Ravi Shankar, the Renaissance man

Malini Nair | Updated on August 21, 2020

Dual life: As an Indian classical musician in the West, Shankar wanted the best of the two worlds, but often had to deal with the worst as well   -  IMAGE COURTESY: THE RAVI SHANKAR FOUNDATION

Oliver Craske’s biography yields a picture of the epoch-making musician that goes beyond the cardboard clichés

* Shankar’s story spans dizzying eras and he was not just a witness to history, he actually made parts of it

* Craske, a shishya of Shankar, had extraordinary access to the musician’s private papers — some of it pretty intimate

It does not really matter if you are not mad about Hindustani classical music or a fan of the sitar, Ravi Shankar’s latest tell-all biography — Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar — is still a riveting read. It is much more than the racy life story of an epoch-making musician and an unapologetic sensualist. It is also a chronicle of the evolution of Indian and world music since the critical early decades of the 20th century, and of the political and cultural shifts that foregrounded it.

Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar / Oliver Craske / Faber and Faber / Non-fiction / ₹899


Shankar’s story spans dizzying eras and he was not just a witness to history, he actually made parts of it. It begins in the dying years of feudal patronage for the arts in northern India, winds its way into pre-war Europe and its wide-eyed fascination for the ‘Hindou’ arts; returns to India in time for the democratisation of the arts through radio, theatre, films and public concerts in the turbulent post-Independence years; heads back to the US for the LSD-flavoured East-meets-West years, the rise of rock, Maharishi Yogi, Woodstock, Beatles, the Summer of Love; documents the death of Indiamania, the Bangladesh war and concerts.

His dazzling achievements in the West always overwhelm the Shankar story but London-based biographer Oliver Craske does us all a favour by dwelling at leisure on his years in India, and his tremendous contributions to Indian classical music on its own soil. If you look at his eclectic work in India up until the ’60s, it becomes clear that Shankar, with his inexhaustible reserves of musical, creative and emotional energy, was a lot more than just a sitar genius. He was one of the renaissance men: He set up AIR’s vadya vrinda, wrote music for Indian People’s Theatre Association plays, worked in brother Uday Shankar’s ballets, composed for Bollywood, and set up early music circles in Delhi, even as he remodelled the sitar and polished the dhrupadiya style he inherited from his guru, beloved Baba, Allauddin Khan.

Craske, also a shishya of Shankar, had extraordinary access to the musician’s private papers — some of it pretty intimate — and the people in his life, including the many women he loved and left. But beyond all that there is exhaustive research that yields a picture of the man beyond the cardboard clichés — the jet-setter sitarist, guru-friend of rock idols, icon for acid-tripping flower children, the philanderer, and worst, the man who ‘diluted’ Indian classical music for festival mobs in the West.

Craske argues that many of these are part truths, that Shankar is not just a creation of worshipful Western adulation but a man on a mission to put Indian music on the world map. All else, the hype and the fug of hippie psychedelia surrounding his reputation, was accidental. Craske is also, and this is creditable for a shishya, critical of the maestro — some of the poor attempts at fusion, the compulsive whirl of concert circuits, and the casual heartlessness of some of his affairs, estimated by Shankar himself, with no attempt at modesty, to be well over 186.

There is a curious dilemma that marks Shankar’s dual life as an Indian classical musician in the West. He wanted the best of the two worlds but obviously had to deal with the worst as well, which left him constantly yearning for what he was missing. He loved the organic comfort his music found in India, but hated the carping, the poor audience behaviour, the pettiness and couldn’t wait to head back west. Yet back in the orderly concert circuits of the West, he yearned for the spiritualism and reverence surrounding classical music in India and the codes of right social behaviour — joss sticks were a must on his stage even in the West; there would be no smoking, drinking, toking and certainly no PDA.

This split world view sometimes verged on hypocrisy, as Shankar has himself noted — he was nothing if not acutely self-critical. His disciple Karthik Sheshadri, then 17, talks of the disconnect between the life Shankar idolised and actually led. At his ashram-school in Varanasi, Shankar would expect of his students the renunciate sadhanaof his days in Maihar, but himself lived the life of a very worldly man, loving the buzz around himself and furiously juggling his love affairs.

But underlying all this was a deep streak of melancholia and loneliness in Shankar. It appears to have settled in him sometime during his scattered childhood, likely brought on by his father’s abandonment of the family. He grew up too fast among his much older brothers, thrown into the very Bohemian Europe of the ’30s, and exposed to adulthood long before it actually hit him. All this also left him vulnerable to sexual abuse, on multiple occasions.

This ineffable sadness and longing that precipitated in a suicide attempt also shows up in his music, Craske points out: It underlies the unforgettable score for Pather Panchali — almost a default sound for nostalgia for many of us, the songs of Anuradha, the open-ended shehnai version of Saare Jahan Se Achha, the signature tune he created for Doordarshan. This longing, Shankar reasons, also never allowed him to settle into a relationship.

Playing like a mournful riff through nearly half his life is his disastrous marriage to Annapurna Devi, the daughter of his guru. This story is told differently by different people and in many popular tellings, Shankar is the villain, the man who stopped his more talented wife from pursuing her career and then broke her heart with his endless affairs. Here she gets a fair share of blame for wrecking the marriage. The truth, as always, likely lies somewhere in the middle.

An unforgettable image from the book? Shankar walking past the statue of Beethoven, pausing and then touching his bronze feet.

Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi

Published on August 19, 2020

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