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Pandit Ravi Shankar
A Profile

Posted on RMIM by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series.
Source: G.N. Joshi's book, "Down Melody Lane" (1984), pp 95-98

The melodious strains of Ravi Shankar's sitar have carried Indian music across the seven seas. Ravi Shankar is now a world famous personality. His recitals in India and abroad draw huge crowds. Millions of fans gather to hear him. Films are being made about his life. Ravi Shankar had ridden the crest of popularity for over 30 years and this popularity shows no signs of abatement. This era in music could truly be called the Ravi Shankar era. He has contributed a golden page to the history of Indian classical music.

I met Ravi Shankar in 1940. He is about 10 years younger than me, and at that time he was in his twenties. Fair and slim, this curly haired youth worked with me in the studio for some time. Even in those early days his intelligence and dedication to music were apparent. I always felt that his tremendous creative ability was being wasted in the HMV studio and that he would soon do much better for himself. This was proved to be correct when, a few years later, Pandit Ravi Shankar's magnificent music conquered the world, and his fame reached great heights.

Pandit Ravi Shankar's father was an eminent barrister and a very high official in a princely state. Ravi Shankar had a happy childhood. His was a family of artists, and all his brothers have become famous in different artistic spheres. His eldest brother was the world renowned dancer Uday Shankar, the two other brothers Sachin Shankar and Rajendra Shankar are also very well known. Ravi Shankar studied music and learnt to play the sitar under the guidance of Ustad Allaudin Khan. His sangeet sadhana was as strenuous and gruelling as the tapasya (penance) done in the olden days by ascetics seeking knowledge in the ashrams of their gurus. Living with Ustad Allaudin Khan and pursuing his study, Ravi Shankar had to undergo rigorous trials. The Ustad was a difficult master. At times Ravi Shankar was even subjected to physical punishment. Coming as he did from an affluent and very highly placed family, it was very difficult for him to bear the hard work and humiliating treatment.

One day he tried to run away from the guru's home. A friend, however, brought him back from the station. (***Insert***: This friend was the Ustad's now-famous son, Ali Akbar Khan. There's an interesting story about this incident and curious readers are referred to Ravi Shankar's autobiography "My Music, My Life". It should be available at the university libraries.....Rajan).

The next morning Ustad Allaudin Khan came to know of Ravi Shankar's attempt to escape. The Ustad was so upset at this that he burst into tears and embraced his pupil. Ustad Allaudin Khan not only imparted his treasure of knowledge to this favourite disciple, but in addition bestowed upon him the hand of his daughter Annapurna in marriage.

Although Ustad Allaudin Khan was a Muslim by birth, his general behaviour, his style of living and his dress were those of an orthodox Hindu. I had the opportunity to meet Allaudin Khan and to observe him closely when I visited Jodhpur with Ravi Shankar on an invitation from the maharaja. I first saw him in the early hours of the morning. He was wearing a brahminic style dhoti and was offering puja to Laxmi and Saraswati. He looked exactly like one's concept of a pious freshly bathed learned brahmin scholar of vedic times.

When Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar combined their skills at mehfils and on records, and presented their artistic craftmanship on the sarod and sitar, they received tremendous ovations. In search of wider audiences they proceeded to Europe from where, encouraged by their success, they went on to America. Their tremendous popularity in America induced them to stay there to try new experiments and set new trends in music. They have both spent the greater part of their last few years outside India, and, in their separate ways won countless fans through their concerts. Pandit Ravi Shankar started a music school, the Kinnara school, at Los Angeles in California, but he very recently closed it and has returned to India with the intention of starting an Ashram in the holy city of Varanasi. Ali Akbar, however, has decided to stay on in San Rafael, to coach Americans in the art of playing Indian classical music.

In his efforts to induce Western listeners to appreciate and enjoy Indian music, Ravi Shankar adopted a technique of presentation different from the old traditional style. Naturally there arose the fear that Indian tradition and prestige of Indian music might suffer in the process. Critics accused Ravi Shankar of polluting the high and chaste standard of presentation and even feared that the purity of ragas was at stake. It is, however, true that from the point of view of acquainting Western listeners with Indian music and training them to listen to and enjoy the artistic beauty of our music, the method and course adopted by Ravi Shankar was the correct one. Through his novel technique of presentation, he taught Western listeners what to look for in our music for real appreciation and enjoyment. Sitars, which sell moderately well in India, were exported in thousands to America and other Western countries. This proved the popularity and success of Ravi Shankar. In 1969, he was cited as 'Musician of the Year' by one of the leading organs of America's musical industry, Billboard Magazine.

