Musical soul

Maestro

Musical soul

The global music world learnt with a jolt that the sitar in the hands of maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar had been silenced forever, after an eight-decade-long journey of sonority.

Like a giant Colossus, he had traversed the realms of classical Hindustani music, rock, jazz, and western classical inputs with his overwhelming personal charm, his uncanny expertise and his ability to make music his life. His debut on the Indian classical music stage had been something of a sensation. At a time when the listener was being made to feel satisfied with the fading performances of aging titans like Pandit Onkarnath Thakur and Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Panditji was at the height of his brilliance. His glistening jhala, his innovative sawaal-jawaab inclusions, his representative alaap, and finally, his feather-touch folk melodies at the conclusion of a recital left audiences swooning at the richness of the experience.legendary Sitar Virtuoso Pandit Ravi Shankar

Very early in his career, Panditji had revealed his ability to make music a service rendered to the music-loving audiences of the globe. Thus, his playing encompassed a rare sense of joy, a camaraderie with his fellow musicians. But his concern was not the self-conquest of the music halls of Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall. It was a commitment that also involved exposing other artistes to his audience, with equal care. Having heard musicians Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali of Pakistan, it was Panditji who had introduced them to Indian audiences, and no one was more satisfied than he, as the duo became the rave of classical music platforms thereafter.

Western conquest

Of course, the West woke to his music when in the 60s, violinist Yehudi Menuhin spotted his genius and immediately collaborated with him in the album ‘West Meets East’. It went on to win the Grammy, the first of the three Grammys that Panditji has won. More than the commercial award that the world raves over, it had revealed before the violin maestro the vastness and intricacies of Indian music, and made him a lifelong devotee of this genre. The ‘bridging’ of music as Panditji is accredited with, had taken strange turns and twists. The studios of the World Pacific Records, where most of his albums were recorded in the 60s, was also where the Byrd bands came, and when they heard Panditji’s sitar, they were mesmerised. Their vocalist David Crosby summed up the experience in the most telling statement: “Any player of any music would be deeply moved by Ravi Shankar.” Inevitably, there had followed an incorporation of the Ravi Shankar element into their music as well.

Next in line of western conquests was Panditji’s collaborative work with flautist Jean Paul Rampal, the Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta. It was the period when the world heard concertos composed by Panditji and his sitar being included in the symphony orchestras under the baton of world-renowned philharmonic orchestras conducted by Zubin Mehta. There was more to follow soon after when Panditji turned his sights to Japan and composed music for the Japanese instrument shakuhachi for Horan Yamamoto. In between, there were ballets and film scores that carried his signature, such as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, for which Panditji provided the music.

His touch with the official music field was equally memorable. While other musicians have graciously accepted honours and awards of the country’s apex music body, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, this Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi contributed his genius by introducing the iconic AIR Vadya Vrinda musical heritage. During his years as Director at the AIR, he created scores of orchestral compositions for Indian instruments and listeners waited avidly for these weekend night broadcasts when Panditji would regale the country with ragas, both familiar and otherwise, played on sarangi, sitar, tabla, flute, in a rare unison. Legendary names among musicians were first spotted on the Vadya Vrinda circuit and their legacy is carried forward today, using Panditji’s contribution as the benchmark for inspiration.

Concern for humanity

His genuine concern for humanity was made known to the world at large during the Rock concert for Bangladesh held at Madison Square Garden. While the press hailed it for the record crowd pull, few know that it was Panditji who had persuaded his long-time Beatles associate George Harrison to join him in this cause, at the outset. With Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Bob Dylan alongside, the show has justly been called, ‘the musical experience of the century’.

While much has been known of the public face of the maestro, the real Pandit in his personality was revealed to his disciples and fellow musicians alone. The tabla players who have accompanied Panditji at his concerts vouch for the soul-stirring experience these moments had brought for them.

At a time when tabla players were treated as mere timekeepers with the soloist’s performance, Panditji gave them a unique space at his concerts by introducing passages wherein they echoed passages of his taan, playing as tukras on the tabla. The novelty of the arrangement had an electrifying impact on the listener and did much to elevate the ego and the prowess of tabla on stage. The culture of sawaal-jawaab, as this format was christened, became the highlight of his concert performances and other musicians soon adopted it into their oeuvre as well.

For his disciples, ‘Guruji’ was a companion, a teacher and a pathfinder, all rolled into one. Numerous incidents are told about his charming methodology which was a combination of straightforward instruction, learning by innuendos, as also learning by accompanying on to the concert stage. Thus, right from tuning the instrument to learning to gauge audiences, from sincerity to practice sessions to self-expression through music, every disciple was blessed with the comforting feeling that their beloved ‘Guruji’ was not far to seek.

Says Shubhendra Rao, a protégé of Panditji, “Ever since I was born, there has not been a day when I have not known Guruji. He was my father’s guru, and hence I knew him as a child. From age 18, he was my guru, and that is when the relationship developed, matured and became sublime, through the years.”

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