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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Oh, Poor Sitar!

Pandit Ravi Shankar, the young Brahmin boy – originally named Rabindro  Shaunkor Chowdhury – from Varanasi, mastering the Indian musical instrument, Sitar, over the decades, becoming the very instrument of Indian classical music, strolled the world like a whirlwind, delighting millions by tweaking their hearts into lilting music, died at a ripe age of 92 in a hospital at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 11th December in San Diego, leaving behind the poor Sitar and its devotees sorrowful.

It all started with Ustad Allauddin Khan, who joined Uday Shankar’s dancing troupe to provide music to the troupe’s dance programs in 1935, triggering Ravi Shankar’s musical instincts. Enthused by this development, in 1938, Ravi Shankar went to Maihar for a direct tutelage under Allauddin Khan Saheb. There he underwent a grueling training for seven long years, receiving extraordinary depth of the talim, pedagogy from Khan Saheb. This sound footing in the fundamentals obviously emboldened him to break the traditional dogmas associated with music and innovate newer trends and launch newer traditions—his own signature style. It is his combining “many salient features of the surbahar in the jod section of the alap”; migrating from ati vilambit (very slow) to the drut (fast) gats in different taals with infinite variations; incorporating a Carnatic inspired climax or a racy finale created from a folkish dhun, especially of Bengal —have all simply made his concerts a rage with the post-independent Indians. There is no wonder that this flair of him for innovation paved the way for his ultimate journey onto the world’s stage of music.

It was his fire for innovation, coupled with his early exposure to Western orchestration at Uday Shankar’s dancing troupe in the 1930s, that made Ravi Shankar compose music to some of the radical but artistic films like Neecha Nagar by Chetan Anand that won Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1946, Dharti Ki Lal by K A Abbas with a distinct identity of his own, besides the Apu Triology of Satyajit Ray in which his music was lauded as “at once plaintive and exhilarating” that won him many laurels. The ever-repeated song on our national days across the country that is known to give Indians, both young and old, goose bumps, “Saare Jahan se Accha” was composed by him when he was hardly in his twenties. True to his innate bravery, he picked up a new singer, Vani Jayaram, to sing all the songsMira bhajans—for Gulzar's Hindi film and proved his metal by making the disc a grand success.

His musical genius well reflects in his claim of having created as many as 30 new ragas, notable among them being: Nat Bhairavi, Bairagi, Manamanjari, Parameshwari, Jogeshwari, and Rajya Kalyani. Though he is a Hindustani instrumental musician, he had a deep love for Carnatic music and it aptly reflects in his successfully popularizing ragas such as Kirwani, Charikeshi, Vachaspati and Nata Bhairavi that have Carnatic origin among the Hindustani audience.

How animatedly youngsters used to talk about this iconic musician in the 1960s across the coffee tables in college canteens! His joining The Beatles, particularly, his friendship with George Harrison, Harrison  coming to India to learn sitar from Ravi Shankar,  The Beatles using the Sitar in “Norwegian Wood”—all theses developments drove the students on the campuses crazy of him. How proudly we were then talking about Ravi Shankar and his taking Indian classical music global! His participation in the Monterrey Pop Music Festival in 1967, his winning Grammy in 1967 for Best Chamber Music Performance, his presenting Raga Puriya Dhanashri at Woodstock in 1969,  his collaboration with George for the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971— they were all hot topics for discussion at student assemblages in the corners of campus corridors. Although Ravi Shankar had already collaborated with Western classical musicians like Yehudi Menuhin and a few others much earlier, it was his association with The Beatles that generated incredible enthusiasm among the youngsters. Even knowing about Hindustani classical music, for that matter about any music, was never considered a bar by any student to talk about Ravi Shankar and his global musical entourage. He simply became an incredible idol for the youth on the campuses to adore.  

In his long journey of seven decades of musical rendition, he won many awards: three  Grammy awards, Magsaysay award, Crystal award, Davos, and Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India. He was hailed by Yehudi Menuhin thus: “His genius and his humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart’s.” But according to one section of Pundits, there is a disappointing phenomenon associated with this gifted musician: there is hardly anyone to take forward his legacy. Perhaps that was more palpable: he was more focused on his individual glory than creating a gharana. Contrary to this, his first wife, Annapurna Devi, daughter of Allauddin Khan—the unsung genius who, according to some, exhibited a far greater proof of her father’s genius in her musical accomplishments than Ravi Shankar—proved to be a great guru by turning out many disciples, notable among them being Hariprasad Chaurasia, flute master and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, the late sitarist.  

Although Ravi Shankar did enjoy an enviable sense of ‘freedom’ in music, he never transgressed the basic 'gramar' intricate system and structureof Indian classical music. His stage presentations were such a delight to watch for they stood out having imbibed a different language of ‘visual’ that he had acquired from his brother, Uday Shankar. But once the concert started, the mukri and the gamaks would flow from his sitar in their true form, all theses visuals, including  the  musician, would get evaporated—and what remained was his music.  

Now, Panditji is no more. But his Sitar Raag shall lull our hearts as long as they continue to beat.


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