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A shared grief

December 20, 2012

DEATH can never silence Ravi Shankar. His music will reverberate as long as planets continue to orbit in what the Elizabethans called celestial harmony. To hear him play was to be reminded of the divinity within man.

I first heard Pandit Ravi Shankar live in September 1964 in London. It was an Indian summer in more ways than one. He along with a number of leading Indian musicians and dancers performed at the Royal Commonwealth Institute on Cromwell Road.

Suddenly, almost within weeks of each other, a constellation of names — Ustad Ali Akbar Khan who played the sarod, Ustad Alla Rakha a wizard with the tabla and Balasaraswati the doyen of Bharatnatyam dancers — blazed through London like shooting stars.

Until then, London’s exposure to India was if anything olfactory. India was less a presence than an aroma. One could walk down Park Lane and before turning into Oxford Street, one knew that the Indiacraft shop must be around the corner. The smell of incense overpowered the fragrance of summer flowers sold by hawkers.

Restaurants did not need to advertise their addresses; customers simply followed their noses. And on a Sunday morning, there would be a showing of an Indian film in a dingy cinema off Warren Street. There, those nostalgic for their homeland could return to it for the next three hours, eat samosas, dal channa and pakoras, before re-entering inhospitable London.

Pandit Ravi Shankar, with the first strum on the strings of his sitar, changed all that. India became synonymous with culture, not cows and agriculture. The timing of his arrival like his playing was faultless. By the late 1960s, the West was ready to assimilate India, not condescend to it.

Ravi Shankar began his career as a dancer in the troupe led by his brother Uday Shankar. Uday and Ram Gopal were two pioneers who introduced Indian dance to the West. Western ballerinas such as the famous Alicia Markova became intrigued by this parallel art form.

She performed   duets with Ram Gopal. Artists as talented as Ravi Shankar though are not monogamous by nature. Rather like Ella Fitzgerald — the Afro-American blues singer — who began as a dancer but became better known as a chanteuse, Ravi the dancer decided to become a musician. He spent seven years of musical apprenticeship with Ustad Allauddin Khan, consummated that ustad-shagird bond by marrying his ustad’s daughter. The rest is history transcended into a legend.

There could have been no higher tribute to Pandit Ravi Shankar’s talent than his friendship with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Yehudi was a child prodigy, who gave his first solo violin performance at the age of seven in 1923 with the San Francisco Symphony in the US. He made his first recording in 1929 and his last one 70 years later in 1999.

By comparison, Ravi found his vocation late in life. Both musicians discovered each other in 1965 when they collaborated in a memorable performance in the United Nations, labelled ‘West meets East’. That was a misnomer. The twain met and fused musically into one.

Menuhin spoke admiringly of Ravi Shankar as a human being with “enormous intellectual gifts as well as musical ones”. He said: “It is perfectly possible for someone who I might describe as having no brain at all to sing so beautifully that whoever listens is utterly enthralled, but it is quite impossible for an idiot to play beautiful Indian music. An untalented sitar player has absolutely nothing to convey to an audience and so the sound he makes is totally boring.”

Pandit Ravi Shankar never slipped to the level of being boring, although some purists have felt that his subsequent association with the British pop group The Beatles chipped even if it did not damage his reputation.

In later years, Ravi Shankar learned to share the spotlight with his daughters — Anoushka and Norah Jones. Interestingly each achieved separate distinction in the two countries Ravi belonged to — India and the United States.

Pandit Ravi Shankar never visited Pakistan. He was spared the sight of talented young children struggling to learn what he was taught with such generosity by his Muslim ustad. He would not have understood why music is not taught in Pakistani schools, why the strings of musical instruments rust and decay for want of a human touch, why no school can boast of an orchestra.

He did not have to be subjected, as our musicians are, to the indignity of a Pakistani audience whose attention span is no longer than the time between one tidbit of gossip and another. He would have wondered how a nation could survive without the leavening yeast of music.

He would not have been alone. There are still many living here — too few, according to some — who believe that our society is becoming increasingly monochrome and monotone. At this rate, we will not need eyes to distinguish the colours in a rainbow. We will have no need for fingers to play a musical instrument, no use for ears to distinguish between noise and sublime music.

If we in Pakistan mourn Pandit Ravi Shankar’s passing, we do so at two levels. We grieve at the death of a maestro of international significance. And, like the noisy mourner who when asked whether she knew the deceased well, replied that she was not weeping for him but lamenting her own condition, we shed tears for him and for ourselves.

The writer is an author.