Pandit Ravi Shankar was central to the world’s image of what Hindustani classical music was. He continually happened to be in the right place at critical junctures in its popularisation. More relevantly, he made his own fate.
Born the seventh of seven sons to an ill-matched couple in 1920, Robindra Shankar Chowdhury barely knew his erudite sophisticate father. Shyam departed soon after Robu’s birth to practise law in London. Soon afterwards, Uday, Robu’s oldest brother, left to study art in London. His mother had to make ends meet on a dwindling allowance.
Robu did not see Uday for 10 years. By that time he was one of Europe’s dance sensations. In 1930 Robu joined the now Paris-based dancer in France. Robu assimilated well. He picked up French and cosmopolitan ways, soaking up European and North American experiences as a dancer and bit-part musician, mingling, socialising and turning to Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
These life experiences stood him in good stead when it came to becoming Hindustani music’s greatest international advocate. When the international spotlight fell on the sitarist, now called Ravi, he was ready. It began with his fellow-Bengali Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchali winning the Best Human Document Award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Shankar had composed its music. When he started touring as a principal soloist in Western Europe and the US that year, years of living abroad meant he could communicate what his music was about. He never lost his zeal for pitching his explanations to expectations of the ears before him.
“Panditji”was hugely entertaining company. In private he would regale listeners with memories of bygone musical masters, human foibles and frailties. A favourite episode was him taking his daughter Anoushka to see Wayne’s World. Wayne asks girlfriend Cassandra: “Will you still love me when I’m in my hanging-out-with-Ravi-Shankar phase?” Generations to come will wish they went through that phase.
Ken Hunt is a music critic, broadcaster and lyricist