By V Ramnarayan
(From Sruti 296, May 2009
Continued from blogpost of 14 December)
Lakshmi’s sister Kamala met Ravi Shankar first in Almora. She was twelve then and he 19 or 20. She remembers, “He was with Dada (Uday Shankar) in his troupe and even then he would compose little songs and make us all sing. As a dancer he was simply fantastic, which is why he was able to make so many memorable ballets. He knew every little step. I was fascinated by his music, his dance, his way of putting things. I was one of the dancers in the troupe too at the time. We did two tours then all over the country. I was the baby of the troupe – Dada selected me as the best dancer among 60 girls.”
“After Raviji went to Maihar, he came to Almora once in a while and even participated in the tours. After some years I lost touch totally, except for seeing him in his concerts in Bombay. I got married and everything changed.”
“I then met him in 1959-60. My husband Amiya Chakrabarty had made the Hindi film Seema for which he won five national awards posthumously. (Daag starring Dilip-Nimmi, Patita with Dev Anand and Usha Kiran – were also great hits he directed. All of them had music by Shankar Jaikishen). Raviji saw my photograph and the news of my husband’s death in the Illustrated Weekly in London, and sent me a condolence message – he keeps in touch with people despite all his schedules. Our contact was revived when he came back to India. As my sister happened to be his sister-in-law, we met at family reunions.”
Kamala accompanied Ravi Shankar on a 13-month tour all over the world in 1967 – Europe, the U.S., Russia and Japan, playing the tambura for him. She was a constant companion and came to learn the amazing range of Ravi Shankar’s music.
Subsequently she was with him for almost 24 years, travelling with him, anticipating his needs and attending to them. A perfectionist to the core – he went through the minutest detail from rehearsal to final programme. He made no compromises – every item had to be rehearsed meticulously. “I can sing a bit though I’m not a professional singer. He taught me many compositions but I had a handicap – I couldn’t write notation, unlike Lakshmi Akka. I had to be taught the whole thing. It would be a part of the daily routine, almost – he would be singing, I’d be cooking or making tea and ask him to sing louder. But this way I learnt a great many compositions of his.”
Performing or traveling with Ravi Shankar exposed the team to so many facets of his personality including his sense of humour. One scene in the ballet Labour and Machinery, portrayed the confusion of the common man – whether to take to machinery and adopt it as a way of life, or to stick to farm labour. In that scene, all the actors were supposed to shout meaningless syllables vaguely and aimlessly. They were directed to go round and round on the stage mumbling, shouting. The idea was to convey the confusion. Raviji would say “Dosai rendu, onnu murugal, onnu saada!” (Two dosa-s, one roasted, one plain!). The cast would start laughing, but he kept repeating his chant with a straight face.
There were several instances of how seriously Ravi Shankar took his role of propagator of Indian classical music. He once performed at Omea, a very small town in Rotterberg, Switzerland, which the musicians reached by ferry. It was a mini-concert of about 90 minutes. It was terribly cold, Alla Rakha and Ravi Shankar were both freezing and wondering how they were going to play their instruments. The organisers offered some brandy to warm up, but Ravi Shankar demurred, naturally. Somehow, battling the cold, he played a superb Charukesi. The organisers did not arrange any food for the party, and when they returned to the hotel, they found nothing to eat, not even water to drink. The restaurants closed at seven. Alla Rakha was literally in tears – he could never withstand hunger pangs. Ravi Shankar sat quiet, apparently lost in deep thought. Upset by his demeanour, Alla Rakha demanded to know, “What’s this? We’re stuck in this godforsaken place with no food or drink. What are we going to do?”
Ravi Shankar’s response was typical of the maestro: “I feel neither hunger nor thirst. All I know and am happy about is, we’ve brought Indian music to such a remote place, made quite a few people sit through and enjoy our music in the biting cold. That’s enough reward for all the suffering.”
On another occasion, Ravi Shankar’s troupe returned from a concert to the hotel and found there was no power. They had to climb the stairs to their room on the fourteenth floor. All of them had heavy luggage – sitar, tanpura, tabla and so on. Ravi Shankar walked briskly up as if it was a simple, natural thing to do. The rest of them were trudging along far behind, painfully and slowly. Around the tenth floor, a couple of them sat down, unable to walk any further. Ravi Shankar went up, opened the room and tried to egg them on to finish the climb. When that failed, he came down four floors, took two tabla-s and went up, came down again and took the tanpura, and finally one more time to fetch his colleagues! When they started walking back, he said, “Don’t you realise what a great thing we’ve done? We are in Rio de Janeiro, exhibiting our music to the Brazilians and making them love it. It’s no small feat. Be happy and think of that. All our troubles are minor. We’re taking our music to every nook and corner of the world. Nothing else matters.”
In his mature years, Ravi Shankar became quite an addict of television serials. He usually slotted the time for different items in his concerts so that the curtain could come down precisely at the end of the allotted time. In one concert, however, every item was going faster – each finished with a few minutes to spare. The concert was supposed to be till 8.30 but he was through by 7.45 pm. It was the day of Mission Impossible, a serial he loved. As soon as the curtain came down, he snapped, “Come, come, we’ve got to rush. We’ll be just in time for the programme.”
