at family reunions.”
Kamala accompanied Ravi Shankar on a 13-month tour all over the world in 1967–Europe, the U.S., Russia and Japan, playing the tambura for him. She was a constant companion and came to learn the amazing range of Ravi Shankar’s music.
Subsequently she was with him for almost 24 years, travelling with him, anticipating his needs and attending to them. A perfectionist to the core–he went through the minutest detail from rehearsal to final programme. He made no compromises–every item had to be rehearsed meticulously. “I can sing a bit though I’m not a professional singer. He taught me many compositions but I had a handicap–I couldn’t write notation, unlike Lakshmi Akka. I had to be taught the whole thing. It would be a part of the daily routine, almost–he would be singing, I’d be cooking or making tea and ask him to sing louder. But this way I learnt a great many compositions of his.”
Performing or traveling with Ravi Shankar exposed the team to so many facets of his personality including his sense of humour. One scene in the ballet Labour and Machinery, portrayed the confusion of the common man–whether to take to machinery and adopt it as a way of life, or to stick to farm labour. In that scene, all the actors were supposed to shout meaningless syllables vaguely and aimlessly. They were directed to go round and round on the stage mumbling, shouting. The idea was to convey the confusion. Raviji would say “Dosai rendu, onnu murugal, onnu saada!” (Two dosa-s, one roasted, one plain!). The cast would start laughing, but he kept repeating his chant with a straight face.
A taxi driver kept stealing glances at Ravi Shankar on his way from Bombay city to the airport. At the airport, there was a glimmer in his eyes and Ravi Shankar told his companion, “I’ve had it now. The chap has recognised me and is going to ask me.” Raviji checked the meter and took out his wallet. The cabbie stopped him and said “Saab, I don’t want money, but please give me a ticket to your movie Jhanak jhanak payal baje.” He thought he was speaking to the actor Gopikrishna! “There goes my ego!” Ravi Shankar said. “Not only is he ignorant of Ravi Shankar he can only see Gopi Krishna in me!” The best proof of a person’s sense of humour is when he can laugh at himself. And Ravi Shankar could do that.
There were several instances of how seriously Ravi Shankar took his role of propagator of Indian classical music. He once performed at Omea, a very small town in Rotterberg, Switzerland, which the musicians reached by ferry. It was a mini-concert of about 90 minutes. It was terribly cold, Alla Rakha and Ravi Shankar were both freezing and wondering how they were going to play their instruments. The organisers offered some brandy to warm up, but Ravi Shankar demurred, naturally. Somehow, battling the cold, he played a superb Charukesi. The organisers did not arrange any food for the party, and when they returned to the hotel, they found nothing to eat, not even water to drink. The restaurants closed at seven. Alla Rakha was literally in tears–he could never withstand hunger pangs. Ravi Shankar sat quiet, apparently lost in deep thought. Upset by his demeanour, Alla Rakha demanded to know, “What’s this? We’re stuck in this godforsaken place with no food or drink. What are we going to do?”
Ravi Shankar’s response was typical of the maestro: “I feel neither hunger nor thirst. All I know and am happy about is, we’ve brought Indian music to such a remote place, made quite a few people sit through and enjoy our music in the biting cold. That’s enough reward for all the suffering.”
On another occasion, Ravi Shankar’s troupe returned from a concert to the hotel and found there was no power. They had to climb the stairs to their room on the fourteenth floor. All of them had heavy luggage–sitar, tanpura, tabla and so on. Ravi Shankar walked briskly up as if it was a simple, natural thing to do. The rest of them were trudging along far behind, painfully and slowly. Around the tenth floor, a couple of them sat down, unable to walk any further. Ravi Shankar went up, opened the room and tried to egg them on to finish the climb. When that failed, he came down four floors, took two tabla-s and went up, came down again and took the tanpura, and finally one more time to fetch his colleagues! When they started walking back, he said, “Don’t you realise what a great thing we’ve done? We are in Rio de Janeiro, exhibiting our music to the Brazilians and making them love it. It’s no small feat. Be happy and think of that. All our troubles are minor. We’re taking our music to every nook and corner of the world. Nothing else matters.”
In his mature years, Ravi Shankar became quite an addict of television serials. He usually slotted the time for different items in his concerts so that the curtain could come down precisely at the end of the allotted time. In one concert, however, every item was going faster–each finished with a few minutes to spare. The concert was supposed to be till 8.30 but he was through by 7.45 pm. It was the day of Mission Impossible, a serial he loved. As soon as the curtain came down, he snapped, “Come, come, we’ve got to rush. We’ll be just in time for the programme.”
‘Hemangana’–the house of his dreams–was built in Varanasi in 1973-74. It was called RIMPA, the Ravi Shankar Institute of Music and Performing Arts. Every year 20 to 25 students from all over India would assemble there. There would be teaching sessions morning and afternoon. Evening and night would be time for fun and games. And music. Ravi Shankar taught the students through many media–including these games. The next morning, he would be a different person–a hard taskmaster, very demanding, a perfectionist. “Is this the man who laughed and joked with us last night?” the students used to wonder.
