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Ravi Shankar, musician to the world

A unique exhibition pays tribute to Ravi Shankar in the centenary year of his birth. What role might the late sitar maestro have played in a world wracked by hate and divisiveness?

The IME, Bengaluru, is holding an exhibition, ‘Ravi Shankar@100’.
The IME, Bengaluru, is holding an exhibition, ‘Ravi Shankar@100’. (Photo courtesy: Ravi Shankar Foundation)

In the centenary year of his birth, one can’t help but feel nostalgic for the time when one of India’s best-known musicians was disturbed by the 1971 war in Bangladesh and the ensuing flood of refugees. He decided he had to do something about it.

“The idea was very spontaneous…we wanted to do as much as possible to help displaced people," sitarist Ravi Shankar says in a YouTube video of the press conference to announce The Concert for Bangladesh, widely described as the music industry’s first impactful act for charity, preceding, by more than a decade, global biggie Live Aid which introduced Generation X to Ethiopia.

Shankar called up his British student George Harrison (who described him as the godfather of world music), who called up his friends (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, etc.) and together they raised about $250,000 (around 1.8 crore now) that night—and millions from the album later.

“I was 15 years old and this concert changed my life," says Walter Lindner, German ambassador to India. “Back then we were all influenced by the counterculture movement but when we saw this group of people on stage, dressed in white, who took all the time in the world to tune their instruments, for whom the journey was the goal, it opened our eyes to a different world." Five years later, Lindner had collected enough money to make his first trip to India.

Shankar believed in Peace Through Music and that aptly became the motto of the Ravi Shankar Foundation, headed by his wife Sukanya, which has managed his legacy since 1997.

“At 92, he was still composing in the hospital. He practised every day till the end," she told an audience at the launch of Ravi Shankar@100, a unique exhibition showing at Bengaluru’s Indian Music Experience (IME) museum until July. The family has donated three of the sitar maestro’s instruments to the museum for permanent display.

There are other events planned across the world, including an year-long celebration at London’s Southbank Centre starting 7 April, Shankar’s 100th birth anniversary, when his two daughters, Anoushka and Norah Jones, will perform together for the first time. The IME exhibition might travel to Chennai’s famed music season in December.

Shankar received more than a dozen honorary doctorates from universities around the world. One citation from the California Institute of the Arts read simply: Ravi Shankar, musician to the world.

His presence is everywhere in our cultural history, from the melody of Muhammad Iqbal’s Saare Jahan Se Accha as we know it today to the soundtrack of Pather Panchali (which he composed in a few hours immediately after watching the film) and other important Satyajit Ray films.

In addition to his lifetime bond with The Beatles guitarist Harrison, who took sitar lessons from him, Shankar counted among his friends conductor Zubin Mehta, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, American pianist Philip Glass and French flautist Jean-Pierre Louis Rampal. “I told Harrison it’s not like learning the guitar…learn a few chords and be on your own," Shankar says in Sangeet Ratna, a film by Alan Kozlowski, made for the sitar maestro’s memorial in 2013 and screened at the IME last week.

What role would he have played in a world wracked by hate and divisiveness, I can’t help but wonder as I walk through the exhibition, a chronological tribute to a rich life, illustrated by rare black and white photographs and other assorted objects, including his awards, the clothes he wore on stage, his instruments, notes to his daughter Anoushka (which he signs off with “yours in music"), and a concerned letter to Harrison in 1999, addressed Dearest George My Son…after someone broke into the musician’s home and stabbed him.

The answer is evident in the spotlight it shines on the life of an extraordinary artist and his global legacy.

A $8 ticket stub of 15 August 1969 for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair transports you back to a different world. There’s an account of that concert—where Shankar and his tabla player Alla Rakha played through heavy rain and wind—at Bethel Woods Center For the Arts, which is located at the site of Woodstock in New York: “With the rain whipping around the festival grounds, Shankar’s sweet sitar was just the tonic needed to calm whatever frayed nerves there were…. The interplay between Shankar and Rakha built in intensity, the pace getting faster and faster until the musicians were enveloped in a swirling musical storm of their own design."

In addition to detailing his journey—he was born in Varanasi, travelled to Europe with his family, where he toured as a dancer and musician in his brother Uday’s troupe, and returned to India in 1938 to become a disciple of Baba Allauddin Khan in Madhya Pradesh (a decision that changed his life)—the exhibition has many lovely anecdotes about Shankar, supplied mainly by Sukanya.

Like the time Shankar threw up a bowl of spaghetti on the ship to Italy and was put off spaghetti for years after. Or the time he heard about the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and composed a raga that emphasized the notes “ga", “ni" and “dha" and named the raga Mohan Kauns after Mohandas.

“What is age after all? I think age is a cage where youth is in prison," Shankar says in the Kozlowski film. “And from behind the bars you can see the young world, the beautiful world which you associate in your heart but you cannot be with them. But still it’s so beautiful."

The film ends with his last concert at Long Beach, California, on 4 November 2012, with Anoushka. Shankar plays with a nasal cannula for respiratory aid, his gnarled fingers plucking his sitar—an instrument said to have been invented by poet Amir Khusro in the 13th century—as swiftly and expertly as always. After the concert, he’s laughing, then crying as the audience gives him a standing ovation. He blows kisses as he exits—on a wheelchair.

“Music is the only language I know for I believe in Nada Brahma: The Sound is God," Shankar said. I wish more of us would learn to speak this language.

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