I was born in an obscure small town in Central India: Maihar. If that name is known outside of its local, provincial, confines, it is almost certainly due to the Maihar gharana of Indian classical music. (From Wikipedia: ‘In Hindustani music, a gharānā is a system of social organization linking musicians or dancers by lineage or apprenticeship, and by adherence to a particular musical style. A gharana also indicates a comprehensive musicological ideology. This ideology sometimes changes substantially from one gharana to another….The word gharana comes from the Hindi word ‘ghar‘, which means ‘family’ or ‘house’. It typically refers to the place where the musical ideology originated.’) One of the most distinguished members of that gharana, which includes the sarod maestros Baba Alauddin Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, was Ravi Shankar.
I have never been a particularly sophisticated fan of classical music, Indian or Western. Still, it wasn’t that difficult to sense the presence of genius when confronted with a performance–live or recorded–by Shankar. There was the physical dexterity, of course: the dazzling, giddiness-inducing play of his fingers over the strings and frets of his sitar; they would fly and strum and pick with such speed and abandon that worries about the physical state of his digits were only natural. (I often wondered whether he iced his hands after a show.) Then there was the visible physical absorption, so characteristic of the accomplished artist: the intense meditation on the progression of his piece, the coaxing out with visible effort of a series of complex notes one after another. Finally, there was the music. Since the sounds of the sitar were the sounds that were indelibly, part of the sonic landscape that had surrounded me from my earliest days, it wasn’t too hard to find an emotional resonance in Shankar’s playing; his genius lay in being able to summon up, seemingly effortlessly, the varied moods associated with each raag.
I had an indirect personal connection with Shankar, which I bragged about for a bit before I gave it up: my grandmother took lessons in playing the sitar from Baba Alauddin Khan in his company i.e., they were classmates. Or at least, that’s how I was told the story and I faithfully repeated it. Perhaps she only sat in one session, perhaps she was a regular. The details seemed irrelevant: after all, there were photographs of him in our family album, and that seemed confirmation enough. (Even now, after all these years, it’s hard not to feel that connection, even one so distantly intimate. Perhaps it’s because it establishes a link to my grandparents.)
Despite this link, I never met or spoke to him in person. I did see him up ‘close’ once, when he performed live at my undergraduate college. He arrived on time, set up his stage with little fuss, and after a short opening address, got down to playing the raag selected for the day. I watched from the balcony. There was the usual crowd-pleasing crescendo that brought the house down, and those attending to their feet, but what came before it was infinitely superior: the gradual, textured, development of a complex composition, finding, yet again, at the hands of a master, a unique, personal realization.
RIP Pandit Ravi Shankar.