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In memoriam: ‘The godfather of world music’

December 23, 2012

Maybe I was too young to understand the intense melancholy but whenever I heard my mother hum Hai re who din kyun na aaye… especially the stanza sunee meree beena sangeet bina… I would be moved and run to hug her tight as though I wanted to comfort her. And years later when I saw the film Anuradha, I understood how beautifully this mood so essential in the film was created by top-rung musicians — Lata Mangeshkar’s voice, Shailendra’s lyrics and Pandit Ravi Shankar’s composition. Sitar, violin, flute plus Lataji’s voice never sounded so soulfully sweet.

That was the beauty of Ravi Shankar’s compositions. His music touched a chord. He intrinsically weaved his sitar notes around the requirement of the situation. The music and songs of the 1960s film Anuradha including Kaise din beete kaise beetee ratiyaan, Sawarein, sawarein sound melodiously pleasing even today when in the name of songs aberrations like photo ko seenay se chipkalun main Fevicol se are making to the top of the chart busters.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar were associated greatly and the sitar player had almost become synonymous with The Beatles.
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar were associated greatly and the sitar player had almost become synonymous with The Beatles.

His music had universal appeal. If on one hand he composed intricate songs which could be sung only by experts, he also very ably composed music for the masses. Saare jahan se achcha, Hindustan hamara written by Muhammad (Allama) Iqbal for schoolchildren which today has become an anthem in India, is so simple that every person can easily sing it.

Poet, story writer and film director Gulzarji in one of his recent interviews said, “Saare Jahan Se Achcha, which every Indian in every part of the world hums, is composed by (late) Pandit Ravi Shankar. It was composed by him when he was associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).”

Talking on the phone from Delhi, renowned sitar player Shujaat Hussain Khan, son of legendary sitar artist (late) Ustad Vilaayat Khan, said, “Technically, there was no one who could touch Panditji. He could become a world artist because he had the uncanny ability to understand the mood of his audience from any part of the world and play accordingly. He adapted to his surroundings easily.”

He scoffed at the rumoured discord between the two giants of sitar in the ’60s and ’70s. Shujaat was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best World Music and has performed at several places including Royal Albert Hall in London, Royce Hall in Los Angeles and Congress Hall in Berlin.

He said that there was a very healthy competition between them and whenever they met, which because of the geographical distance happened very rarely, they would ignore the media reports. “We all know that Panditji’s greatest contribution was to take Indian music to the West. Now I don’t know if he did it consciously or it just happened because he used to accompany his brother, Uday Shankar’s dance troupe, whenever they performed abroad. But the western world came to understand Indian music and sitar mainly because of Shankarji.”

This was endorsed even by the famous violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, when he had said, “Ravi Shankar has brought me a precious gift and through him I have added a new dimension to my experience of music. To me his genius and humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart’s!”

Yehudi Menuhin said of Ravi Shankar, "To me his genius and humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart's!"
Yehudi Menuhin said of Ravi Shankar, "To me his genius and humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart's!"

“You had to hear him play live to understand the mesmerising quality that Panditji’s sitar had on listeners,” explained the young slide guitar (Satvik Veena) player Salil Bhatt while talking of Ravi Shankar. He was very closely associated with Shankarji as his father, renowned Mohan Veena player, Grammy award winner and Padma Shri awardee, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, was a disciple of Ravi Shankar. Shankarji often visited their home in Jaipur.

“On one such visit to our home when I was just about 14 years old, I had played raag Hamsdhavni for him and he had appreciated it. Today, if we are being recognised by the world body of music, the credit should go to Ravi Shankarji and the late filmmaker Raj Kapoorji. They both took Indian music and cinema abroad. He popularised sitar abroad at a time when there was no TV, forget about the Internet. At a time when India had not made any impact as we were just emerging from our freedom struggle,’’ said Salil who has also won several awards and performed at several places including Salurinn Hall, Iceland, Nuremberg, Berlin, Munich and of course in India.

Another credit that goes to Shankarji is that though being a Hindustani classical artist, he very easily adopted and improvised several of South Indian style of Carnatic ragas like Keervani, Charukeshi, Vachaspati to his own Hindustani style. This was way back in the ’50s. Today they have almost become household ragas amongst Hindustani classical musicians. He composed music for another genious film-maker Satyajit Ray’s Appu triology — Pather Panchali, Aparijito and Apur Sansar.

In fact there wasn’t a single corner of the world which wasn’t touched by Indian highest civilian honour awardee (Bharat Ratna) Pandit Ravi Shankar. That is what George Harrison of The Beatles, with whom Ravi Shankar was associated greatly and had almost become synonymous with, had said, “Ravi Shankar is the godfather of world music!”