Pandit Ravi Shankar: The Tansen Of Our Times
We relook at his tempestuous life and lasting legacy.
The wrinkles on his face have deepened as the length of his sitar has shortened in size. And though he may walk with a stick these days, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s smile is as radiantly charismatic as ever. A month before his 90th birthday [he was born in Varanasi on April 7, 1920], the sitarist-composer extraordinaire is packing his bags for yet another “sold out” concert tour of Australia. And his wife-secretary-manager-cook-nurse-soul keeper, Sukanya, is busy planning the launch of their new music company East Meets West Music to be headquartered in New York (see interview at the end of the article). When we meet after the gap of a year at the Ravi Shankar Centre in New Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave, he had played a concert for an adoring crowd at the Nehru Park with daughter Anoushka just a few days ago. Even today, before we settle for a chat and lunch, he picks up the sitar on my request to play the morning raga Alaihya Bilawal for a blissful while.
His delineation of the raga is as moving as it is chaste; the strokes of his mizraab [plectrum] still sharp and the tone of his meend-s [legato-pulls from a lower note to a higher one] perfect and clear; his sense of rhythm relentlessly unfaltering. He taps his foot to mark the taala [rhythmic cycle] as he sits on a divan; not as he once used to in the usual squatting position with knees bent, but as if seated in a chair. After a quadruple heart bypass and several angioplasties, a shoulder operation and many other smaller ailments he has had to modify both his playing position and his sitar over the years. A glance at his fingers shows the scars of decades of constant practice on steel and brass strings tuned tight. Few of us would expect to be alive at his age, leave alone keep up with the demands of a professional career spanning the globe. The venerable Pandit, though, is evidently and enviably still on the go. In this amazing lust for life and zeal to practice his art, he is rivaled only by MF Husain, who at 95, has recently relinquished his Indian citizenship for a Qatari one, and announced his plans to paint 300 more paintings on subjects ranging from Arab history to Indian cinema.
That drive, in itself, could be a signifier of Ravi Shankar’s genius as an artist. It is that innate need to keep in practice and to perform; to face the public yet all over again. To prove his worth, not only to the world, but most of all to himself. Add to these, a capacity for constant travel: between cities, countries and continents. Year after year, for 80 long and eventful years and, hopefully, with many more to come.
It has been a life that not only straddles two centuries but connects many different worlds: East-West, North-South, old-new, traditional-modern. For most of those years, he has been spinning like a top on the roller-coaster of history. He was barely ten when he joined his elder brother Uday Shankar’s Indian dance troupe in Paris. “After his initiation into dance by Anna Pavlova in 1923, Dada [elder brother] created his own unique Indian ballet company which was a huge success. He was based in Paris when my mother, my other two brothers and I joined him in 1930. We performed all over the world in the best halls and stayed at the best hotels,” he recalls. By his own account of his childhood days in Paris, he was attending a French school, dancing various parts in Uday Shankar’s ballets, meeting the rich and the famous of Europe and America including legendary musicians like the guitarist Andre Segovia and cellist Pablo Cassals. Even as a child, he loved musical instruments and he had played both the esraj and the sitar on the stage.