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Remembering Pandit Ravi Shankar 1920-2012


“When a pigeon flies, his wings beat in taal (Rhythmic cycle). You can count the matras if you don’t believe me. And such a sweet voice! God has invested such a treasure of music in each of his creations that man can take armfuls away but never exhaust it. Goddess Saraswati has given me a little too. But not as much as I would have liked. Just when I began to draw something from the ocean of music, my time was up. This is the trouble, when the fruit of a man’s lifelong labor ripens. Who can understand God’s ways? But one thing I have understood a little. There is a fruit, the custard apple. I like it very much. I eat it and throw the seeds outside the window. And one day I look and there’s another tree of the same fruit. With new fruits on its branches. I eat it and others enjoy it too. This music also is like that. It is not the property of one, it belongs to so many.” 

— Ustad Allauddin Khan Saheb, Guru of Ali Akbar Khan Saheb, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Annpurna Devi.


Ravi Shankar (1920-2012) had a unique relationship with the city of Bombay from where he sailed for Europe and the USA in early 1930’s. He has written about his life in this city in his autobiography ‘Raga Mala’ [First Welcome Rain Edition, 1999]. After 1938, he spent six to seven years of rigorous training and practice under the strict and watchful eyes of Ustad Baba Allauddin Khan (1862-1972). By 1944, he started giving regular performances over All India Radio (AIR) Lucknow. However within a year he moved to Bombay with wife, Annapurna, and two-year- old son Shubhendra. He took a job in the recording company ‘His Master’s Voice’ in Bombay as an apprentice in the music department. Around this time he met Kamla Sastri who had come with her elder sister Laxmi Sastri who had married to Ravi’s middle brother Rajendra alias Mejda. They were staying at Malad, suburb of Bombay. Ravi and Kamla knew each other from Almora days. Soon, they became more and more drawn to each other. This was to create a strained relation with Annapurna leading to a separation.

By this time, his elder brother Uday Shankar had closed his institute at Almora and some dancers and musicians joined the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) of Bombay. Ravi Shankar saw this as an opportunity to expand his musical and cultural horizons and also joined the group. He was engaged to prepare a score for a ballet named ‘India Immortal’ on behalf of IPTA. He was then commissioned to prepare the musical score for a Chetan Anand’s film ‘Neecha Nagar’ (The City Below) produced by India Pictures, Bombay. Although some songs were featured in the film, the songs were not issued on disc records. However, the next film ‘Dharti ke Lal’ (Children of The Earth), produced by IPTA again with Ravi Shankar as Music Director, had several songs and were released on ‘Young India’ label disc records. He toured with the ballet ‘India Immortal’, performing in Bombay and Calcutta but left the IPTA in early 1946. It had been a wonderful one year period until he felt the crunch of the Communist Party politics.

During this period he was asked to rewrite the tune of a well known song, ‘Sare Jahanse Accha Hindustan Hamara’ (Our India is the best place in the world).The original poem was written by Mohammad Iqbal in 1904. The old tune was long, drawn out and did not have enough strength. It was sung in a very slow tempo. The new melody was catchy and gave the song a brighter mood. Popularized via the airways of All India Radio, it gradually became treated as a national song, especially after independence. It was played everywhere in its new arrangement and became extremely popular. (It is still popular today. Unfortunately many people are not aware and rarely give Raviji due credit. Recently he was shocked to read on the inlay card of a cassette brought out by HMV India, featuring nationalistic songs by Lata Mangeshkar, that the music credit for ‘Sare Jahanse Accha’ was ‘Traditional’!).

It was here in Bombay that he created his first new raga ‘Nat Bhairav’. He had started the ‘Kinnara School of Music’ at Breach Candy. In AIR Bombay, he met Alla Rakha, a Music Director and a fine Tabla player. Their friendship and the association were to last for decades. During his Bombay days, he stayed at the Madgavkar Bunglow in Borivali for three years and experienced the joy that can be found in full family life. A greater joy was derived from creating a new production based on Pandit Nehru’s book, ‘The Discovery of India’. This was sponsored and supported by Indian National Theater (INT), the cultural wing of Indian National Congress. INT arranged a show in Delhi for the meeting of the Asian Conference in March 1947. Many great leaders including Gandiji, Nehru, Patel, Rajaji and Radhakrishnan attended and the show was a grand success.

