August 04, 2020
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Maestro's Choice

Ravi Shankar's autobiography charms but remains fragmented

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Maestro's Choice
Raga Mala
By Ravi Shankar
Genesis (dist in India by Quartette Books) Rs:19,995;Pages:336
A musical colossus, a devoted disciple, a willing publisher, and an entire world of music lovers avidly waiting to lap up the story of his life—what better ingredients for an autobiography? Even the timing was near-perfect! As India celebrated 50 years of Independence from British rule, one of her most illustrious and charismatic sons chose to reveal a musical odyssey spanning seventy-eight years of her musical history and his personal evolution as a musician of international repute.

Lavishly mounted, this 120,000-word volume is bound in elegant blue Bangalore raw silk, and comes packed in a specially-crafted presentation box with gift tooling.

You can hear the maestro's music courtesy the two CDs featuring exclusive and rare work, including a 34-minute rendering of Raga Tilak Kamod recorded for the project at EMI's studios in the United Kingdom. You can even inhale the maestro's favourite incense provided with the book and the CDs. But grace does not come cheap for collectors and aficionados, at Rs 19,995 for a limited edition of 2,000 copies personally signed by the living legend himself.

Ravi Shankar is undoubtedly a graceful raconteur. There is an easy charm in the voice that rambles between concert tours to give a somewhat fragmented impression of his eventful life. A taxing writing schedule that spilled onto airplane rides, and between concert tours, is perhaps the cause of this lack of connectivity. Taking his readers through "a myriad of characters and a jungle of events and incidents happening in different parts of the world", the maestro himself confesses that he had been "entrusted with squeezing in such a challenging task between my travels, concerts, recording and editing sessions, practising and teaching, while at times jet lag, tiredness or sickness have further burdened me".

Cushioned between a Foreword written by George Harrison (who has also edited the volume), and an After word by Lord Yehudi Menuhin, each of the chapters contained within the book is named after a raga created by the author. Hence the name Raga Mala—a 'Garland of Ragas'—beginning with Gangeshwari of the early morning and ending with a folk-melody Dhun-Rasiya as an epilogue. And as you go through Bairagi, Rangeshwari, Manamanjari and the following chapters, you could almost hear Panditji's voice in gentle conversation as he narrates the story of his eventful life.

The book is undoubtedly a pictorial treat. The more than 200 sepia-tinted photographs are beautifully laid out with descriptive passages and captions by Oliver-Craske. Most of the photographs have been previously unseen by Panditji's followers, and complement the narrative greatly. Zubin Mehta, Yehudi Menuhin, Zakir Hussain and a host of other celebrity friends and associates make their contribution to the book. Zakir Hussain, who has accompanied Panditji for years, writes of his being "one of the few instrumentalists—probably the first one—to offer a spotlight to an accompanist". You see this generosity and fairness of spirit again when Panditji writes about his instrument-makers, giving this anonymous tribe of unsung heroes their due credit and praise. Very often in India, all you see and hear of instrument makers is perhaps a name-tag and address on a tanpura or harmonium. It is therefore heartwarming to read about Kanai Lal of Calcutta, Rikhi Ram in Delhi, and Nodu Mullick who gave Panditji his master sitar.

And yet, one is sometimes left with the feeling that a lot is left unsaid. The recollections of what must have been an extremely painful childhood come from the pen of a hugely successful man who has chosen to forgive his past. The child we read about, deprived of sweets, aware of his mother's loneliness, financial worries and the grief of her husband's betrayal, is masked in a final skimming over of the father's motives with a deliberate casualness. The intensity and conviction, which are so readily perceived in his musical persona, are not readily evident in his writing.

Nevertheless, one cannot help being moved by Ravi Shankar's deep humility when the "Mahatma of the Sitar" writes with touching sincerity that his "is still an imperfect quest". There is a disarming candour in his statement, "We can never count on quite getting there. For me it is through music that I feel nearest to my ultimate goal." India lacks a tradition of documentation and as a step in that direction, it is wonderful to hear the story of Panditji's life as of his own telling, rather than that of a researcher or associate, however close. Coming from an artiste whose work has transcended geographical and chronological boundaries, Raga Mala thus, becomes a piece of writing that every music lover would wish to read.

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