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Close encounters with the sitar legend

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Some 10 minutes into my first meeting with Pandit Ravi Shankar in January 1997, I had this strange feeling he was interviewing me, rather than the other way around. Soon, I figured he was perhaps trying to gauge my understanding of Indian classical music, so that he could speak in a language I could understand and communicate accurately through my article.

I had been a nervous wreck before entering the Nepean Sea Road guest house in south Mumbai. I had interviewed a few classical musicians before, but this was the first time with someone of his stature. His warmth and simplicity put me at ease, as his wife Sukanya and teenage daughter watched in admiration.

Pandit Ravi Shankar

Shankar is a natural charmer, a great conversationalist who would mix seriousness and humour so subtly one couldn’t differentiate between the two. As an artiste, of course, his innovations in style and technique, creation of new ragas by adapting older ones, his compositional skills, his collaborations with western musicians and his enormous role in popularising Indian music abroad have been hugely acclaimed.

A lot has already been written about that. Today, on his 98th birth anniversary, I will concentrate on the five meetings and one telephonic conversation I have had with the gentleman.

The first meeting was on the eve of his concert at Nehru Centre, Worli. He would be accompanied by tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, and it was also the first time in India that Anoushka would join him on stage. Having made me comfortable, he answered questions in a simple manner and guessing I was more into the Beatles than into serious raga talk, happily talked about George Harrison. Being a sudden assignment, I hadn’t carried any cassettes to autograph. But that interview inspired me to learn more about Indian classical music, something I had enjoyed but followed only superficially.

George Harrison and ravi shankar

The second occasion was in February 1999, after he was named a Bharat Ratna recipient. The section editor at my office was more keen on a funky profile of Anoushka but I somehow convinced her I would do both. Ravi Ji, as all called him, took a few minutes to recollect our first meeting. But as usual he was articulate. After our conversation, I took out two cassettes. Sukanya saw them and wondered whether he should sign. Her point was that they were reissues of old recordings released without consulting the artiste. The sitar maestro handled the situation, saying it’s not the journalist’s fault. He signed willingly.

Ravi-Shankar and anoshka

Ravi Ji was back in Mumbai a few weeks later. He was to address a press conference at 4 p.m. but I had been on leave. It was March 12,1999. My son was born that morning. A few hours later I called up office from a telephone booth to inform them. While my boss and a few others congratulated me, I was also informed of the demise of violinist Yehudi Menuhin that day. They wanted me to randomly dictate some inputs.

I had another idea. If Ravi Ji was giving a press conference, the best thing would be to go and get his reaction. And I had to do it personally. I was confused. Whether to stay back at the nursing home or go half way across town. I told my wife and relatives. They told me not to bother. If it’s a story that pleases you, go for it.

Ravi Ji was obviously very disturbed that day. He didn’t speak much about Menuhin at the press conference, but opened up when I met him individually. Anoushka told him of my son’s birth, and he said, “Order some sweets.” I was in a rush, of course, as I even had to file my report.

Two years later, he was to perform at the Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan at Shanmukhananda Hall, King’s Circle. The interaction at the press conference was brief but he did point out I needed some exercise. “I mean physical ones, not only through your ears listening to us old people,” he joked. That evening, I remember sitting next to musicians Ronu Majumdar, Fazal Qureshi and Taufiq Qureshi, when Ravi Ji played Raga Hameer Kalyan. In the audience, we were exchanging gooseflesh.

Our last meeting was in February 2003. I was to fly to Germany early next morning but attended his press conference for selfish reasons. I wanted him to sign his autobiography ‘Raga Mala’. Mission accomplished. This time, he didn’t talk of my weight, though honestly I had been exercising. Physically.

Interestingly at the same conference, a journalist asked him what it felt to be called the ‘Godfather of World Music.’ Ravi quickly responded, “Do I in any way look like like Marlon Brando?”

Ravi-Shankar and marlon brando

While these were five personal interactions with the legend, our only phone conversation was memorable in itself. On March 13, 2004, sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan passed away. Ravi Ji had settled down in New Delhi then after years of staying in the US. A lot had been written about the rivalry between the two great sitar players. I just pushed my luck, trying to get a quote from Ravi Ji.

I called up his residence. His student Gaurav Majumdar picked up the phone and told me Guru Ji was busy. I requested to speak to Sukanya and insisted she knew me. Luckily, she helped connect me with Ravi Ji.

An intended quote turned out to be a long conversation. He talked about the  way both of them and a few others had grown up and matured in the same era. He admitted he would listen to Khan-saab closely and that there were certain ragas which inspired him. Asked about their famous rivalry, he said, “These are technical things. We belong to different gharanas, so our styles are different. Listeners have their own choices, but that never made us the kind of enemies most thought we were. Today marks the end of an era.”

Always soft-spoken, Ravi Ji had the knack of using the right words to convey his message. His eyes symbolised peace, his smile radiance and his forehead deep intellect. Even today, his ragas or sitar concertos make for perfect relaxation after a tiring day. The magic lives on, the melody lingers.

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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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