Master of rhythm

Published : Jan 11, 2013 00:00 IST



Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012) will be remembered as Indias first and most successful cultural ambassador to the West, who opened the door of opportunity for other Indian musicians after him, and for being a brilliant sitar player.

PANDIT Ravi Shankars passing away on December 12 in far off La Jolla, California, in the United States provoked an avalanche of praise, most of it well deserved. He was impeccably tuneful and the most versatile sitar player of his generation, having imbibed music from the many gharanas of sitar-playing in India in his years of learning from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s or slightly later. He came from a family of non-professional musicians. His father, Shyam Shankar Choudhury, was a barrister-at-law and the Diwan of Jhalawar, a princely state in Rajasthan. The gentleman is said to have been a philosopher, Sanskrit scholar and an amateur musician. The family came from Jessore in East Bengal. Shyam Shankar Choudhurys eldest son, Uday Shankar (1900-1977), put Indian dance on the world map. Ravi Shankars guru, Ustad Allauddin Khan, a sarod maestro, aka Baba, played many instruments and trained some of the most eminent instrumentalists in the last eighty years, including Timir Baran, daughter Annapoorna Devi and son Ali Akbar Khan, Pannalal Ghosh, nephew Bahadur Khan, Nikhil Banerjee and Sharan Rani Backliwal. Baba Allauddin Khan Saheb, like his pupil Ravi Shankar, came from a non-professional musician background; he was from a peasant family from Comilla, East Bengal, in undivided India. His patron, the Maharaja of Maihar in Madhya Pradesh, saw to it that he lived in a calm ashram-like atmosphere. It was there that Ravi Shankar found his true musical self when he was initiated formally as a pupil ( shagird) in 1938.

He began his professional career as a musician in 1945, tremendously well equipped technically, having emulated Baba and practised the tonic scales and multiple note-combinations assiduously, though not like Baba, who did nothing else but practise these exercises for seven long years. In later years, it made Ravi Shankar the greatest practitioner of the Tantrakari tradition where the percussive element played an important part. While the Tantrakari Baaj remained his mainstay and enabled him, along with former brother-in-law, the genius Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, to bring daring innovations in laya or rhythm, Ravi Shankar did use the meend or glide as well as certain gamaks or vibrating notes with virtuosity, especially in his introductory aalap presenting a raaga. His gift of laya probably came from his early training as a boy-dancer with his elder brother Uday Shankars troupe touring Europe and America in the early 1930s. Though he did learn to play the surbahar well, it was his first wife, Annapoorna, his gurus daughter, who had mastered the instrument and was known for her flowing, melodic playing. She certainly was an important influence in the first part of his career. A private tape recording from 1954 of a traditional bandish in Raaga Jhinjhoti bears out this contention.

He was probably the first sitarist to use such a deep, resonant string on his instrument to play the kharaj or bass portions of the aalap. He employed a fat string from the veena to achieve his objective. The idea must have come to him after listening to Baba on the sursringar that he learnt to play from his guru Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur, who belonged to a distinguished gharana of Dhrupadiyas and was an excellent veena player. This bass string was ideal for gliding from note to note, even five of them, without blurring the vibration emanating from a single plucked stroke. It enabled him to lend gravitas to his aalap and also nail the lie that he did not play long meends in very slow or ati vilambit laya unaccompanied by a tabla and, on rare occasions, the pakhawaj. If the late Amiyanath Sanyal, a great musicologist and fine amateur singer, is to be believed, Ravi Shankar started taking veena lessons in his late sixties. But from whom it is not known.

There is a 1990 [RPG] recording of his, of Raaga Kamod, played in the Dhrupad ang or style. It is a grave and beautiful piece of music-making. The fireworks of youth have made way here for a more contemplative approach even in madhya laya. There is no wizardry of taala here. He appears to be trying to grasp the essentially feminine aspects of the raaga. The concept of Ardh Narishwar, that a male is psychologically half woman and vice versa, is an integral part of the arts in India, including music.

When Ravi Shankar married Annapoorna in 1941, her father is believed to have told him, in Bengali: I have taught you to play Gats [sitar compositions accompanied by the tabla] so far, now in marriage, along with my daughter, I am gifting the art of doing an aalap. (A rough translation.) The story is not as far-fetched as it seems because most sitar players, even the celebrated ones, did a quick, deft sketch of the raaga to delineate its structure in the aalap portion. Only the veena and surbahar players played an aalap in a given raaga for a reasonable length of time. Ustad Hamid Hussain Khan, a sanyasi-musician from Lucknow, was supposed to be the only sitar player of those times who could play long yet captivating aalaps in many raagas, and was a great favourite of Baba Allauddin Khans.

In the mid- to late 1940s, both Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were employees of All India Radio, Lucknow. It is certain that Ravi Shankar had heard Hamid Hussain Khan Saheb many times in Lucknow and imbibed from him many aspects of creating an aalap. This is a musically verifiable fact. Virendranath Bali, son of Surendranath Bali, who was a pupil of Hamid Hussain Khan, and a former Station Director of AIR, Allahabad, sent a sample of his fathers playing to this writer by e-mail. In the recording, Bali is playing what his Ustad had taught him. The clear influence of this style on Ravi Shankars rendering of aalap, jor and jhala, in his heyday, does not need a profoundly informed musical-detective to be established. Ravi Shankar, in his old age, said he had always admired two Lucknowi sitar playersUstad Hamid Hussain Khan and Ustad Yusuf Ali Khan. Pratap Pawar, violinist, formerly employed by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, spoke in hushed tones of a 45-minute aalap in Tilak Kamod played by Hamid Hussain Khan Saheb at the Annual Music Festival at Marris (now Bhatkhande) College of Music in Lucknow in the early 1950s.

Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan both favoured bandishes (compositions) set to complex taalas which showed their flawless mastery of rhythm. This may have come about because they spent an overwhelming part of their professional careers in the U.S.they made their homes there. To grab a paying audiences attention there now is only marginally less difficult than it was fifty or more years ago. Ravi Shankar, when old, declared candidly in a TV interview to an Indian news channel that he had to be careful not to play a raaga in a concert for more than 20 minutes abroad and to make it really attractive with suitable variations in laya. The aalap had to be short and telling. The joys of khulla baaj, ideal for the all-night private soiree or mehfil, would be held in waiting until he came back on his yearly trip to India, usually in winter, when some wealthy admirers would invite him home. There he would play unfettered and truly inspired.

Most of his concerts and recordings in the U.S., and to a certain extent in Europe, were in a style where startling division of matras in a taala cycle subtly gained precedence over the melody, giving the presentation of a raaga a certain edge. This approach won him great popularity in the West, particularly the U.S. Annapoorna Devi, his long estranged wife (they were divorced only in 1981, after being separated since the early 1950s), broke her silence about him with a cryptic remark in Bengali, stating that while he was a great musician, he seems to have laid a bit more emphasis on taala after going abroad. There are, contrary to the popular notion, many hours of her surbahar recordings available that prove her greatness. Her opinion of her former husbands musical concerns has to be seriously considered.

Ravi Shankar, from his Lucknow days, was very interested in enhancing the role of taala in compositions for the sitar, as was Ali Akbar Khan for the sarod. In Rosewell Lyall, a tabla player from AIR, Lucknow, he found an ideal foil. Why he chose Chatur Lal over him will never be known. Perhaps because Chatur Laljee was more malleable. Ravi Shankar, being a handsome, small-built man, did not like tabla players who were aggressive in manner. It was perhaps why he never played again with Pandit Samta Prasad or Ustad Inam Ali Khan after the first time. He began his association with Ustad Allah Rakha Qureshi in 1955. But for a break in the 1960s when he played with Kanai Datta, much to his profit, Ravi Shankars artistic partnership with Allah Rakha Saheb lasted through the 1970s into the early 1980s. Then Allah Rakha Sahebs son Zakir Hussain came along, and while playing with Ravi Shankar (and also with Ali Akbar Khan) learnt very many intricacies about laya and taala, as he did from his illustrious father. Ustad Zakir Hussain has become the most celebrated tabla player of his time.

There are many recordings that establish his greatness. Even those neophytes who have begun to listen to him on YouTube can appreciate his superb aalap played in Bhimpalasi at the Monterey Rock festival, in the U.S. in 1967. There is also his rendering of Piloo in Thumri-style, accompanied by Chatur Lal, in which Ravi Shankar plays most of the time to suggest the amorous singing style required of the form. In this recording, he achieves as usual, a certain grave detachment even while being romantic, perhaps because his sitar is tuned half a note lower than almost any other sitarist, barring Mohammad Sharif Poonchwale.

His duets with Ali Akbar Khan are unique. In them Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan create true jugalbandi, meaning, a musical idea suggested by one is completed or complemented by the other. Among their very many recordings, some that come to mind are in raagas like Shree, Sindu-Bhairavi, Palash-Kafi, Ramdasi Malhar. They have also played in varied styles including suitable adaptations of Thumri and Khayal, both genres of vocal music, the first being light-classical and the second, classical.

Ravi Shankars masterly solo recordings include those made in Jhinjhoti, Ahir Bhairav, Darbari, Mian Ki Malhar, Puria Dhanashsri, Jog, Behag, Malkauns, Yaman, Todi and Lalit. In them and many, many more his compositional gifts blossom forth. He had learnt to grasp the essential features of a raaga, doing some musically knowing, deft, three-and-a-half-minute 78 RPM recordings in India before leaving for the West.

He was an exceptional composer for films. His scores for Satyajit Rays Apu Trilogy, particularly the first film, Pather Panchali, still haunt us. Of the four films in which Ravi Shankar worked on in Bombay, Munn a, Anuradha, Godaan and Meera, his songs for Anuradha were easily the best. The sensitivity of the melody in Jaane Kaesey Sapnon Mein Kho Gayee Ankhiyan based on Raaga Tilak-Shyam, his own creation, the easy, swinging laya, and of course, Shailendras poetic lyrics, makes this song truly memorable.

In the West, Ravi Shankar shot to fame as a film-composer with his score for Chappaqua directed by Conrad Rooks. He also did an excellent job in the BBC production of Alice in Wonderland directed and produced by Jonathan Miller.

Ravi Shankar and the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin did beautifully together. Composer Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar collaborated successfully on a musical adventure. Andre Previn, too, worked well with the sitar maestro.

In conclusion, Pandit Ravi Shankar will be remembered as Indias first and most successful cultural ambassador to the West, who opened the door of opportunity for other Indian musicians after him, and for being a brilliant sitar player.

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