During this period, starting from May 1947, many great national events occurred and simultaneously most of Raviji’s major struggles began. On 15th August, all his family and friends were glued to the radio listening to Nehru’s famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech to the nation. He was hurt deeply by the partition and later by the assassination of Gandhiji. He had very hard times since he had no financial backing except for what he was bringing home from his sitar recitals. He was helped by two dear friends, Shantaram Ullal and Batukbhai Diwanji, as well as Harihar Rao, one of his first disciples. As he had no telephone, he would often travel in a local electric train to Churchgate and then walk two to three miles to meet them. Usually he would meet them in lunch hours and had nice snacks. It was through these friends that he was trying to get as many sitar recitals as possible in music circles and wealthy private homes, or in other towns. He never forgot the love, affection and help received from them. (Incidentally, he inquired after these friends when he addressed a press meet at the Taj a few years ago when he came to play at Shanmukhananda Auditorium. Diwanji, now 95, is still happily with us and stays at Nalasopara. It was the ‘Suburban Music Circle’ based in Santacruz which hosted Ravi Shankar’s concerts in the early fifties. Shantaram Ullal was one of the founder members of the music circle).

Ravi was undergoing through a deep crisis materially, emotionally and spiritually and that led him to plan for a suicidal attempt. He carefully formulated and decided to throw himself under a running train, fixing the date and even going to the extent of preparing final letters to the family members and the police. But before the chosen day, he underwent an extraordinary encounter with a man who was to turn his life around. Passing by his Borivli house one afternoon in 1948, the spiritual guru and a yogi named ‘Tatbaba’ (so named for his robe made from ‘tat’ or a sackcloth) stopped and asked if he could use his bathroom. Entranced by the appearance and the aura surrounding this strange visitor, Ravi readily agreed to play sitar for him, forgetting completely that he had agreed to perform in front of the Prince of Jodhpur that evening for a generous fee. Yet somehow the yogi knew of both Ravi’s missed concert and his plans for suicide. After the recital he told him, ‘The money you missed tonight will come back to you many more times over. Don’t do anything foolish’. And then there was no looking back. At the end of 1948, he was appointed as a Director of Music at AIR Delhi, composed music for Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’ films before leaving for west. The rest as might be said is all History with several dozens of recordings from 78rpm to CD era, films and other cultural performances.

Many more years passed. As he started staying abroad and playing fusion items with world renowned musicians like Yehudi Menuhin or Philip Glass belonging to other systems, he began to be criticized by orthodox musicians from Bombay either for reasons of dogma or out of envy. Ravi would often visit Bombay during the winter and would give purely classical performances at traditional venues like ‘Chhabildas High School’ at Dadar or ‘Brahman Sahayak Sangh’ near Shivaji Park to prove his credentials as a traditionally trained musician. Such concerts would begin at 9 pm and go on till the wee hours.

He would treat Bombay folks to ragas like ‘Yaman’, ‘Bageshri’, ‘ Malkauns’ and ‘Bhairavi’. Sometimes there would be two coffee breaks and yet he and his tabla accompanist Alla Rakha would play on energetically till the time when one could hear the clinking of the milk bottles arriving from the Aarey and Worli dairy outside. It was Ravi Shankar’s participation at the ‘Jan Fest’ hosted by the Indian Music Group led by young students of Xavier College in South Bombay which really gave a big boost to the event. One recalls his marathon performances at this festival on 25th January every year in the last session. He would begin by 1 pm and would go on till sunrise. When he began the moon would be high in the ascendant and as he signed off, the gentle rays of the morning sun would caress one’s body. The music lovers in Bombay would forever cherish the sunrise which they experienced with ‘Sitar Yogi – Pandit Ravi Shankar’.


