A Bengali Brahmin From Benares
These excerpts from the sitar maestro's autobiography about his first marriage are a good illustration of how frank and remarkable account the book is about his life from 1920 to 1999. While the book covers the entire time-span — the crazy days of sixties superstardom, of Monterey, Woodstock, George Harrison, the Concert for Bangladesh and more — these extracts are about the early years.
The whole world where I was born in Benares was like an India as it existed two thousand years ago. Apart from a few automobiles, cycles and other little emblems of modernity that were around me, everything was really old: the way of life, the city's temples and ghats. Ghats (literally 'stopping places') are the tiered steps on the banks of the river, and Benares is famous for its ghats, because it is there that you witness complete life itself, from childbirth to death...
My greatest joy and excitement as a child was to visit the ghats with my mother, my brothers and my brothers' friends...
My full name as pronounced in Bengali is 'Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury'. The name 'Ravi' meaning 'the sun' comes from Sanskrit, the origin of almost all modern Indian languages. The pronunciation has changed greatly from Sanskrit to Bengali, and thus 'Ravindra' and 'Ravi' in Sanskrit became 'Robindro' and 'Robi' in Bengali. So in Bengali I was originally called Robindro (although, strangely enough, in the English style it was written 'Robindra'); it was only later, when I was about twenty or twenty-one, that I changed my name to Ravi, the equivalent used in the major part of India.
My nickname from childhood was 'Robu'. That's what a few of my family and friends call me. Similarly my brother Rajendra was known as Raju, and Debendra was Debu. I also called Raju 'Mejda' (meaning 'middle brother') and Debu, 'Sejda' ('third brother').
Our original family name had been Chattopadhyaya. (The British could not pronounce that word either, so when they arrived they turned it into Chatterjee, which is why one now comes across so many Chatterjees, as well as Banerjees and Mukherjees — originally Bandopadhyaya and Mukhopadhyaya ) Later the Muslim rulers of the day gave my ancestors land and made them zamindars. Along with that, they were awarded the title ''Chowdhury', which from then onwards replaced Chattopadhyaya as our last name. For a few generations we were actually known as Hara Chowdhury, because we used to worship at a Shiva temple (Hara is another name for Shiva). While in Udaipur, where my brother Uday was born in 1900 (and from where his name was taken), my father had dropped the 'Chowdhury' and thereafter just used 'Shankar' — which we have all maintained since.
My mother actually had seven sons but, believe it or not, no daughters. She so much wanted to have a daughter — and I missed having a sister. Uday was the eldest son (and therefore known to us brothers as 'Dada'), the next child was stillborn, and then came Rajendra (born in 1905), Debendra (1908) and Bhupendra (1911)....
I have always felt deep love and enormous respect for Dada. I consider him one of my gurus, because in my early years that I spent with his troupe he was more like a father to me. He taught me some very important things, such as loving and respecting our art, culture and heritage — he was the first one to direct my attention towards that — and so much about stagecraft, showmanship, manners and discipline on the stage, all its rules, regulations and decorum. That really helped me. And yes, his insatiable passion for women and sex influenced me greatly in my life too...Advertisement
We arrived [in Paris] at the end of 1930...What really excited me in those days were the women. I feel they used make-up and perfume much more than they do now. The lipsticks were deeper, the eyes more often had mascara, the rouge and the scents...and with those curvaceous legs they all drove me crazy. I wanted to be near them, smell them and touch them — I couldn't resist. And they used to love me! They used to fondle me and kiss me, thinking I was young and cute little boy, of course, but little did they know that I was not feeling like a little boy! I was very excited all of the time...
It was May 1938 when we returned to India, and by then it was clear that there would soon be a full-scale war in Europe....I had already been in correspondence with Baba [Ustad Allauddin Khan], asking him to come and learn from him as a disciple... So in July 1938, a few weeks after my sacred thread ceremony, I was taken to Maihar by Mejda... It was the first time we had met since my mother had died and he [Ustad Allauddin Khan] cried. He became so emotional, seeing me like that... He embraced me in tears. In front of my brother and me, he repeated what he had said that day in Bombay: 'I promised your mother that I would accept you as my son, and that is what you are going to be.' He continued, 'I wish you could stay in my house, but I suppose you want to stay separately.'...
My relationship with Baba had started with a great awe on my side, but after that memorable incident on the Bombay dock when my mother had tearfully implored him to take care of me like his own son [Ali Akbar Khan], things had changed dramatically. He really gave me the love and affection I never enjoyed from my own father. Then when he became my guru, it developed into a fantastic relationship and a beautiful bond...
Annapurna [Allauddin Khan's daughter, Ali Akbar's sister] was very shy when we first met. She was hardly thirteen, although she looked grown-up. I was eighteen. It was the period when she was already practicing sitar, and Baba was planning to teach her surbahar but hadn't yet commenced. Once in a while when Baba was not there, Alubhai brought me inside to his room for a little adda (chit-chat), and sometimes Annapurna would join us and I would be clowning around and making them laugh a lot! She and I never met separately, it was always in front of Ma or Alubhai...
Annapurna looked very bright and quite attractive, with lovely eyes and a lighter complexion than Alubhai. But I had prepared my mind: this was my guru's house and this was my guru's daughter, and I never encouraged in myself the slightest feeling towards her, except for admiring her quick wit and giggles. Alubhai is also extremely intelligent, but he has such a calm front that it isn't as obvious. Annapurna was bubbly, and it was only later that I realised what a temper she had. In that respect, she is like her father. Alubhai, more like his mother, can suppress his emotions...
