Ravi Shankar remembered

It is hard to realise today that Indian classical music was thought to be boring and an elite preoccupation when I was a teenager in the fifties. Dr B V Keskar, as Minister for Information and Broadcasting, had banned film music from radio and insisted on playing only classical music. It was a real turn off. We switched to Radio Ceylon and even Radio Pakistan to listen to film music. Then the Government decided to popularise classical music, both North Indian and Carnatic.

My early taste of Ravi Shankar, like many others, was from his divine musical score for Pather Panchali. This was music as poetic as the film; the blending was immaculate. The music did not intrude; it heightened the film. Then I heard him live at the Bombay State Music Festival. This was held at the Rang Bhavan, a large open air theatre location in Dhobi Talao in the dying days of cosmopolitan Bombay before it became Mumbai. Ravi Shankar's was always the last performance of the evening. Each day would end with one of the greatsóBade Ghulam Ali Khan, Vilayat Khan, Bismillah Khan, Pandit Omkarnath. We listened to the younger performers for the prize of listening to the greats at the end of the evening. The programme had to end by 11 p.m. so we could catch the last train home to the suburbs.

The next thing was the music of Anuradha. When I first heard a snatch of Haye re woh din kyun na aaye on Radio Ceylon one morning, it was clear that this was a new music director like no other. When the song ended, they announced that it was Lata singing a song from Anuradha with music by Ravi Shankar. Wow! Ravi Shankar dabbling in Hindi film music and delivering hit songs Jaane kaise sapno me so gayi ankhiyan and of course Haye re woh din. They were not just hits; they were unusual melodies for a commercial Hindi film. Naushad had used classical music as had S D Burman. But this was different. It was deep and genuine. The work of a genius.

I got to Philadelphia in 1961. In the first month of my academic term in September, my Canadian fellow student asked me 'Are you coming to listen to Ravi Shankar?' Wow again! A Canadian student along with an American friend was a fan of Ravi Shankar. He was just an ordinary student who was exposed to multi-cultural influences. India was exotic but not forbidden territory. That was the beginning of Ravi Shankar becoming India's best known export to the West. He had done it without compromising with his technique or his commitment to his art. Ravi Shankar was a natural agent to export India to the world. No official sponsorship, no need to sit through boring speeches by ministers extolling India's moral superiority etc.

Ravi Shankar was for the second half of the twentieth century what Swami Vivekananda was for the end of the nineteenth century for the West. He spoke of the richness of India in melodious terms and he had a captive audience.Vocal music is difficult to transmit across cultures. I cannot appreciate opera to this day but give me piano music or violin and I can sink in. Similarly it was the sitar which took India to the West rather than classical or film vocal music. Ravi Shankar had it all. He had talent, he had good looks and he had a dedication to his art which was astounding. And the Beatles!

Some day we will have a proper history of the renaissance of Indian music and art which has taken place since independence. India started with diffidence and resentment about the West. They had been rulers and they had shown contempt for our arts. It was the Americans and the Germans and the Canadians who first took to India as a source for great music and art. The patronage for classical music had come from the Maharajas and not the British rulers. The British are philistines in any case or at least were when they ruled over India. We can be grateful that Ravi Shankar gave us his best.

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