‘Hemangana’ – the house of his dreams – was built in Varanasi in 1973-74. It was called RIMPA, the Ravi Shankar Institute of Music and Performing Arts. Every year 20 to 25 students from all over India would assemble there. There would be teaching sessions morning and afternoon. Evening and night would be time for fun and games. And music. Ravi Shankar taught the students through many media – including these games. The next morning, he would be a different person – a hard taskmaster, very demanding, a perfectionist. “Is this the man who laughed and joked with us last night?” the students used to wonder.
Ravi Shankar held festivals there. For five days, eminent musicians and dancers assembled there every year and performed. Ravi Shankar played on the last day.
The concept of Hemangana was something like the gurukula system, but it did not last beyond three years. It needed the guru to be in one place and the sishya-s to be with him throughout. Ravi Shankar could never be bound to one place. He was always on the move. “If he comes to a place and stays even for a week he gets fidgety and says ‘Chalo let us go to Bangalore’, Kamala said. And at Bangalore after a few days, he’d say, ‘Come, we’re off to Calcutta’.”
The atmosphere of Hemangana was fabulous. Satyajit Ray said, “I’ve never experienced anything so Indian.” There were student quarters, beautiful orchards, arches. Attention was paid to every little thing.
Janardan Mitta, whom Ravi Shankar once described as “my favourite student”, was born into a musically inclined family. His father Mitta Lakshminarasiah, was a leading lawyer of Hyderabad. Keen on music, the senior Mitta would come home on Thursdays (Friday was a holiday in the Nizam’s Hyderabad) and close his office for the weekend, to play the tabla or the harmonium and sing with his wife and six children for an audience. “Vakil sahib’s” home was the gateway to the twin cities for most visiting musicians.
Janardan, who joined the film industry in Madras back in 1956 and became a permanent fixture as a sitarist in films made here for over four decades, picked up his sister’s sitar once she left home after marriage. By 1952, he had successfully auditioned before stalwarts Pandit Ratanjankar and Veerendra Kishore and started playing for Deccan Radio. He first heard Ravi Shankar live in 1955, when he came to Hyderabad for a Sangeet Sammelan concert. Janardan had completed his M.A. and was now doing his second year in engineering, but was dying to take up music full time. His father said he had six sons and so didn’t mind one of them taking to music. He took Janardan to meet Ravi Shankar. “Are you crazy?” was Ravi Shankar’s response when Lakshminarasiah said he would take Janardan out of engineering college if Ravi Shankar would take him as a disciple.
Ravi Shankar came to Hyderabad again in 1956, and this time he did listen to the young sitarist. He said, “You seem to know some of the advanced things without knowing the basics.” He appreciated the way Janardan played the raga, the taan and the meend, but corrected a basic mistake he was making in the number of front and back strokes. “That’s why I need a Guruji,” the young man shot back in all innocence. Ravi Shankar asked him to apply for a government scholarship, but though he did not get it, Janardan still went to Delhi in 1956 to learn from Ravi Shankar. It was a busy year for Ravi Shankar. He had just quit the AIR job and become a full time musician. That year he travelled to Afghanistan for the first time on a concert tour. “Whenever he found time to teach us in the midst of his travels, he opened a treasure box,” Janardan remembers.
Janardan was one of the students to take part in the annual camp in Benares. Kartik Kumar, Shamim Ahmed, Rama Rao and Arun Bharat Ram were some of the others. At the classes, Ravi Shankar was a strict disciplinarian. “He was never satisfied until you got every nuance right,” he said. “Outside the classroom, he was a friend, mixing freely with everyone. At Benares, we always had lunch with him. ‘Today, we have an apology for sambar,’ he would apologise. In the evening, we were free to go where we chose, but sometimes he would accompany us on outings, taking a childlike pleasure in simple things. He took us on boat rides to watch the sunset, even liked to go to movies. Once after a concert in Chennai, he said, ‘Let’s go to Bobby’, referring to the Hindi superhit film of the 1970s.
“Guruji had been trained in the tough school of Ustad Alauddin Khan. He taught him dhrupad, the surbahar, complicated tala-s. It was Guruji who reintroduced the complex laya techniques of Carnatic music like tisra nadai and khanda nadai to Hindustani music, which had lost them over time. Even last year, he played a composition set to a tala of 10.5 beats at a Hyderabad concert. Every Sunday for a whole year, he presented a programme of ‘aparichit’ or new raga-s, 52 different raga-s.”
Janardan has the greatest respect for Ravi Shankar’s intellect. “For instance, Guruji had an original explanation for the relative simplicity of laya in Hindustani music. In the north, we sang for the king, while musicians sang for God in the south. At the temple, they sang without inhibition, exploring the entire range of raga and tala, with no fear of displeasing their compassionate God. But in the durbar, you did not dare to go beyond teen taal for fear of offending the king who would not then know how to keep the beat along with you.”
Ravi Shankar’s respect for Carnatic music and musicians is well known. “He still keeps track of what’s happening here,” says Janardan. “He keenly watches the careers of young musicians like T.M. Krishna, Vijay Siva and Sanjay Subrahmanyan.”