Enticed by Ravi Shankar and his sitar, George Harrison of the famous group, the Beatles, came to Bombay some years ago. While he was there he gave a demonstration of Indian music in our studio, and I was witness to the miraculous achievement of Pandit Ravi Shankar.

In his never ending quest for novel ideas, and to successfully arrange a meeting between the music of the East and West, Ravi Shankar made an LP record entitled 'Sitar Concerto' supported entirely by a Western orchestra in London. This record will undoubtedly be a great asset in considerably increasing the interest of Western listeners in Indian music. I, however, honestly feel that such a fusion of two styles so different from each other will never hold lastingly together.

The classical nature of Ravi Shankar's sitar playing has remained pure and unaffected, inspite of his having stayed abroad for several years. He has mastered every aspect of sitar playing such as alap, jod, gat, zala, etc. During the alap movement he reveals the magnificent structure of a raga in a delightfully elaborate style. The jod and gat, that follow the alap movement, are so resplendent with the remarkable display by his artistic nimble fingers, that the audience remains completely hypnotized and spellbound. Inspite of the great success that has come his way Ravi Shankar has remained a very humble person.

Apart from his sitar playing Ravi Shankar has won a big name in other fields of music too. For a few years he conducted the orchestra in All India Radio, and at that time he made recordings of ragas presented in an entirely novel and unique way. He scored the background music for several Hindi films with great success. The films Kabuliwala and Pather Panchali need special mention in this connection. More creditable still is the fact that he is the first ever Indian artist to be selected to provide music for western films. Fame, honour and titles of every kind have been showered upon the great maestro. In 1957, at the Berlin film festival, there was conferred upon him the prestigious 'Silver Bear' award for the background music of Kabuliwala. The Indian government has already honoured him with the Padmabhushan.

(***Insert***: Didn't he get the Padmavibhushan recently? Will someone confirm?...Rajan) I always consider it a great privilege to have a friend like him who, after winning such international acclaim, is still so modest and loving at heart.

(Baba mentioned below is Ustad Allaudin Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar's guru and the father/guru of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Uday was Uday Shankar, the famous dancer and Ravi's elder brother)
From: My Music My Life by Ravi Shankar (1968) pps 70-74

.....The day came when we were due to sail, and we all felt the sadness of the departure. My mother, who had come to Bombay to see us off, was going to remain in India, and already, she was feeling the loneliness of our absence. Somehow, she and I both had the premonition that we might not see each other again. While we stood on the pier, getting ready to go aboard the ship, she took my hand and put it in Baba's hand and told him, "I'm not going with you, and I don't know if I'll ever see my child again, so please take him and consider him as your own son." We all had tears in our eyes as we said goodbye, and as it happened, it was the last time I saw my mother.

Baba stayed with our troupe for nearly a year, and during all those months, I was his guide, interpreter, helper, and special companion. I suppose he missed Ali Akbar very much, and so he gave to me all the love and affection that would have gone to his son. While we were traveling, especially, I used to take care of Baba, finding the right restaurants and the proper kind of food for him. As a devout Muslim, he does not eat pork; but, like a Hindu, he does not eat beef either. One day, I remember, I wanted to do something special to please him, and recalling that he occasionally enjoyed smoking, I went out and bought him a pipe and pouch for tobacco and a lighter. When I presented the gift to him, instead of being pleased, he flared up in one of his unreasonable, furious angers. "Have you come to do the mukhagni with this?" he demanded. (The mukhagni according to Hindus is the ceremony of placing the first fire in the mouth of a dead man on the funeral pyre and is performed by the eldest son.) "I'm not one of those gurus you can buy," he raged.

But most of the time, he was very gentle with me. He knew how serious I was about learning instrumental music, and I got him to begin teaching me the basics of sitar and voice. Sometimes, he would become upset and grow angry when I was learning, because, although I was a good student, he felt that dance was uppermost in my thoughts. It angered and hurt him that I should be "wasting my musical talent" and living in glitter and luxury. Baba insisted that this was no way to learn music from him, not in these surroundings, and he swore I would never go through the discipline and master the technique of the sitar. Tauntingly, he called me a "butterfly" and made some very cruel remarks about my constant girlchasing, my dandy tastes in clothing, and all my other interests outside music - painting, writing, and reading. He often said, "Ek sadhe sab sadhe, sab sadhe sab jaye," which means if you do one thing properly and very well, then all other things will come easily later, but if you start with too much, you end up with nothing.

All the same, Baba enjoyed teaching me and I knew it. When he was nice to me, as he usually was, I learned very quickly and well, but when he was angry, I got stubborn, thick-headed, and dull and refused to learn. It must have been because I had never been scolded by anyone, even as a little child.

