Interview with Panditji after he turned 92
Ranjan Das Gupta speaks to Pandit Ravi Shankar about his compositions for films and unveils the musician’s working relationship with the genius filmmaker, Satyajit Ray.
Pandit Ravi Shankar, who turned 92 recently, is nostalgic when reminded about his four-decade association with film music in the last 100 years of Indian cinema.
He does not consider himself a great composer for films but certainly cherishes his experiences of working with Satyajit Ray, Chetan Anand, K A Abbas and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
“Classical musicians may perform very well on stage but their range in film music is limited,” the sitar maestro says, on a long-distance call from USA.
He explains, “Performing for a live audience and recording an album of Indian classical music is very different to that of composing music for films. In cinema, the sense of a situation, the need to understand the importance of using music or maintaining silence and composing songs is a very difficult art.”
He remembers, “I was with IPTA when Chetan Anand introduced me to film music in 1946 with Neecha Nagar, the first ever anti-imperialist film made in India. There were some songs I composed for the film and they were choreographed by Zohra Saigal.
Yet, compared to the songs, the background score of Neecha Nagar was stronger. I still grow very enthusiastic remembering how I used the sitar, dholak and other Indian drums to create the effect of villagers marching in protest against the autocratic mayor with mashals in their hands. Within a few months, I also scored for K A Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal, based on the famine of Bengal in the ’40s.”
Both films brought instant recognition to Pandit Ravi Shankar as a composer. He explains, “The music of Neecha Nagar was more challenging to compose than Dharti Ke Lal.
Chetan Anand’s sense of music was undeniable. The real scope to exhibit my prowess as a musician was to jointly perform the sitar with Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod and Pannalal Ghosh’s flute, in Chetan’s Aandhiyan’s background score.”
Ray of hope
Though international recognition came to him with Neecha Nagar, he rose to heights of fame after working with Satyajit Ray for the Apu trilogy in the mid-50s. There is a moment of silence.
With a deep breath, Ravi Shankar continues, “Ray left us for his heavenly abode two decades ago. He and I had a great vibe. A connoisseur of both classical and western music, Ray knew how to extract the best out of any music director without making him go overboard.”
Did Ray dictate terms whilst Pandit Ravi Shankar composed? The icon laughs, “Ray was not an autocrat. Before composing the sitar interludes to accompany Tulsi Chakrabarty’s walking in the satire Parash Pathar, he asked me to create one with a classically comic effect, which spelled humour as well as a sense of mystery. I did so in two takes and he was very satisfied.”
If working with Satyajit Ray is the greatest experience for Ravi Shankar as far as his career in films is concerned, he also enjoyed composing for Anuradha and Godaan in the ‘60s. Ravi Shankar explains, “For Anuradha’s number, Jaane kaise sapno mein, I asked Lata Mangeshkar to usher in a romantic lilt to her singing.
She did so very efficiently. I recorded the holi song in Godaan in one take using the tabla, bamboo flute and also vocal harmonies in the background.”
Pandit Ravi Shankar considers Naushad, S D Burman, Shanker Jaikishan and Madan Mohan the ideal composers of film music. Why did he have a conflict with Salil Chowdhury regarding the latter’s usage of the sitar in the evergreen number O sajna?
Pausing for a while, Ravi Shankar admits, “I initially felt the usage of the sitar counter in the song was not required and it was forced.
Later, Salil clearly explained to me that it was used to create a romantic effect which gelled well with the monsoon season that was being portrayed. We did not have any conflict and I have the highest regard for Salil Chowdhury, who was a musical genius.”
His musical experiments with Yehudi Menuin and George Harrison are legendary. Who did he admire amongst the western composers?
Without a second thought, Ravi Shankar says, “Maurice Jar — he was the most well versed with western classical music and his usage of horn sections along with the grand piano for Lawrence Of Arabia and Dr Zhivago are unique. I also admire some scores of Nino Rota.”
Did he not feel his form as a composer touched an ebb with Genesis and Meera Bai? He replies, “It is for music lovers to decide and comment upon. Yes, around the time I was scoring for Genesis, I had lost interest in film music.
Though I worked hard and composed the background score for Gandhi, Sir Richard Attenborough omitted my creations and opted for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It hurt very much.
In Meera Bai, I tried my best to show devotion through my music. It may have failed to create the required impact.”