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Ravi Shankar Birth Centenary: Wife Sukanya Looks Back at the Sitar Maestro’s Legacy

Although the concerts have been called off, an authorized biography by Oliver Craske will be out, plus tributes from all around the globe

Anurag Tagat Apr 07, 2020
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For the last three years, Sukanya Shankar had been involved in planning an extensive tribute to her husband, sitar legend Pandit Ravi Shankar, to mark his 100th birth anniversary. Along with daughter and renowned sitarist Anoushka Shankar, Sukanya says it’s been “disheartening” to see centennial concerts and related events being called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

From Anoushka’s home in London, Sukanya does however see the bright side of “thoroughly enjoying the time” with her daughter and grandchildren. The late sitar trailblazer’s wife adds over email, “There was a concert arranged in Delhi by his disciple Arun Bharatram and Spic Macay and it went off very well on the 1st of March. There was also an exhibition opening in Bengaluru by Indian Music Experience which was wonderful.”

There’s also an authorized biography by London-based author Oliver Craske called Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar that released this month. It’s the first authorized biography on Ravi Shankar, who passed away at the age of 92 in San Diego in 2012 and left behind a legacy that arguably connected Indian music with the rest of the world. His wife calls the book “wonderful” and speaks in a way that still dotes on him. “For me, there is no world or life without my dearest husband. He will always be with me like a guiding light and doing his work is [like] a healing therapy for me,” she says. In an interview with Rolling Stone India, Sukanya Shankar recounts the maestro’s music, his tenure in Indian Parliament and shares what the centennial celebrations are going to be like. Excerpts:

Pandit Ravi Shankar was a nominated Rajya Sabha member for more than five years, until 1992. Is there anything you can tell us about his time in Parliament and how much he got to attend?

Yes, I remember that period very well. He attended as much as he could and many a period every day, in fact. He spoke about the importance of introducing music to children from the very beginning and how children can benefit from this exposure. He was not involved in politics at all and at times when there were big arguments going on in the house, he would just shut off and do some compositions! When he left, he composed a beautiful raga, “Rajya Kalyan,” which he performed at the Parliament.

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What was one of the pre-show rituals, if any, that you noticed through the years at his concerts?

Every concert was too much. He behaved as if every concert was his first and would be so tensed himself and have everyone around him tensed as well. He wanted to give his best and would practice like a beginner. This changed a little bit once Anoushka started to play with him.

In your changing role in his life, what kind of advice, if any, did he turn towards you for as the years went on? Was there any particular one you’d like to share when he asked you for your opinion about something?

It would be presumptuous of me to call it advice, but he discussed everything with me. He always asked me about his clothes, etc. He loved the shoes I chose for him. He would ask my opinion on any new composition or sometimes what ragas to perform.

He was very childlike. I remember once when he composed the beautiful song “Prabhujee.” It was in a raga which I didn’t like very much. He tried to teach it to me and I said I didn’t like it very much. He got a bit hurt I think, but the next day he changed the tune to this beautiful Bhoop Kalyan. I just loved it.  When he was recording it George’s [Harrison, a friend of Ravi Shankar and part of The Beatles] house in Henley, he made me sing the song with him. When I hesitated, he reminded me that he had changed the raga just for me and so I had to sing it!

The best compliment for me was that he would not take any medicine prescribed by any doctor until I gave the go ahead. All his doctors started calling me Dr. Sukanya. In the intensive care unit in San Diego, they put a note outside that nothing can be given to him without consulting with me.

Sukanya and Anoushka Shankar. Photo: Courtesy of Dream & Hustle Media

How different was life once you sort of settled down in California compared to all the years you’d already spent traveling around the globe?

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It was beautiful. For me, I could live in Timbuktu if he was with me, but the chance to serve him myself  was more in California. I cooked for him, which he loved. I trimmed his hair; he never had a barber or hairdresser after I came to his life. I did his manicure and pedicure. I gave him oil massages for his head and body. I started taking over medically and I became an expert on giving injections. Even in hospitals, he wanted me to do it. I have a natural tendency to take care of people and so I enjoyed my role very much. He was so precious and I wanted to do everything for him and I was blessed.

You’ve been the subject of some amount of public scrutiny and attention all your life, just as Pandit Ravi Shankar’s life was often examined and dissected. What was it like enduring that and what kind of support did Ravi Shankar or anyone else provide for you when the media glare got a bit much?

Some of the press – not all – were very hurtful without knowing the truth, they wrote such rubbish especially about my stepdaughter [jazz/pop singer-songwriter and pianist Norah Jones] and my relationship with her. My husband and both my daughters know what I am and they were very supportive and it didn’t really matter.

How do you think Pandit Ravi Shankar, if he was alive to see the grand old age of 100, would be celebrating? How had he usually celebrated birthdays over the years?

He will be very much with us on the 7th. If he was present in his physical body, I am sure he would have made music and celebrated with his family disciples and friends. He would have kept us all in a state of sublime to ridiculous. He was the greatest musician for me, a saintly human being but also the most funny joker I have ever met!

Watch Anoushka Shankar and students of Pandit Ravi Shankar perform “Sandhya Raga” below. 

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