‘Raga Mala’ – The Autobiography of  Ravi Shankar, Edited and Introduced by George Harrison, [First Welcome Rain Edition, 1999].
The Record News – Publication of ‘Society of Indian record Collectors’, Vol. 2001 pages 95-107. Ed. Suresh Chandvankar
Amrendra Dhaneshwar, in ‘Hindustan Times’ dated 13.12.2012


CULTURAL EMMISARY, by Aram Yardumian

Pandit Ravi Shankar, the man who changed 20th century music perhaps more than any other, died on December 11th 2012. Born in Varanasi on April 7th 1920 into a Brahmin family, Ravi toured Europe and America at an early age with his choreographer brother, Uday, with whom he learned to dance and play, very basically, the sitar. It was not until the great Allauddin Khan joined the troupe in 1934 that he begun to receive serious musical training. Ravi abandoned his brother’s troupe in 1938 for a life to devotion to the musical arts as part of Khan’s gurukul, where he learned the sitar and surbahar. Allauddin Khan’s son, Ali Akbar Khan—perhaps the second most well-known Indian musician outside India, received training with him, and their first public concert was performed together in 1939.

Ravi Shankar - In San Francisco

Living modestly and unpretentiously in Bombay throughout the 1940s, Raviji may well at this time have allowed himself to blend into the thick and barely-charted narrative of 20th century Indian musical history, but these were fertile times. Recording technologies had experienced fantastic developments since it was introduced only a few decades before, as had the availability of film stock and cameras. Within a decade he had begun making a series of historic recordings for HMV India, had founded the Indian National Orchestra and composed for it, and had written music and served as musical director for several Hindi films.

Yehudi Menuhin came to learn of the young artist and invited him to perform at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, as a part of a Ford Foundation-sponsored event celebrating Indian classical music. For reasons not entirely clear, he declined and sent Ali Akbar Khan in his place. Khan’s famous performance there, accompanied by table player Chatur Lal, was greeted with a recording contract and an American television appearance, as well as a great deal of awed appreciation. This, according to Ravi, inspired him to depart India for his first world tour, designed specifically to reach smaller audiences and educate them on the subject of Indian classical music. It was during this tour that Ravi recorded his first full LP and met George Harrison, whose incorporation of aspects of the raga into the Beatles’ music has had an incalculable effect on modern music. But if we consider the impact of Ravi’s recordings—either through the Beatles, or independently—on The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, The Incredible String Band, the Kinks, and the Doors, not to mention the playing style of Yehudi Menuhin, we have opened a very wide door very widely.

Raga Bhupal Todi Tala Ardha Jaital, 1969

The influence did not stop there. The sharp turning of Philip Glass to his inversion of rhythmic and harmonic structures (and thus his contribution to the development of Minimalism) had everything to do with his collaborative work with Ravi in the mid-1960s. Similarly, though less well understood, the adroit complexity of latterday John Coltrane owed a debt to an intuitive understanding of the ragas he heard on Ravi’s recordings—a debt Coltrane felt he owed to the extent of naming his son after Ravi. The very notion of genre cross-pollenation—ever so recent, and now ever so trendy—is indeed the fruit of his innovations.

As an innovator, Ravi formed a distinctive style from bass octave fretting and Carnatic rhythms (as well, apparently, as entirely novel rhythms). As a purist, he did carry in his heart and mind the centuries of tradition taught to him, even if his innovations were what made him, and even if perhaps there are others, less well known, whose clarity and melody surpass his. Raviji claimed he felt like a kind of cultural emissary to the West (a term he used rather loosely), on a mission to bring about a deeper comprehension and appreciation for not only the music itself, but the spirituality it carried. His critics have often failed to understand it was this he saw as his life’s work; not becoming the world’s greatest virtuoso. And it is through his artful and tireless practice of education, paradoxically, that he will be best remembered.

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