(From left) Sam Pitroda, an unidentified guest, Sukanya Rajan, Deepak Vohra, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Rekha Vohra at the release of Pitroda’s biography on March 16, 1992.
I have led a tangential life, one which has perfunctorily touched other much greater lives. Pandit Ravi Shankar’s was one such.
The grand musician’s demise in San Diego at 92 brings back memories from 20 years ago when he released my first book, a biography of technology guru Sam Pitroda in New Delhi’s Le Meridien hotel. It was on March 16, 1992.
Shankar’s presence at the event was no reflection at all on my standing as a journalist. It was entirely the high reputation of the subject, Pitroda, that had persuaded him to be there. I don’t think I was even fully introduced to Shankar. In a sense I was tangential to my own event which is understandable because by that time Panditji, as he was called, was already 72 and an absolute monarch of all that he surveyed. He could not possibly be bothered about those who swung into his grand orbit everyday.
Soft-spoken to a fault, I remember Shankar surveying the quintessential Delhi audience with some amusement before saying a thing or two about Pitroda. He described him as a “karmyogi” who eminently deserved to be written about. I also remember telling the audience with detached amusement that throughout that evening I felt as if I had gatecrashed the event. It was as if someone might ask me to show my invitation any moment and not being able to produce one, throw me out. It was a relief to discover that I was integral to it.
Only the very few straddle their chosen world with such complete mastery and yet quiet dignity as Panditji did throughout his overwhelming musical life. It is impossible to look at the history of world music throughout the last six decades without finding that Shankar either shaped it or transformed it. It was not without reason that George Harrison called him “the godfather of world music.”
The sitar was as much Shankar’s adjunct as it was his attribute. It was so much fused in his being and yet so very distinct. During the hour or so that he spent that evening in 1992 during the book release one could see that there was a settled rhythm to his persona that marks great musicians. There is a lovely word in Indian classical parlance called “Thehrav” which roughly means something that is unhurried, anchored and deep. Shankar had ‘Thehrav’ not just in his music, which I am not even remotely qualified to comment on, but his personality.
Not having ever met him other than very tangentially that evening, I am left with merely indulging in educated speculation about him based on his body language. Whenever one saw him play the first word came to mind was bliss. He seemed to be in a sublime realm where bliss was its dwellers’ default temperament. One frequently felt that he cloaked himself in a finely spun genius that always separated him from the rest without being visible. There are so many videos of his performances over the decades where at a certain point of his playing Shankar appears to be in a trance where the world around him has ceased to exist altogether.
There are many examples of musical instruments becoming their players or the players becoming their musical instruments. In Ravi Shankar’s case it is impossible tell where he ended and the sitar began.
I would like to conclude this brief reminiscence with this charming composition by Panditji for the 1960 movie ‘Anuradha’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar.
P.S.: In a twisted sort of way it was only appropriate that the author, namely me, was the least visible person at the book release that evening. I found myself in no pictures.