Ravi Shankar - the mesmeriser

What is a sitar? an English friend sitting next to me asked.

The hall was packed to capacity. It was in an auditorium in the University of Liverpool. It was, as far as I can recall, in the year 1964.

‘What is a sitar?’ an English friend sitting next to me asked. ‘It is a string instrument , made of six or seven playable strings and a number of resonant strings.’ I said. ‘Is it like a violin?’ ‘No, you will see it in a few minutes what it looks like’ and before I had finished Pandit Ravi Shankar walked in with Ustad Allah Rakha. Ravi Shankar was then in his mid-forties and as we all know he was a very good-looking man. He folded his hands and smiled to the audience. He lifted the cover of the Sitar that was already placed on the stage and Allah Rakha sat down with his Tabla. At the mike was Yehudi Menuhin.

‘We have in our midst a wizard with strings and a man who will accompany him is another wizard on the two small drums that you see. And that’s about all. When you listen to them, you will feel they have planned and practiced for years what they are going to play. If I am not mistaken, Ravi Shankar may not have made up his mind yet what he may be playing now and the beats or Tala as they call it he will adopt. He will just start and Allah Rakha will pick up instantly and accompany him without a flaw. And there lies the beauty and greatness of Indian classical music.

The musicians improvise on the spot within a structure of notes or raga they want to play. They keep creating some thing new every time, with complete freedom, as if in a trance, within the confines of the raga and one creation is  more beautiful than the other.’
With these words Sir Yehudi Menuhin withdrew from the stage. Pandit Ravi Shankar started and Ustad Allah Rakha followed. The audience sat spell-bound. The programme lasted for over two hours and received a standing ovation.

My English friends who had never been exposed to Indian classical music, for the first time got a taste of some thing which was very different from what they had known for years. ‘I can’t describe the feelings. Its something divine!’ said one of my friends. Ravi Shankar’s LPs sold like hotcakes and one of these LPs would make a most welcome Christmas gift to friends.

And that was how Ravi Shankar travelling across the world introduced Indian classical music to the Western world. That was the time when the young world was undergoing a change, with civil rights movement in America,  anti nuclear movement in Europe. Although Elvis Presley and the Beatles swept the young off their feet, there was also Ravi Shankar who came with the divine beauty of Indian classical music for the discerning audience.

Thinking of Pandit Ravi Shankar, one of the greatest Indian musicians of all time, on his sad demise, I remembered the impact he had made on the English audience and I am left with no doubt that he was our greatest cultural ambassador.

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