In the summer of 1936, we spent a few months at Dartington Hall, in Devonshire, England, a beautiful, open place, where Uday planned to work on a few new ballets. I had a great deal of time to pratice on the sitar and have lessons with Baba. This was the first time I played scales and exercises and not just whatever pleasing melodies came into my head, and all summer I worked on the exercises and fixed compositions and learned many songs. Inside me, I sensed something new and very exciting; I felt that I was coming close to music and that this music is what I was meant to devote my life to. But then in the fall, Baba had to leave us a bit earlier than had been expected and go back to India. At the time, there was a great turmoil brewing inside me - sometimes I thought I would continue with my dancing and become a truly great performer; everyone said I was well on my way. And then something within me would pull me the other way and say music, music. For many months I was torn between staying with Uday's troupe and giving up everything and going off with Baba to learn the art of music. In a way, it was unfortunate for me that Baba left so soon. Had he been with us just another month or so, I might have come to a decision sooner about my musical dilemma. Baba often repeated to me before he left that, although I had much talent and he would love to teach me, it would be possible for me to learn with him only if I could give up the sparkle and easy fame of my artist's life in Europe and come to the little town of Maihar, where he lived, and spend many years with him. And often, too, he expressed serious doubt that I would ever be able to take myself away from the glamorous life in the West.

When Baba left us, for some reason, I went back more strongly than ever to dancing and received much praise for my efforts, and I even put aside the sitar in favor of a sarod. I was soon able to perform on the sarod with our ensemble and also did some sitar solos, for, in the year with Baba, I had learned enough technique to understand what I was doing and had absorbed enough to use what I had been taught. Baba had encouraged me with the sitar because I was already acquainted with it and knew how to handle it a little, but when he left, I picked up the sarod, because his own playing of it had impressed me so much and I wanted to imitate him.


It was a year and a half before I saw Baba again, and throughout that time I was filled with worries and questions and indecision, and there was really no one I could talk to about it. Uday was quite convinced that I should keep up dancing as my primary interest, but he thought a few months with Baba wouldn't do me any harm. At this time, Uday was planning to disband the troupe and establish his center for the performing arts in India. He thought I could get a solid musical background with Baba, then come back and assist him at the center.

We finished our last tour and the troupe returned to India in May, 1938. While we were still in Paris, in the fall of 1936, a telegram arrived from India informing us of the death of our mother. A small house had just been completed for her in the village of my maternal grandfather near Benares, and at the time, two of my older brothers were with her. The news greatly saddened us, and me especially, because I had seen her so little since she returned to India in 1932. We had always been extremely close and had been able to speak very freely to each other. So, when we came back to India in 1938, I went straight to this little house of hers.

Back in India, with no immediate plans, I thought of a religious event which, for lack of time and opportunity, I had neglected for many years; and decided this was the time to go through with it. This is the sacred-thread ceremony that initiates a young Brahmin boy into the religion. Usually it is performed between the ages of seven and twelve, and although I was much older than that, I wanted to have the ceremony performed. In the month of May, my head was shaved, and I prepared for the initiation into Brahminism. Each initiate must spend a few weeks or even longer living like a monk, eating special food, and abstaining from all material things. I spent nearly two months living this way, free of worldly matters, before I returned to my normal life.

Before we came back from Europe, I had been secretly corresponding with Baba, who again told me he would be happy to have me learn from him, if I could abandon my fancy ways and come to Maihar, not just for a few months, but to stay. I said nothing to Uday about this correspondence, but he promised me that I could go and stay with Baba while he looked for a site for the cultural center.

When my religious duties were over, I prepared to leave for Maihar. It was about a day's journey away, and Rajendra accompanied me to the village on a day in July. As we traveled, I was all in a turmoil inside. I felt as though I were committing suicide and knew that I would be reborn, but had no way of knowing how the new life would be. I was extremely nervous and afraid of Baba's legendary temper, having seen a few small samples of it when he was with the troupe. Hundreds of doubts swept over me, and I wondered if I would be able to stay and go through all the discipline, because I knew very well my own sentimentality and my inability to bear a harsh word from anyone. And although I myself had made the decision to go to Maihar, I felt like a lamb being led to the butcher. When I arrived, Baba was really shocked to see me so transformed. My head was still shaven, and I wore simple clothes of very coarse material. With me I had brought one tin suitcase with a few belongings and two blankets with a pillow rolled up inside them. I had changed myself to the opposite extreme from the boy Baba had known in Europe, partly because I sincerely felt that I had to give up a great deal if I wanted to devote myself to music, and partly because I felt this new self would please Baba. In a way, there was some play-acting on my part, leaving behind my dandy habits and living as I thought I should. But I could see right away that Baba was pleased with me.