In 1939...Sejda, Boudi and their son Arun came to visit... One day, Boudi, Sejda, Alubhai and I were sitting having tea, and out of nowhere Boudi said in front of all, 'Ali Akbar, wouldn't it be nice if could get Robu and Annapurna married together? What a wonderful thing it would be!' Alubhai agreed with her, but it was a shock to me. I immediately retorted, 'Don't be silly! Don't say things like that.' It upset me because I didn't like that sort of speculation. Marriage never occurred to me at that time: I had a long way to go with my music, and there was enough time later. I was not even twenty...
However, Boudi didn't stop there. She talked with Ma as well, and it reached Baba's ears. Then one day Boudi said it in front of Baba. 'How can it be?' he replied. 'Bamon hoi ki kore chand dhorey?' — which means, 'Being a midget, how can I try to touch the moon?
...What Baba meant was, 'I am a Muslim, while you are a Hindu Brahmin: how can it be?'Advertisement
Boudi answered, 'No you are better than a Brahmin. You are such a great person and musician, you are gandharva!' — a celestial musician....
I was not keen on the idea. My focus was on practicing hard, and in Almora I was also now reunited with Uzra, to whom I was still strongly attracted — and our affair resumed. It was an adventure. Whenever I could slip away in the afternoon, or at night while Baba was sleeping next door, I couldn't stop myself; I was hungry, having been celibate for so long in Maihar, and we were drawn to each other.
While this was going on, Matul and everyone else was talking about the marriage and it was almost settled. When Dada heard about it he was quite happy, and gradually I too began to accept it in my mind. Baba had already taken me as his son, teaching me together with Alubhai, and I was thinking that, with the Indian gharana system (in which musical knowledge is passed on through individual teaching, often through successive generations of the same family), it would be even better if I became truly part of the family. There was no love or romance or hanky-panky at all between Annapurna and myself, despite what many people thought at that time. I do not know how she truly felt about the match before the marriage, although I was told she had 'agreed'. (But on the wedding night I was thrilled to learn how totally she loved me.)
So here I was, emotionally and physically closely involved with one person, and at the same time preparing to marry another. I felt like hell!
Baba did many things that bewildered me. He was also a strict Muslim, offering namaz five times a day, and he had been to Mecca and Medina. Yet. at the same time, in his way of life he was remarkably Hindu, because he had been born in a Bengali Hindu village and his customs derived from there. As a Muslim, he never ate pork; but neither did he eat beef, because it was forbidden to Hindus. He took mutton or chicken once in a while, but in that he followed the Muslim custom and it had to be halal. Although he was Muslim, even today if you visit his house you will see all along the walls, together with his pictures of Mecca and the calligraphic inscriptions of the Koran, Buddha and Zorostra. You are unlikely to see anything like that in any other Muslim's house! Baba was more of a Sufi (a mystic type of Muslim). I truly wish there was more tolerance and compassion between the Hindus and Muslims today in India, instead of the immense gulf between the two.
Before the marriage, Baba actually suggested that Annapurna be converted to a Hindu. When a Muslim and a Hindu marry, ninety-nine percent of the time it is the Hindu boy or girl who is converted to Islam. There are some rare cases of a registered marriage in which each maintains his or her respective respective religion. But our case was unheard of!
So on the morning of 15th May, 1941 Annapurna was converted by a reformed and broad-minded Hindu sect called Arya Samaj, and in the evening of the same day we were married according to Hindu rites.
Being married was a strange feeling for me, because at that time I was still drawn to Uzra. Although I had already had a lot of experience in my life with different women, marriage was different. I knew that I had to change myself and my urges, and be faithful to Annapurna, my guru's daughter, and to my music.Advertisement
Somehow I began to develop a feeling of guilt about my past life, and it increased as time went on. At the beginning of our married life, I was crazy physically. Annapurna too was young and passionate, and at the same time we had our music to practice: so it was a terribly strenuous time in a way, with little sleep or rest for either of us.
And then... I don't know why I did this. Let's face it: I was young and immature — physically experienced maybe, but not mature enough in mind. I was just twenty-one and Annapurna was fifteen, going on sixteen. By then I felt such love for her, and I thought, 'I will start my life absolutely afresh, and make a clean breast of it.' So I began blabbering to her all about my past life, and especially mentioned again and again about Uzra and how I had loved her, but how that was all finished now. It was stupid of me, as Annapurna was so young and had a romantic mind — she was always reading romantic novels. Evidently, it cut very deep and hurt her.
- Maestro's Choice: Shubha Mudgal reviewed this book when it came out in 1999
- Pandit V/s Pandit: Manu Joseph on How Pandit Jasraj reacted when Ravi Shankar was given the Bharat Ratna
- Guru, Father, Friend: Madhu Trehan on Anoushka Shankar's book on her father, Ravi Shankar: Bapi...The Love of My Life
Elsewhere: Read more about Annapurna Devi: Notes from behind a locked door
1. Over many years I have popularised a pun: 'Why is an allergy a Bengali disease? — Because it rhymes with Chatterjee, Mukherjee and Banerjee! (Though a refugee is not always a Bengali...)
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