Ravi Shankar held festivals there. For five days, eminent musicians and dancers assembled there every year and performed. Ravi Shankar played on the last day.
The concept of Hemangana was something like the gurukula system, but it did not last beyond three years. It needed the guru to be in one place and the sishya-s to be with him throughout. Ravi Shankar could never be bound to one place. He was always on the move. “If he comes to a place and stays even for a week he gets fidgety and says ‘Chalo let us go to Bangalore’, Kamala said. And at Bangalore after a few days, he’d say, ‘Come, we’re off to Calcutta’.”
The atmosphere of Hemangana was fabulous. Satyajit Ray said, “I’ve never experienced anything so Indian.” There were student quarters, beautiful orchards, arches. Attention was paid to every little thing.
Janardan Mitta, whom Ravi Shankar once described as “my favourite student”, was born into a musically inclined family. His father Mitta Lakshminarasiah, was a leading lawyer of Hyderabad. Keen on music, the senior Mitta would come home on Thursdays (Friday was a holiday in the Nizam’s Hyderabad) and close his office for the weekend, to play the tabla or the harmonium and sing with his wife and six children for an audience. “Vakil sahib’s” home was the gateway to the twin cities for most visiting musicians.
Janardan, who joined the film industry in Madras back in 1956 and became a permanent fixture as a sitarist in films made here for over four decades, picked up his sister’s sitar once she left home after marriage. By 1952, he had successfully auditioned before stalwarts Pandit Ratanjankar and Veerendra Kishore and started playing for Deccan Radio. He first heard Ravi Shankar live in 1955, when he came to Hyderabad for a Sangeet Sammelan concert. Janardan had completed his M.A. and was now doing his second year in engineering, but was dying to take up music full time. His father said he had six sons and so didn’t mind one of them taking to music. He took Janardan to meet Ravi Shankar. “Are you crazy?” was Ravi Shankar’s response when Lakshminarasiah said he would take Janardan out of engineering college if Ravi Shankar would take him as a disciple.
Ravi Shankar came to Hyderabad again in 1956, and this time he did listen to the young sitarist. He said, “You seem to know some of the advanced things without knowing the basics.” He appreciated the way Janardan played the raga, the taan and the meend, but corrected a basic mistake he was making in the number of front and back strokes. “That’s why I need a Guruji,” the young man shot back in all innocence. Ravi Shankar asked him to apply for a government scholarship, but though he did not get it, Janardan still went to Delhi in 1956 to learn from Ravi Shankar. It was a busy year for Ravi Shankar. He had just quit the AIR job and become a full time musician. That year he travelled to Afghanistan for the first time on a concert tour. “Whenever he found time to teach us in the midst of his travels, he opened a treasure box,” Janardan remembers.
Janardan was one of the students to take part in the annual camp in Benares. Kartik Kumar, Shamim Ahmed, Rama Rao and Arun Bharat Ram were some of the others. At the classes, Ravi Shankar was a strict disciplinarian. “He was never satisfied until you got every nuance right,” he said. “Outside the classroom, he was a friend, mixing freely with everyone. At Benares, we always had lunch with him. ‘Today, we have an apology for sambar,’ he would apologise. In the evening, we were free to go where we chose, but sometimes he would accompany us on outings, taking a childlike pleasure in simple things. He took us on boat rides to watch the sunset, even liked to go to movies. Once after a concert in Chennai, he said, ‘Let’s go to Bobby’, referring to the Hindi superhit film of the 1970s.
“Guruji had been trained in the tough school of Ustad Alauddin Khan. He taught him dhrupad, the surbahar, complicated tala-s. It was Guruji who reintroduced the complex laya techniques of Carnatic music like tisra nadai and khanda nadai to Hindustani music, which had lost them over time. Even last year, he played a composition set to a tala of 10.5 beats at a Hyderabad concert. Every Sunday for a whole year, he presented a programme of ‘aparichit’ or new raga-s, 52 different raga-s.”
Janardan has the greatest respect for Ravi Shankar’s intellect. “For instance, Guruji had an original explanation for the relative simplicity of laya in Hindustani music. In the north, we sang for the king, while musicians sang for God in the south. At the temple, they sang without inhibition, exploring the entire range of raga and tala, with no fear of displeasing their compassionate God. But in the durbar, you did not dare to go beyond teen taal for fear of offending the king who would not then know how to keep the beat along with you.”
Ravi Shankar’s respect for Carnatic music and musicians is well known. “He still keeps track of what’s happening here,” says Janardan. “He keenly watches the careers of young musicians like T.M. Krishna, Vijay Siva and Sanjay Subrahmanyan.”