Home » He was cheerful, loving: Pt Ravi Shankar’s wife Sukanya Shankar looks back

He was cheerful, loving: Pt Ravi Shankar’s wife Sukanya Shankar looks back

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His last words were, “I could have been a better musician,” says Sukanya Shankar, of her late husband, Pandit Ravi Shankar. He was a maestro who never met his own expectations. But he was a happy man, cheerful, curious, friendly. “He was very picky about some things,” she adds, laughing. “I once watched him rearrange a bedside table for 45 minutes, at midnight.”

The late sitar maestro, who died in 2012, aged 92, was the face of Indian classical music for decades. He popularised the sitar, entranced the Beatles, gave India a new identity overseas. A Bharat Ratna awardee, he also won five Grammys, invented a hook system that dampened certain sitar strings in order to mute them (a method that caught on and remains popular); developed a new notation system for the sitar and introduced special signs for right-hand strokes on plucked instruments.

He had a great sense of humour too, and was a loving father and husband, says Sukanya, a Carnatic singer and Bharatanatyam dancer.

“I have these memories of warm moments of laughter; he had this unique way of crinkling his face and laughing with his whole self,” adds the Shankars’ daughter Anoushka Shankar, 40, a sitar virtuoso.

To mark the late maestro’s 102nd birth anniversary on April 7, the Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts (RIMPA) is organising the Ravi Shankar International Festival of Arts, in Delhi, on April 8 and 9.

It will feature performances by his disciples Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (mohan veena), Bickram Ghosh (percussion) and Shubhendra Rao (sitar), and Malini Awasthi (vocal), among others.

Ahead of the event, excerpts from an interview with Sukanya Shankar, who is also founding trustee of RIMPA.

You mentioned that Ravi Shankar was passionate about many things…

Music was of course his life. But he was incredibly curious about everything and was always learning. He spoke fluent French, Bengali and Hindi, and a bit of so many other languages, like German, Italian, Spanish, Russian. When I first began to travel with him, I was blown away by how he would make everyone feel at home and connected when he spoke in their language… whether it was the housekeeper, the driver or musicians in the concert halls.

He loved playing games after every meal. He was a superb carrom player and was great at table tennis and word games too. Not many will know that he could also draw and paint, and was a great mimic and actor.

Yet you say he sometimes fell short of his own expectations?

I don’t think he ever met his own expectations. He didn’t like to listen to his own work and would always say it could have been better. In fact, his last words were, “I could have been a better musician.” He was very sincere and gave his all, but never sat back on his laurels.

Still, he never yearned for anything. He had a deep gratitude for the smallest of things. What touched him most was the love of the common man. He would say that if his music could bring a tear to people’s eyes and make the audience happy, his mission was complete.

How did he feel about the element of celebrity that attached to his music?

I recently came across some letters where he asked his agents to stop booking him in really large venues, at the peak of his career, right after Monterey and Woodstock, in the 1960s. He really cared about the music of this great country. He didn’t want to become a popstar. He wanted his music to be received in the right spirit.

He often fought and walked out of venues if his music was called “ethnic”. He wanted the audience to not scream and shout while he played, but to listen. And he had the same rules for every audience, even if they were royalty.

He did love to perform. The biggest strain for me was seeing him before a concert, because it was as if every concert was his first show. He was tense and nervous. Then, once he was on stage, he was in another world. I couldn’t recognise him.

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