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‘Ravi Shankar was obsessed with asserting the dignity and integrity of Indian classical music’

Ravi Shankar’s first biographer in English speaks about the challenges of capturing a dynamic and restless life on page

Pandit Ravi Shankar with daughter Anoushka.
Pandit Ravi Shankar with daughter Anoushka.

No name signals Indian classical music to the world more than Ravi Shankar’s (1920-2012). The sitar maestro not only took Hindustani music to the international arena but also influenced a glittering array of celebrity artists—from George Harrison of The Beatles to jazz legend John Coltrane and Western classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin—as becomes evident from his first biography in English, Indian Sun, written by Oliver Craske.

Behind his glamorous persona and outstanding success, Shankar was a troubled man. His childhood was peripatetic, spent touring with his elder brother, the legendary dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar. Close to his mother, with his father away with his second wife, Shankar also suffered sexual abuse during adolescence—he never spoke about it publicly. Later, after years of rigorous training under Allauddin Khan of Maihar, he married Annapurna Devi, his guru’s daughter, but the relationship ended acrimoniously, 13 years later.

Shankar’s long life was a veritable roller-coaster. His fortunes as an artist, husband, lover and cult figure underwent tumultuous ups and downs. Craske spoke to Mint about the challenges of capturing such a dynamic life between two covers. Edited excerpts:

Your book presents a remarkably honest and candid assessment of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s life and work. Did you face any resistance or impediments along the way?

Honesty is part of the job description for a biographer. I loved and hugely admired Ravi-ji but I knew the best way to do justice to him was to examine his life critically as well as sympathetically, and he himself encouraged that approach. Yet I was conscious of my responsibilities too: For example, I obtained the necessary permissions for reproducing unpublished letters. And any revelations, such as the traumatic sexual abuse that I discovered he suffered as a child, are included not in a sensationalist manner but because they help us to understand him and his music. Sukanya (Rajan), his second wife, and their daughter Anoushka (Shankar) both engaged deeply with the process of re-exploring him, and encouraged me to dig further. His first daughter, Norah Jones, spoke to me too, as did many other family members, disciples, musicians and friends. Almost everyone wanted to talk about him, perhaps because he was an unusually candid person himself, and much loved.

Given Ravi Shankar’s long career, sprawled across several continents and decades, how did you grapple with the logistical challenges of your task?

It was a huge undertaking. He was a workaholic, hugely productive, and a lifelong perpetual traveller. By the end, I was exhausted just writing about his life; I don’t know how he lived it at such a pace! I took a fourfold approach to the research: listening to the music, which is the heart of him; interviewing over 100 people; delving in archives, the most crucial being his own previously untapped collection; and visiting places that were important to him, such as Varanasi, or his mother’s village, or his guru Allauddin Khan’s home in Maihar. Following in his footsteps like this helped me to visualize events and describe them more vividly. Then I had to piece everything together like a vast jigsaw puzzle and turn it into a strong narrative. I began over six years ago as a labour of love, while I was still working in publishing, and I ended up as a full-time author, after Faber & Faber commissioned me to write the book.

Biographer Oliver Craske.
Biographer Oliver Craske.

Ravi Shankar defended his purity as a classical musician all his life but wasn’t afraid of experimenting with form. How do we reconcile these facets of his identity?

Contradictions make people interesting. Indian classical music is an oral tradition and an improvisational form, so it has always evolved. Purity is thus a slippery notion. Contrary to what some people think, Ravi Shankar was in fact obsessed with asserting the dignity and integrity of Indian classical music. He had learnt rigorously from his guru, and in his rendition of each raga he was faithful to what he was taught. He emphasized the traditional in his role as a performer, although he also made important innovations in concert format and presentation, and gave a prominent role to percussionists. The very structure of ragas as they are often played now—alap-jor-jhala plus gats in different tempos, and sawal-jawab exchanges—was a Maihar innovation that he and Ali Akbar Khan popularized. Wholly classical, but fresh. As a composer he was even more groundbreaking—his pioneering work with orchestras of Indian or Western instruments, or his film scores like Pather Panchali. Yet there is relatively little of his output that one should really call fusion. Whenever he collaborated with Western musicians, he was always the composer, and the music was based on ragas and talas.

While Ravi Shankar was open to working with Western classical music, he had reservations about rock ‘n’ roll. Why do you think this was so?

Because he saw himself as a classical artist. His earliest fans abroad were mostly from the classical or jazz worlds, such as (Yehudi) Menuhin, Benjamin Britten or John Coltrane. At that time, like many classical musicians, he had a rather snooty opinion of pop music. Meeting George Harrison in 1966 changed his view; he realized there were many wonderful rock and pop musicians, and the albums he made with George, such as Shankar Family And Friends, brought together such diverse talents as Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Tom Scott, Billy Preston and George himself. But ultimately, in his picture of the musical world, the two highest mountain peaks were Indian classical and Western classical.

'Indian Sun', published by Faber & Faber,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
'Indian Sun', published by Faber & Faber, 699

Would it be right to say that Ravi Shankar harboured an ambivalent attitude towards India? His love for, and disappointment with, India seem palpable from your book.

Love was the stronger emotion. He deeply loved India and its arts and he spent his life trying to persuade others how great it was, with enormous success. I wouldn’t want to overplay his sense of disappointment. No country is perfect, so some ambivalence is natural. He saw the good and the bad. At times he was frustrated by bureaucracy, or hurt by criticism. But he never gave up on India. This is someone who built a grand new home and music centre in Delhi at the age of 81! And he always wanted to hear and encourage new musicians.

Ravi Shankar’s colourful, and controversial, personal life was very much a part of his mystique as a musician. Was it a conscious stance or something he couldn’t help?

It’s interesting to trace the patterns. When Ravi was growing up, his father had two wives and was mostly absent. As a young dancer, he had a number of girlfriends, following the example of his brother Uday. After he married Annapurna at 21, he set out to be a faithful husband and I believe that for about 13 years he was, but when that marriage fell apart acrimoniously in the mid-1950s he decided, like his father before him, that conventional marriage did not suit him. So that was a stance, or maybe a philosophy. He adored the romantic stories of Krishna and the gopis, and wrote songs paralleling mortal love and divine love. He adored women, and many women adored him. For the next three decades, he juggled multiple relationships, but there was an honesty in how he went about that, and all the girlfriends I have met still hold him in affection. I believe there was also an addictive element that made this a compulsive search for love, and it caused pain as well as joy. For a long time, he was largely an absentee parent—like his own father, again. By the 1980s, this lifestyle, allied to health problems, led to a crisis. After that, he was a one-woman man. His second marriage, to Sukanya, was happy and fulfilling, and latterly he was devoted to his daughters. He eventually found what he was looking for.

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