His Magic on Celluloid
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In the '50s, while working on Pather Panchali, filmmaker Satyajit Ray decided that his friend Ravi Shankar, who was then composing music for the film, should be documented while at work. Even as Ray prepared the storyboard for the iconic film, he started work on a second project — a documentary that would show Shankar as he played the sitar. "He prepared close to 120 sketches, depicting the music maestro. The storyboard also included instructions about how to shoot the film. But sadly, the film never got made — my father got busy with other films and Panditji was travelling extensively," explains Satyajit Ray's son and filmmaker-photographer, Sandip Ray. The sketches have been under the possession of the Kolkata-based Satyajit Ray Society, a facsimile of which will soon be published as a book by HarperCollins as part of their collection to celebrate Indian cinema's centenary.
Those who knew Satyajit Ray well, maintain that he and Shankar became friends before the latter was brought on board to compose music for the Apu trilogy. Working together on the trilogy and then Paras Pathar (1958) only strengthened their bond. "Pandit Ravi Shankar was deeply saddened when Satyajit Ray passed away in 1992 and his album Farewell My Friend was dedicated to Ray," recounts Arup De, CEO of the Satyajit Ray Society.
Shankar's initial association with films, however, dates back to the '40s when he became one of the early members of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) along with his brother Uday Shankar. After composing the music for successful dramas such as Bharat Ki Atma and Amar Bharat, and dance-dramas that his brother worked on, Shankar made his film debut in 1946 with Neecha Nagar, followed by renowned writer-filmmaker KA Abbas' Dharti Ke Lal in the same year. "He was one of the founding pillars of IPTA and his early experiments with music happened while working with the organisation," says thespian Ramesh Talwar, who has been associated with IPTA for many years.
Even though Shankar moved on from IPTA in the '40s, his association with some of its members remained strong. In 1961, he composed music for Utpal Dutt's film Megh, and Ghoom Bhangar Gaan in 1965. He scored popular numbers rendered by Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh for Anuradha (1961); a 1963 screen adaptation of Munshi Premchand's renowned work, Godan; and Gulzar's Meera in 1979.
However, the latter part of his film career was shaped chiefly by his career as a musician in the international circuit. In 1966, he gave music to his first international film, an indie film titled The Psychedelics, directed by Hollywood producer Paul Hunt. After that, Shankar worked with several filmmakers from across the world, composing music for documentary as well as feature films.
One of his most memorable albums remains Richard Attenborough's Academy Award-winning film, Gandhi (1982). "He had an ability to merge his sound with various genres without diluting its roots. This, and the fact that he never shied away from experimenting helped him give a different dimension to fusion music," says tabla player and fusion artiste Bickram Ghosh, who has worked with Shankar.