A musical genius

Print edition : February 13, 1999

Pandit Ravi Shankar, arguably the most outstanding sitar artist, is truly a musician of the entire nation, a true Bharat Ratna.

THE conferring of the Bharat Ratna on Pandit Ravi Shankar, arguably the most outstanding sitar artist the country has produced, begs the question: why did it take so long in coming? Given that the majority of the 34 winners of the award so far are politicians of various hues, if at least a good number had been from the arts and the sciences it would have helped add value to this highest civilian award of the nation. However, only three from the arts, including Ravi Shankar, have won the award so far, the other two being the Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi and the renowned film-maker Satyajit Ray. But even this recognition came when all the three were well past their creative best - in the case of Satyajit Ray, in fact, posthumously.

The award to Ravi Shankar comes as he turns 80. Even though it is not the same Panditji today that his millions of fans and followers have known for the last five decades, his inventive genius is still at work. This was seen in ample measure during his Swarna Jayanti Concert in New Delhi last year on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Independence. His latest Compact Disc 'The Chants of India' is evidence that he is still far from the twilight of his creativity. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to note that this is one more instance of state recognition following various international recognitions of high order. Last year, Ravi Shankar was given along with Ray Charles, the Polar Music Award of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, regarded as the "Nobel Prize for Music": the citation described him as the "Music Bridge Builder Between East and West". In some sense, therefore, the award of Bharat Ratna to someone like Ravi Shankar is merely a stamp of the Government on his eminence, which the nation and the world have known for long.

IF there is a greater understanding today of Indian music and its underlying philosophy around the world (whose benefits a good number of present-generation artists of both North and South would seem to be reaping with their musical tours abroad) and there is a pervasive influence of Indian music on the global musical conscience and, by extension, on Indian culture itself, it is in no small measure owing to Ravi Shankar. His "cultural ambassadorship" can be said to have begun with his performance along with Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris exactly five decades ago. Since then his urge to experiment and to spread the soul and spirit of Indian music resulted in his association with the Beatles in the 1960s and flirtation with pop and rock groups and performances at Monterey and Woodstock Festivals during the 1970s on the one hand and association with major musical figures of the day, such as Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Hasan Yamamoto and Mushimi Miyashita, on the other.

Writing the preface to Ravi Shankar's autobiographical My Music, My Life (1969), Yehudi Menuhin says: "To the Indian quality of serenity, the Indian musician brings an exalted personal expression of union with the infinite, as in infinite love. Few modern composers in the West have achieved this quality, though we revere it in the works of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. If the Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar, who are so graciously beginning to bring this genius to us, can help us find this quality again, then we shall have much to thank them for."

Indeed, Ravi Shankar himself saw this as his main mission when he carried Indian music to the West at a time when few would have dared to do this given the political and economic turmoil that India was in. "I have given the West the soul of our music. Not the skill or virtuosity (taiyyari) alone - the West has an abundant measure of that in their own tradition. With taiyyari, you can get an instant response, applause. After that they will forget you. The true soul of our music is in adhyatmikata, its spiritual quality. The West had it in the past."

His deep rootedness in the tradition of Indian music - being the disciple of the legendary Ustad Allauddin Khan enabled him to imbibe, absorb and live this tradition - helped him achieve this. He could delve into the depths of Indian music and present its quintessence to Western audiences in a manner that it could be enjoyed and assimilated.

While this musical mission to the West - where he has spent most of his life - did catapult Ravi Shankar to a world celebrity status and, in some sense, even a cult figure in the West, his contribution to Hindustani classical music itself has also been immense. It is to him that music lovers owe the elevation of the status of sitar as a concert instrument of great versatility and range. Indeed, he has influenced instrumental Hindustani music in general, not just the sitar, and raised the sophistication in the structural format of the instrumental performance - a systematic and structured exposition of the alap, jor, jhala and the various tempos of the gat.

With his egalitarian outlook in music, Ravi Shankar drew inspiration from Carnatic music's vast repertoire of ragas as well. In that sense he is truly a musician of the entire nation, a true Bharat Ratna. He enjoyed Carnatic music and, like vocalists Abdul Karim Khan and Ustad Amir Khan, was deeply influenced by it. He popularised many Carnatic ragas in the Hindustani system - notably, Charukesi, Janasammodh-ini, Keerawani, Malayamarutam, Revati (which he called Bairagi), among others.

The experimentalist and the innovator in him also led him to compose in many Indian and foreign films though he laments that he could not devote as much time in composing for films as he would have liked to. His music for Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy stands supreme amongst his scores for films. Among his scores for Hindi films, Anuradha is a gem, the other noteworthy scores being for Godan, Dharti Ke Lal and Meera.

Ravi Shankar's versatility has extended to ballets, musicals, dance dramas (like "Ghanashayam'') and orchestral performances.

What does Ravi Shankar feel about his own achievements? "In music," he said a few years ago, "I wasted a lot of time. I spent energy in doing new things, in experiments. Maybe if I had been completely focussed on one single aspect, on the purely classical approach to the sitar, I am sure I would have gone further, much deeper. I do feel that. But the truth is that even as I am saying this, I want to do so many other things. Audiovisual ideas keep crowding my mind. I have to admit that I have not changed. I cannot change...I have to be myself." If he had changed, the world of music would have been that much the poorer.

And this story of his self again finds expression in his recently released autobiography Ragamala, an updated version of his My Music, My Life.

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