One good thing has come of Pandit Ravi Shankar, sitar maestro and heartbreaker extraordinaire, passing away yesterday. Usually there’s a layer of sound in the newsroom that just sits there like dust in hard-to-reach corners and its the chatter of news channels being played at low volume. Today, though, every few minutes, the sounds of a sitar trickled in because every now and then, there would be little capsules on Shankar, which meant those teasing musical snippets.

A newsroom is a curious place when someone dies because for a few hours, they’re the subject of so much chatter that they feel more alive than they’ve been for years. Someone has a story, someone else has trivia and yet another person has a headline for the obituary. Today, though, since Mint was the first to snag “While the Sitar Gently Weeps”, the headline proved to be a bit of a challenge for those who didn’t want to go with the obvious. Apparently in one newspaper, someone suggested “Teardrops on my sitar”, which sounded ok to the editor until they learnt it was a Taylor Swift song. There are some things you cannot do, this editor informed the young enthu cutlet, and one of them is violate genius just because there’s a possibility of a pun.

The other thing that you can’t do is get Annapurna Devi, Ravi Shankar’s first wife, to give a “byte” as a lot of the journalists put it (they mean quotable quotes). This isn’t surprising. Not only did they separate back in the 1940s, but theirs wasn’t a particularly happy marriage to begin with, their one son’s life turned out to be an absolute mess and neither was able to help him, and there’s been just so much gossip in the past about Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi. Of course, that’s precisely the reason every reporter was desperate for that “byte”, because they were hoping against hope that now, after all these decades, Annapurna Devi would slip up a little. “Kya kehte hain aap Angrezi main? (What is it you say in English?)” one journalist asked me. “Mellowing in one’s old age? She is 85, after all. It was worth a shot.”

Ravi Shankar hasn’t been in peak form many years now, which is understandable since he was 92 when he passed away yesterday. For the last decade and a bit more, he’s been a sporadic performer, often coming on stage at his daughter’s concerts. Even at 80, though, the man could play. Ok, he could only play for about 20 minutes, but for that time, the sitar didn’t weep, gently or otherwise. It exulted and soared, its melodies full of the grace, elegance and energy of a kite being masterfully flown on a blue-skied day. But the point is, so far as Ravi Shankar’s sitar-playing abilities are concerned and Grammy nominations notwithstanding, the music died years ago. Fortunately, though, Shankar was a man of the recording era. Tons of his work is available as CDs, mp3s, on YouTube. It’s actually when you start going through this stuff that you realise what an incredible mind this man had and the many stories that will slowly disappear now that he’s no longer there because there are very few who will pass them on and keep them alive. So here’s the little that I know.


Ravi Shankar, 7 April 1920 – 11 December 2012

Unlike most Indian classical musicians who start learning instruments as soon as they’ve mastered sucking on their thumbs, Shankar discovered the sitar late. Having spent his first 18 years as a dancer and occasional amateur musician with his brother Uday Shankar’s troupe, Ravi Shankar decided to give up dance when the legendary teacher, Ustad Allaudin Khan, told Ravi Shankar that the boy could be his disciple only if he focused on music. So to Maihar in Madhya Pradesh Shankar went, in 1938. No one doubted his musical talent because he caught up with the other students quite quickly. I’ve heard stories about how he would practice non-stop for hours, not pausing to eat or drink; uncaring of the fact that the metallic strings were slicing his tender fingers. His concentration was legendary, as was his charm. But within a few years, Shankar made a move that first earned him the reputation of being a sly fox: he wooed Ustad Allaudin Khan’s daughter, Annapurna.

Baba Allaudin Khan with Annapurna Devi

Baba Allaudin Khan with Annapurna Devi

Now here’s where a little background needs to be given. Ustad Allaudin Khan, by all accounts, was an incredible musician and teacher. He is one of those people whose stories and music we’ve lost because there aren’t that many recordings of him. My mother knew Baba Allaudin Khan — he got my mother her first baby sitar when she was a munchkin — and even now, when she talks of him, she turns into a gushy, wide-eyed kid. Khan was a multi-instrumentalist, didn’t belong to a gharana (or school of music) had learnt music from a variety of sources and had transformed Hindustani classical music. Khan had one son, Ali Akbar, and three daughters. One daughter died when she was young. Another was terribly mistreated by her in-laws who didn’t particularly approve of her musical background and made that point clear by burning her tanpura (it’s a stringed instrument that accompanies all singers and whose music acts as a sonic anchor for instrumental performances as well). Scared that his third daughter may suffer a similar fate, Roshanara (she was christened Annapurna by the Maharaja of Maihar. Baba followed some Hindu traditions despite being a practicing Muslim, like Saraswati Puja for instance. Saraswati Puja was celebrated with much devotion and fanfare. Anyway, I digress…) was not to learn any music, Baba decreed. But Annapurna’s talent was prodigious. In no time, it became clear that even without lessons, this young girl could master techniques and artistry that confuzzled others like her brother. Ultimately, Baba relented and Annapurna was allowed to learn music. She didn’t get the sarod, though, despite the fact that she could play it. That was reserved for the son. Annapurna got the surbahar, which is a ridiculously complicated instrument. Incidentally, she could also play the sitar but that got hauled out of the picture a few years later, for reasons that will no doubt be obvious.