I went and stayed in the little house next to Baba's, and in the beginning it was very difficult for me. Maihar was just a small village, and it was very quiet. Alone at night in my house, I was frightened when I heard the howling of the jackals and wolves nearby, and the deep croaking of the frogs and all the racket of the crickets. After eight years of luxurious living in Europe, it took me months to accustom myself to sleeping on the cot made of four pieces of bamboo tied together with coconut rope. Every morning, I remember, a maidservant used to come in very early to tidy up and put the water on for tea and prepare a little breakfast. After I'd been in Maihar for some time, another student came and stayed with me, but Baba beat him on the second or third day and he ran away. At least thirty different boys came to share the little house with me, but none of them ever stayed longer than a week or ten days because they could not bear Baba's temper and strict discipline.


I was quite lucky to have already spent a year with Baba when he was traveling with Uday's troupe. In that time I had gotten to know him quite well - all his little weaknesses and the peculiarities of his nature. Some of these poor boys who came to Maihar had no idea how to interpret Baba's moods. Normally, he was the humblest, gentlest person imaginable, filled with vinaya, like a devout follower of Vishnu. But often, when he started teaching, he turned into a violent, irascible follower of Shiva and would not tolerate one little slip from the student. He even used to scold the maharaja who employed him! I really have the record, though. Baba never once struck me or even raised his voice to me. Well, just one time.

Once, when I had first come to him and he was teaching me an exercise, I was not able to play it correctly. "Ha!" he exclaimed, "You have no strength in those wrists. Da, da, da," he cried, as he smacked my hands. Well, I had been trying my best, and I felt terrible that he should be angry with me. From my childhood, no one had ever spoken angrily to me, although I was quite spoiled and sometimes behaved badly. So when Baba raised his voice to me, I began to get angry myself, rather than frightened. "Go," he taunted me, "go, go and buy some bangles to wear on your wrists. You are like a weak little girl! You have no strength. You can't even do this exercise" That was enough for me. I got up and went to the house next door where I had been staying, packed my bedding and belongings, marched off to the railroad station, and bought a ticket home. I had just missed a train and had to wait a while for the next one. In the meantime, Ali Akbar came running up and, seeing my bags, asked what happened. "I won't stay," I told him. "He scolded me today." Ali Akbar looked at me incredulously and asked if I were mad. "You are the only person he has never laid a hand on. We're all amazed by it. Why, do you know what he has done to me? He's tied me to a tree every day for a week and beaten me and even refused me food. And you run away because he gives you a little scolding!" Adamantly I insisted, "No, I will leave on the evening train." Ali Akbar persuaded me to go back to the house with him, and I temporarily set my bag down again in my room. By then, he had told his mother what happened, and she told Baba. Ali Akbar came to tell me they wanted me to have lunch with them, and when I went into the house, Ma (Ali Akbar's mother) said to me, "Come. You are leaving soon, but just go and sit with your Baba for a few minutes." I went over to him and did a pranam, and I saw that he was cutting out a photograph of me and putting it into a frame. Neither of us said a word, but I saw that he was moved. After a little while, I finally said, "I am going today." Slowly, he looked over at me, and asked, "Is that all? I mean, I just told you to wear bangle bracelets and it has hurt you so much that you are going to leave?" I had tears in my eyes already, and had never seen him like this. He stood up and came over to me, and said, "You remember at the pier in Bombay how your mother put your hand in mine and asked me to look after you as my own son? Since then, I have accepted you as my son, and this is how you want to break it?"

Naturally, I didn't leave Baba after this scene. And ever since, whenever he felt angry because of something I had done, he would go and beat someone else.

In a way, Baba was extremely autocratic in his method of teaching. Often, he would be seated on a mat with some pillows on his hard sofa-bed, smoking a hookah, a big Indian pipe that goes hubble-bubble, when a student came in. He would say, "Sit down. Sit down on a chair." Now, one had to understand what he meant by that. If he was in a good mood, perhaps he really wanted the student to take the chair. But if he was in a bad temper and said, "Oh, sit down in that chair there," the poor unknowing student would sit down and Baba would jump up and hit him with the top of his hookah and shout, "See! He sits on a chair right in front of me. Hah! He think he is my equal!" It was really very difficult to know just what Baba wanted people to do.

At first, I was very uncomfortable and unhappy with Baba in Maihar. My concentration suffered, and I found my mind wandering after only a few hours of work, yet I felt I was atoning for my eight years of materialistic living in the West. I thought I had lost many years and was trying to make up for what seemed to me a waste. Of course, I realized later that the experiences of my childhood in Europe had been very helpful.

