Sitar man

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am

Diabetes, hypertension and a slight hardness of hearing aside, Ravi Shankar, the world's most famous sitar player, is a remarkably fit 89 years old and he's mentally as sharp as someone half his age.

At the Ravi Shankar Centre in New Delhi, where he winters to escape the chill of the California home he shares with his second wife, Sukanya, the walls are lined with photographs of him with the famous people he has worked with during a very long career.

He still practises for an hour a day and can remain fresh for a performance after three days on the road. Currently, Shankar is busy preparing for the concert he holds annually at the centre on February 25 to mark former Beatle George Harrison's birthday.

'The only drawback of age is the effect on the body,' he says. 'Mentally, I haven't changed at all. I can compose a symphony in three days. My mind is buzzing with ideas. But I haven't got the same movement in my body. I can't jump around as I used to. That's very frustrating.'

Seated on a sofa next to Sukanya, a broad-beamed woman who is 35 years younger, Shankar looks even smaller and frailer in comparison. But younger friends say the sitar master puts them to shame with his energy, taking long flights, giving interviews, teaching and composing. Indeed, Shankar is working with British conductor David Murphy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who has just arrived in New Delhi to develop one of Shankar's latest compositions into a full symphony.

'He is always beating out tunes with his fingers,' says Sukanya. 'Even when he had double pneumonia three years ago and the doctors had said it was 50-50, he used to tap out melodies on his hospital bed.'

At the time, doctors essentially told her to prepare for his death, so she took him home so that he could be with his family in familiar surroundings. But, to his doctor's amazement, Shankar not only recovered several months later, he was well enough to perform at another concert.

Shankar credits his survival to his wife's unstinting care. 'She is a wife, mother, friend, doctor, nurse and bodyguard all in one! She is vehemently holding on to me and not letting go,' he laughs.

During his battle with pneumonia, Shankar inevitably recalled the death of his only son, Shubho, also a sitar player, who died of the same disease at the age of 50.

Shubho's death was the great tragedy of his life, Shankar says. For some people, listening to music after such a loss can be unbearably painful because it stirs too many memories and emotions, but not Shankar. 'Music is such a part of me, a part of my body, my mind, my thoughts, that I cannot contemplate not listening or playing.'

A humble and gentle man, Shankar remains gracious in the face of the predictable questions about his association with the Beatles, particularly his close friendship with Harrison. The period may fascinate Beatles fans, but for Shankar it was just one phase in an illustrious career.

When he met the Beatles in the 1960s, Shankar was a famous musician in India who had already collaborated with violinist Yehudi Menuhin a decade earlier. Harrison's interest in Eastern religions had led him to Indian music and to Shankar. After they became friends, Harrison regularly visited Shankar in India. During a trip to Mumbai, the two men were mobbed whenever they stepped out of the hotel, so Shankar decided to whisk Harrison off to a houseboat in Srinagar, Kashmir, where he taught the Beatle the sitar amid the tranquillity of Dal Lake. The news turned him into an international celebrity.

'George was special. He wanted to understand spirituality and its relation with music. He loved Indian culture. He was my student, friend and son. When people say that George made me famous, that is true in a way,' he says.

During visits to each other's homes in London and California, the two shared jokes ('he loved my puns', Shankar says), talked about women and music, watched movies and had a lot of fun. But contrary to popular perception, they never performed together.

Decades later, when both families were holidaying together in Rajasthan in 1996, it was Shankar's turn to be mobbed by adoring fans.

'No one recognised George. It was Ravi who was mobbed whenever he walked out of the hotel,' recalls Sukanya. 'People pushed to get his autograph and it was so funny because George acted like his bodyguard, keeping the crowds at a distance and shielding Ravi from them with his body.'

For all his association with the period, Shankar didn't approve of the 60s drug culture, and complained to the Indian press about how fans at the 1969 Woodstock Festival applauded him for tuning his instrument. 'Who was listening to the music? They were all stoned. Completely stoned,' he told The Indian Express newspaper in a recent interview. Nor did he hold with rock star antics, and once refused to follow the Who on stage at a Montreal festival after the band began kicking and burning their instruments.

After the Beatles phase, Shankar went on to collaborate with musicians ranging from classical conductors Zubin Mehta and Andre Previn and French flautist Jean Pierre Rampal to jazz musicians Bud Shank, John Handy and Herbie Hancock, and minimalist composer Philip Glass. Along the way, he won several Grammys and has been honoured internationally and at home.

Shankar was born in 1920 to a Brahmin family in Varanasi, the youngest of four sons. By the time he was 10, his older brother, Uday, had established himself as a professional dancer in Europe with Anna Pavlova. After forming his own Indian dance company in Paris, Uday invited his mother and brothers to join him in 1930, and Shankar became an accomplished dancer long before he began learning the sitar.

However, Indian sitar virtuoso Ustad Allauddin Khan's stint with the troupe in 1935 sparked an interest in the instrument and Shankar became his student.

Shankar's passion for music is matched by his generosity, says a former disciple, Grammy-winning Indian musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, recalling how the sitar master endured being entertained by all 20 members of Bhatt's extended family when he visited them in Jaipur a few years ago.

'Poor Guru-ji had to sit through a performance by everyone. He did it patiently and sweetly. Then at the end of this long performance, I mentioned that our servant happened to sing folk songs. Guru-ji asked him to be brought out too, to perform, even though he was tired by then.'

He learned much more than music from the sitar maestro, Bhatt says. For one, he learned to seize the moment. Shankar once told him, 'Whatever you want to do tomorrow, do it today, now, now, otherwise you will lose the moment.' Shankar detests lack of discipline and punctuality. 'He taught me to be disciplined, focused, to be polite, to the point, alert and organised. He meticulously plans everything and doesn't leave anything to chance, unlike many of us Indians who can be casual and disorganised,' Bhatt says.

Shankar's personal life, however, is rather less organised and includes two official marriages and other relationships from which he has two children, Grammy-winning singer Norah Jones and sitar player Anoushka Shankar.

He is immensely proud of both daughters and credits Sukanya with bringing Jones back into his life. Because his relationship with Jones' mother ended acrimoniously, Shankar did not see his daughter for the first 10 years or so of her life. It was Sukanya who contacted her when Jones was 16 and brought them together. Now their California home has two spare rooms, kept for both daughters in case they visit.

Unlike some musicians, he does not have names for his favourite instruments. But Shankar's relationship with his sitars is intimate and he recalls how devastated he was a few years ago when he arrived for a performance at Milan to find his sitar broken in two.

'His sitars are his first wives,' Sukanya says with a laugh. Shankar smiles. 'Yes, they are all wives in my harem.'


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