At the time when Ravi Shankar came to Maihar, there were a few star students. Among them was Ali Akbar, the guru’s son and a gifted player even if not blindingly brilliant. Another was Nikhil Banerjee, a reserved and intense chap. The not-so-kind say that Ravi Shankar wooed the teenaged Annapurna so that Baba would bring him into the Maihar family fold quicker — thus pole-vaulting over Banerjee and getting almost the same standing as Ali Akbar. Being one of the family has long been a great advantage in the gharana system of Indian classical music because most gurus want to pass on the best of their craft and knowledge to their own flesh and blood rather than the most talented student. Whatever the reason, a very young Shankar asked for a very, very young Annapurna’s hand in marriage. Baba said yes, but this approval came with conditions. Apparently, Baba had once said that Annapurna was so gifted that if she and her surbahar were on one side of a competition and Baba, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar were against her, she’s still come out on top. Possibly because the memory of how his elder daughter had suffered at her in-laws and to prevent rivalry between husband and wife, Baba told Annapurna to give up the surbahar. She was free to teach but not perform. Annapurna agreed without any protest. She didn’t touch the surbahar again for many decades. Instead, she taught her students by singing, that too perfectly, what she’d been playing on the surbahar till now. That’s how talented she is.

With George Harrison. Gotta love those sunglasses.

With George Harrison. Gotta love those sunglasses.

Annapurna is believed to have once been an incredible composer as well. Composition is an important aspect of Hindustani classical music because a good performer and musician is one who has the ability to compose on the spot. Again, rumour has it that many of the tunes, or dhun, that made audiences sit up and pay attention to a young Ravi Shankar were Annapurna’s compositions. While this is possibly true, the fact of the matter also is that Shankar was an incredible composer. At a time when classical musicians resolutely stayed away from anything even slightly non-classical, Shankar embraced a variety of musical challenges. He came up with the signature tune of the state television channel, Doordarshan. That tune meant television for more than one generation of Indians and it stuck in all of our heads in a way that little from that era of tv has. Shankar composed film scores for a bunch of Satyajit Ray films and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi among others. Most famously, he took Indian classical music overseas when he collaborated with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The man even played in Woodstock, with Allah Rakha who has to be my favourite tabla player ever. (Also the father of the tabla player, Zakir Hussain.) Years later, Shankar would collaborate with Philip Glass. No one else had thought of making these different traditions meet before Shankar — or maybe no one else was quite as ballsy — and years later, everyone would want to do “fusion” (which was mostly ghastly). In 1966, Shankar became a global celebrity when George Harrison became a fan of his, which led to that miserably twangy sitar in “Norwegian Wood”. Shankar’s popularity and eagerness to do different things wasn’t well-regarded back home initially but soon enough, every Indian classical musician and singer wanted to go to America and set up a school like he had. Few made the kind of impact Shankar had. At home, there were feuds, like the long-running rivalry between Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar. They were once friends and then there was an incident at a concert in Delhi at which Vilayat Khan felt snubbed. From then on, he demanded that he be paid one rupee more than Shankar and if something came to Shankar before it came to him, including state honours,  Khan rejected it. Khan was an absolute boor, as far as personality is concerned. But when it comes to musical ability, he’s the only one I can think of that gave Shankar a run for his money. On a good day, Khan could make gravitas beautiful, which is only to be heard and believed.

