Ravi Shankar always explored new dimensions

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Ravi Shankar always explored new dimensions
Blessed soul: Apart from his mastery of the sitar and his superb musicality, pandit Ravi Shankar was a wonderful communicator with a gentle sense of humour
Ravi Shankar was 92 when he died, so he lived a full life. And it was really a full life because he was playing his sitar till the very end. Blessed are those who go quietly into the night and go in harness, doing what they love best. I last heard him just a couple of years ago at a concert at NCPA’s Tata Theatre. By then he had grown a beard, which sat oddly over the sitar. Oddly, perhaps, because we are not used to bearded musicians. (Holy men have long hair and beards; musicians are clean-shaven, though each in his own way, transports us to another, higher, world).

I thought that concert was disappointing by Ravi Shankar’s standards, though it turned out I was in a minority. What marred it for me was that Anoushka Shankar was playing too, and the doting father gave her too much playtime. Anoushka may have the right genes and the right training, but she is nowhere in the league her father was even at her age. How many people would be? When I first heard him, he was at his prime. This was at a packed concert at The Royal Festival Hall in London. The audience, mostly British, was eager, though not really knowledgeable. You knew that because everyone clapped when Shankar finished his initial tuning. It must have been at a similar occasion around the same time that an audience erupted in wild applause and Ravi Shankar said with a smile, “If you liked the tuning so much, I am sure you will love the concert.”

He was accompanied then, as he almost always was, by his faithful collaborator Alla Rakha, father of Zakir Husain, one of that rare species where the son excelled the famous father. Alla Rakha was round all over, plump belly, round eyes, round face… It was a face made for expressing happiness, which is why he was the best possible accompanist. He was not just a wonderful exponent of the tabla, but he felt and radiated a joy, which was infectious. It didn’t take long for the audience to grab hungrily at what Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha had to offer, and they kept asking for more.

What made Ravi Shankar such a terrific ambassador of Indian classical music the world over? Apart from his mastery of the sitar and his superb musicality, he was a wonderful communicator with a gentle sense of humour. He knew he was playing to an audience, which was new to our music, but which was eager to learn; he took them easily through the music’s complicated nuances without ever giving the impression that he was talking down to them. That’s what must have appealed to the Beatles who at the height of their fame took time off to learn at Ravi Shankar’s feet.

Who was a better musician, Ravi Shankar or Vilayat Khan? It was a rivalry manufactured by the so-called purists of classical music who suggested that Shankar was populist and pandered to a wider public, while Khan was the ‘upholder of musical tradition’. Well, they weren’t sure about all this, were they, when Vilayat Khan himself began to tour in the west and even set up an academy in the United States? The rivalry was so obviously concocted, and so very laughable. It was as if a large country like India didn’t have the space for two wonderful musicians.

What made Ravi Shankar different from everyone else was his constant effort to reach out to a wide spectrum of people. He wrote music for films (the superb score for Anuradha, for example, each exquisite song based on a raga). He collaborated with western classical musicians, even writing the score for a couple of sitar concertos, which he played with the London Symphony Orchestra. That they were not very successful collaborations is another matter; the point is that Ravi Shankar always wanted to strike out in new directions.

That’s an incredible thing to do, isn’t it? Play beautiful music, enlarge its scope wherever possible, but always, always allow the music to live and to soar into the sky.

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