It did take a few months, but I got used to the quiet, disciplined life with Baba. Usually I would wake up about four o'clock in the morning and have a quick wash, not the regular bath, and drink a cup of tea. I took my sitar and practiced the basic scales until six o'clock or so. Then I had my bath, did the morning worship that I practiced since my sacred thread ceremony, and ate two boiled eggs and a piece of Indian bread. After the little meal, I practiced the exercises or whatever I had learned the previous day, so I could play it well when I went to Baba later on. Everything had to be memorized, of course, because, except for some small reminders about the music, we don't write anything down - neither the notes nor any of the formal instruction. It must all be absorbed right away by the hands and the mind. A little after seven, I took my sitar, trembling and apprehensive, and crossed the little garden to Baba's house, where we would work for two or three hours. Sometimes he gave me a very difficult thing to learn, and the lesson would take only half an hour; then, I would go and practice for another hour or two, trying to play it properly. Baba realized immediately that, mentally, I was quite advanced in the music. But my hands were far behind, because I had spent so little time learning and practicing the basics. I used to hate the scales and exercises; it was a spiritual torture to me, because my hands could never catch up to the idea of the music inside my head. I went through months of depression when I felt I was getting nowhere, but when my technique improved, I learned extremely quickly. Baba would be inspired, and a half-hour lesson often lasted three or four hours. In the beginning, although I had great respect for Baba, I didn't completely understand what he wanted from his disciples. He is a teacher in the old style, demanding of the student total humility and surrender to the guru, a complete shedding of the ego. The disciple is only the receiver, and what he is being taught is all he should consider; he must not judge the guru, and must not criticize.

I would have a small meal in the midmorning, and a rest, then I would practice again for several hours. There was a late-afternoon session, too, with Baba, once I had acquired some proficiency in the exercises and had begun learning some of the basic ragas. Although Baba knew all the techniques of playing the sitar, he did not play the instrument himself. He therefore taught me mostly by singing what he wanted me to play and learn. This is often done with our music, because by imitating the voice one can get a deep insight into the raga and a better understanding. To learn the correct finger strokes for plucking the sitar's strings, I first learned the spoken syllables that are used to identify each stroke; then it was easy to play them as Baba called them out - "Da, ra, diri, darar." To teach a slow part (vilambit), Baba usually sang; but for the faster, more intricate gats and todas he used the stroke syllables. Often, too, he sat with his sarod and played what he wanted to teach me, but this was difficult for me, because the tonics of sitar and sarod are not the same. Eventually, I devised a way of adjusting my tuning so that the two instruments could work together. This later inspired Baba to take me along to the music confer- ences with him, where I sat in the background as his disciple when he performed, and I was permitted to play a little from time to time. Many years later, this brought up a new idea that Ali Akbar and I developed - the sarod-sitar duet known as jugalbandi. Baba also taught me, and his daughter Annapurna as well, the technique of the surbahar; and later she and I performed duets with this instrument.

The only entertainment I had was going for walks along the river or on the lovely hillside, for there were no cinemas or "city" diversions. Often Ali Akbar accompanied me, and we would spend hours walking and discussing all our ideas. I used to tell him of my adventures in Europe, and he spoke to me of the problems he had. We would return to the house by dark and all have dinner about seven-thirty, then spend a few more hours practicing.

Most often, Baba taught me alone; but later Ali Akbar, and sometimes his sister Annapurna, would join me for the sessions. Ali Akbar and I became very close, even though I was two years older than he. When I came to Maihar and saw him after nearly three years (he had been in Bombay with us before we left for Europe in 1935), I was greatly surprised and pleased at the progress he had made in his music, for it had never before seemed to me that he had much enthusiasm for playing the sarod, and I knew the almost incredible degree to which Baba carried his strictness with him. Ali Akbar told me he had been compelled to practice for fourteen to sixteen hours every day, and there were times when Baba tied him to a tree for hours and refused to let him eat if his progress was not satisfactory. Ali Akbar was born with music in his veins, but it was this constant rigorous discipline and riaz (Urdu for "practice") that Baba set for him that has made Ali Akbar one of the greatest instrumentalists alive.

After I had made some progress with my music there was a period of several years when the three of us - Ali Akbar, Annapurna, and I - all sat with Baba and learned from him together. He would start to teach us, singing such serious and beautiful raga as Lalit, Multani, Yaman Kalyan, Bihag, Mian ki Malhar, Darbari Kanada, and sometimes he would just go on teaching for three or four hours and lose all perception of the passage of time. Many times we cried because of the intense beauty of the music, and no one would think of disturbing the spell.....

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