Christmas is here again. How time flies. It seems yesterday that I was writing to you last Christmas. I hope you are keeping well, studying well and playing well. I dream of you often and in my dreams, you have grown, with long arms and legs and ears. I have grown a little too. It will be so much fun when we do meet up.
The best part of writing to you is that perhaps this is one of the few places where I can be myself in all my madness. Thanks to all the people who follow my writing in other places, I often have to pretend to be very sane and wise. One should always try and be what one really is, no matter how impossible it might appear. At least some of the time, don’t you think?
All of this week, people have been demanding stronger sentences. While some like short sentences, others prefer longer ones. Many have been demanding the death sentence. The death sentence is actually quite simple. For example. Ravi Shankar died. Sheila Dixit promised stern action. Narendra Modi won. Sentences can be difficult but none are unbearable. None. Though you might be looking forward to a game, I would much rather listen to some music with you. Come with me. Santa Claus is for real.
I heard Ravi Shankar first on an album called West Meets East with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and to this day the enchanting experience is fresh in my memory. This was when I was very young, maybe 7 or 8, and I had no context for what I was hearing. I remember thinking of the sitar as a complex and large instrument compared to the sound of the violin. The picture of the two men on the LP cover is also still fresh in my mind. Both of them were lost in the intensity of their playing. I thought to myself that music was indeed a very strange thing. On one hand you had the temporality of rhythm which on the other you had the spatiality of melody and harmony. In 1967, West Meets East won the first of three Grammies that Ravi Shankar would eventually be awarded. I do not know if it happens to you, but I have a big problem of association as far as memories go, so at the cost of being called crazy (it is a valid psychological thingummy called synesthesia), I will also add that the Menuhin-Shankar music was purple, somewhat Friday and curly.
|Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar from the 1946 film Kalpana (Image from Wikipedia)|
At around the same time, I was fortunate to witness a performance by the Uday Shankar Dance Troupe called Shankarscope (I think at the Academy of Fine Arts) which was a multimedia feast for the senses. It had dancers whirling in bright colors, magic and illusion, and integration of different media such that you had characters going from real life into projected film and vice versa. Later I learned that Ravi Shankar was Uday Shankar’s younger brother and that he had actually started out as a dancer in the troupe before meeting his mentor, Allauddin Khan, on tour. Allauddin Khan later took on Ravi Shankar and groomed him, along with his son, Ali Akbar Khan and his daughter Annapurna Devi (whom Ravi Shankar would marry and later divorce, setting up one of the saddest stories in the contemporary history of Indian classical music) in what is known as the Maihar gharana of Hindustani classical.
I grew up finding jazz and rock more appealing that most other forms of music, but as I chanced upon eastern fusion music, I realized I needed to understand and explore Indian traditions too. It is like finding a clue in a mystery and you cannot rest till you follow that clue through and complete one part of a jigsaw puzzle. My investigations were made easy by the fact that everyone in my family was up to their necks in Indian classical, and I had no dearth of recommendations and explanations. Your Thammi was nicknamed Gangubai by her music teachers, and your Dadu often cries when he hears great music, something I have duly inherited and perhaps passed on. Your grand-uncle, Debi Choudhury (the one who owned half a racehorse) was not only extremely well informed about music but was an excellent vocalist, his voice rasped down by his incessant smoking and drinking, but spot on with styles as well as techniques. My adventures in understanding the Indian tradition was later aided by Kishore and Maitreyee Chatterjee, and some of my fondest memories are of the afternoons and evenings spent at their Ballygunge Place apartment drinking fresh mint tea (as if) and listening to the finest of Indian and Western classics.
This was at the same time that the urban youth in Kolkata were turning to Indian classical as a fashion statement, and music conferences and obscure artistes were the latest things to be heard talking about. While one group of intellectuals were getting shot or imprisoned by the police, another group gaily thronged the late night early morning sessions in ethnic wear and Contessas air-kissing their way through batch-mates and club-familiars. While I might sound judgmental, it helps to understand that even Ravi Shankar’s popularity in India stems from the fashion statement that he became part of during the 60s and 70s. This in no way detracts from the quality of his music or the significance of his contribution. As a matter of fact, both Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar had been touring and receiving critical acclaim in the west a good decade before the historic Beatles era.
Bands like The Kinks, Yardbirds and The Byrds had begun incorporating the Indian sound into their music as early as the mid-60s. It wasn’t till the famous meeting with George Harrison and the subsequent inclusion of the sitar and raga-based melodies in Norwegian Wood and Within You Without You that Ravi Shankar became a worldwide celebrity. For the Indian public, it was rediscovering our roots through the eyes of foreigners as usual. While our living masters die in penury, we pay top bucks to go watch the Lady GaGas of today. Other than the conservative bastions of the South, classical music has been on the fringe for the larger part of our population for several decades if not centuries. For the western audience though, he was a new high. There was hope in the air, the war protests were on, and the long drawn aalaps and hypnotic tabla work of Chatur Lal and Allah Rakha went well with the smokables.
More than a decade after Ali Akbar first brought the raga to the American public, Ravi Shankar took on the task of being the ambassador of Indian Classical music across the globe. His personal creative greatness aside, this will remain the most important contribution he has made to Indian music. Not only did he showcase and explain the Indian tradition to global audiences, but he continuously worked to create new formats and collaborations, not all of which were great. But they served to broaden the range of his creative output. He collaborated with many of the leading musical forces of his time, locally and abroad, and even wrote three concertos for sitar two of which he performed with the London Symphonic Orchestra, the first with Andre Previn and the second with Zubin Mehta. I have not heard the third concerto which he wrote for Anoushka to play with the absolutely incredible Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, but as far as the first two go, well, they sound
I must admit that neither my knowledge nor my appreciation of music is adequate to do justice to the greatness of this man, and I am aware that some of my views might appear blasphemous to his fans. I have the highest regard for the man, his music and his life. Any disagreement with what I say should be notched up to my ignorance and arrogance. I came upon his work after he had already become a celebrity. His growing involvement and importance in the shaping on modern Indian sensibilities were indisputable. In many ways, he was responsible for bringing the richness of Indian classical to the notice of the world. Acts like Raghu Dixit, Swarathma, John McCLaughlin and Shakti would not have happened were it not for his untiring efforts.
Like most gifted artists, his personal life was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. While a lot has been written about it, a lot remains shrouded, and perhaps rightly so; a person’s tragedies should be allowed to remain private. It is unfair even to guess at the struggles or emotions as he and those in his life dealt with their circumstances. Like all stories, I am certain there are more sides than one to his, but I strongly believe it is not for us to judge or comment on. He had three kids, Shubho Shankar with Annapurna Devi, Norah Jones with Sue Jones, and Anoushka Shankar with Sukanya Rajan. While Shubho died in 1991, Norah Jones and Anoushka remain torchbearers of the finest order. He provided us with color and intensity during his lifetime, and he left behind a cultural legacy that is wider and deeper than any other contemporary musician. I hope you will discover his music, along with that of the other masters, like Amjad Ali Khan, Mallikarjun Mansur, Haydn, Beethoven, Verdi, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
That last sentence was the most difficult sentence I have ever had to write. Some sentences. More later. Stay warm. Merry Christmas.