Rewind a little to the 1940s again. Ravi Shankar’s marriage to Annapurna started falling apart even before it had really come together. They had a son, Shubho, who everyone believed had been blessed with all the musical genes of his parents and indeed Shubho would go on to be one of those few people who could play the sitar, sarod and surbahar with equal dexterity. As the marriage collapsed, both Shankar and Annapurna wanted to claim the boy as their own. Shubho was born a year after Shankar and Annapurna were married. Less than 10 years after that, the marriage was over and Shankar had embarked on his mission to make Casanova seem like a restrained, monogamous sort. Shubho grew up with his mother but, it seems, he was more in awe of his distant father, particularly after Shankar established himself in America. His mother seemed puritan, both in her behaviour and her music, and Shubho turned away from her in his 20s, which devastated Annapurna. Some say Shankar was jealous of Shubho’s talent and slyly introduced him to alcohol and narcotics which would wreck with one’s physical ability to play an instrument like the sitar. I find that hard to believe, frankly. Not because it seems too Machiavellian but because Indian classical musicians are desperate to have someone to carry on their musical tradition and so establish a certain continuity to the school, the gharana. Just look at how desperately Shankar promoted his daughter Anoushka despite her clearly not possessing the talent to play the sitar with anything even close to brilliance. Shubho’s talent was unmistakable as were his self-destructive tendencies. He died in 1992, at the age of 50, in Los Angeles. Rumour has it that he committed suicide. (You can read Ravi Shankar talking about Uday Shankar, Baba, Shubho and others here.)

At a recent concert.

At a recent concert.

His personal life may have been infested with heartbreaks and turbulence, but Shankar’s music soared. The truly remarkable thing about Shankar was that he was able to play for audiences without compromising on the quality of the music. Unlike people like Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, who played brilliantly but just refused to establish any connection with the audience, Ravi Shankar was a performer. He had charisma and he had the ability to gauge a gathering’s ability so that he didn’t play tunes and ragas that would be difficult to latch on to for the assembled crowd. Some call it “playing to the gallery” but even Shankar’s biggest critics will agree that his music sparkled. Every note glinted brilliantly, like a perfectly-cut diamond catching the light. The clarity of a note, the precision of how long it’s held, how it lingers, the richness of the emotion in the sliding notes, the structure of each composition, the transitions from one section to another — listening to Shankar live was witnessing a spell being cast. He looked at you, caught your eye, smiled, raised an eyebrow, shared a little musical joke, laughed with the tabla player. You became part of his world. I remember my father saying once at the end of a Ravi Shankar concert that his were the most “paisa-vasool” because even on a bad day, Shankar was average; never horrific. So you always felt like you’d got your money’s worth. That’s saying a lot because Indian classical music artists are notorious for being temperamental. Most of the time, there is no guarantee how a concert will turn out. There will be times when the singer or musician will go so far as to be off-key and then there are days when they’re incandescent and the melody is golden.

This consistency in his performance is something that remained a trademark of Shankar’s even in his last performances. Again, rumour has it that his wife Sukanya (mother of Anoushka and a rather remarkable woman by her own right; hell, she pinned Shankar down and made sure her daughter didn’t remain illegitimate) forced him to do concerts and interviews and make public appearances so that Anoushka would be “set up”. Again, I’m not sure I believe this version of Sukanya being an evil queen but even if this is true, I don’t really see why he shouldn’t promote his daughter.

Eight years short of a century is a full life, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who lived as fully as Ravi Shankar, both on and off stage. If Indian classical music survives the next few decades and manages to retain any of its riches, Ravi Shankar deserves an enormous thanks. Because for all his faults, he didn’t let this art stagnate and he never lost sight of the fact that music without listeners is a weak, fragile thing. And he was one helluva classy flirt, despite being almost midget-sized and not quite a desi George Clooney. He should have given classes to Indian men on how to talk to women (and men). Sadly, this stuff is not on YouTube and it’s training that India’s gents critically need. Hmph.

Ah well.

A young Ravi Shankar in London

A young Ravi Shankar in London

To Ravi Shankar, play on.

6 thoughts on “Sitar Hero

  1. it seems you are not at all well informed as far as Annapurna Devi and her music is concerned. surely there are aveneus from where you could have learnt at least a bit more before writing all this…

  2. There are number of mistakes in your article – do you know Maihar is in Madhya Pradesh not in Uttar Pradesh. Also, I have heard Subho Shankar play, he may have been but he was not that great a sitar player who could threaten Ravi Shankar. Also, Usta Ali Akbar Khan was blindingly brilliant Sarodiya, in fact he was more skilled at Ravi; you should try listening to his compositions. Finally, Baba didn’t belong to any Gharana because Ustad Wazir Khan didn’t teach him Been which was reserved for members of his family – Baba’s music belongs to the Seniya Gharana.

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