Celebrating a Maestro

Celebrating a Maestro
Pandit Ravi Shankar with wife, Sukanya Shankar,
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Late Pandit Ravi Shankar’s wife, Sukanya Shankar, remembers his legacy on his centennial birthday

Labanya Maitra
April 21 , 2020
04 Min Read

April 2020 marked a milestone for Indian music on the world stage, as the country paid homage to sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar on his 100th birth anniversary on the 7th. While physical celebrations were put on hold owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, Indians took a moment of pride to reflect on the man whose influence spanned continents, generations and genres.

Author Oliver Craske released a biography of the Bharat Ratna Awardee, titled Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, while his daughter Anoushka Shankar came together with Panditji’s disciples like Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Shubhendra Rao to perform in a virtual tribute.

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Pandit Ravi Shankar played an integral role in introducing Indian music to the world stage, as he became a household name in the West. In the 1960s, he collaborated with the Beatles’ George Harrison and was the first winner of the eponymous humanitarian award from Unicef. Panditji performed at Monterey Pop, Woodstock, the Concert for Bangladesh and Live Aid across the next decade, and was named Billboard’s “Artist of the Year” in 1967. He also won five Grammys and was nominated for an Academy Award. And in 2012, shortly before he died, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

While the world remembers Pandit Ravi Shankar for putting India on the international music front, his wife, Sukanya, remembers him differently. We spoke to her on his centennial birthday.

Pandit Ravi Shankar with wife, Sukanya Shankar

The world remembers Pandit Ravi Shankar as a maestro, a legend, but what do you remember him as?

The greatest musician who graced this earth. He was also the kindest, most caring, and sensitive man, who believed in the power of women, or Shakti. He also had a great sense of humour, and I miss that.

When was the first time you saw Panditji, and what did you think?

I was floored by his looks and his music. It all began in 1972!

You have accompanied him on the tanpura for various performances. What was it like performing with him?

Tanpura is just a drone instrument, which gives the tonic for the main artist. Anybody can be trained in a couple of days. I wouldn't have the audacity to say that I performed with him, but it was a blessing and a great experience to be on the same stage, near him.

What was the difference in living and performing in India, versus the US?

I don’t think it made much of a difference for him as far as performance goes. He found an audience within a few minutes, no matter where he performed. He was a true Indian, and loved his country dearly. And although it was easier and better for his health to live in California, he always loved returning home to India.

What did he think was the most important aspect of learning music, especially when he was teaching his daughter Anoushka?

Discipline was very important. And unless you had the passion and dedication for music, you couldn't do it. The music between Guruji and Anoushka was sacred and very personal, and I didn't have a part in it.

Sukanya Shankar with daughter, Anoushka Shankar

­­What was his routine like? Did he have any rituals?

No matter where he went in the world, he quickly found himself a routine. He never believed in jet lag. In fact, he would merely change the time on his watch on the flight, and that was that. He always practiced more before a concert and usually had a rehearsal as well. He did have his little rituals before concerts, but those were very private.

How did he define World Music, and where do you see this idea of music taken today?

He paved the way for many musicians. He fought with, and walked out of, universities when they called his music ‘ethnic’. As the chief architect of what is known as World Music today, he was far ahead of his time. He had done 20 years ago what people are doing today.

What was the story behind Panditji writing the opera Sukanya?

One day, when I was taking care of him, my mother who was visiting us at that time said, "I named you right!" Guruji asked her the story behind that, and she told him the story of Sukanya and Chyavana Maharishi from the Mahabharata. He was impressed, and wanted to compose a ballet or an opera. We eventually forgot about it. Many years later, he surprised us by writing it. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to witness it on stage, but I was deeply touched that he dedicated it to me.

What are some of your fondest memories with him?

Mine was a fairytale marriage. Every day with him was beautiful. There was a lot of love, laughter and humour in our lives.

What would you like the world to remember him for?

For what he was. A beautiful, kind man, who was a musical genius and gave the world so much. Just look at the outpour of tributes that came in from around the world for his centenary year! He lived and breathed music until the very end, even writing Sukanya from his hospital bed.


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