The jod and gat of Pandit Ravi Shankar's life makes him one of the most colourful characters in Art History, of all time. In the valleys and meadows of Kumaon, under the gaze of Nanda Devi, the mystique of alaaps that would silence and mesmerise the world one day, was charily planted into a growing child's soul, by the Muses that inhabit the Himalaya and that God of Indian Classical Music, Ustad Allauddin Khan Sahab. All under the watchful and caring eye of an indulgent older brother, the great Uday Shankar.
There are some truths we would be stupid to deny: Ravi Shankar was a celebrity and a household name throughout the world, decades before any other Indian. Gurudeb Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi brought India's values and hearts to the intellects of different peoples of this world and Uday Shankar and his brother Ravi Shankar took our souls and rhythms and placed them eternally into the cadences of international music, fun and entertainment.
It is true that Ustad Vilayat Khan transported me into realms of magic unrealism that I never wanted to wake up from, and that he and Pandit Ravi Shankar shared their moments of harmonic rivalry but, sometimes watching the doe-eyed but lionhearted Bengali perform made your senses tingle with excitement. He was a showman like no one before him and so became an easy target for those who said he was pandering to audiences and tarnishing the reverence of our traditional classicism. Quite understandably, many were envious of his show-stopping locks, looks and charisma.
There are some who would like to call Ravi Shankar the "Greatest Bengali". Sure, why not. But what threw me a few years ago was when Britain picked Sir Isaac Newton over the immortal and unquestionable winner in my mind and the minds of millions around the world, Sir William Shakespeare, as the "Greatest Briton" that had lived. It's all a bit like awarding the Bharat Ratna to a Cricketer with a perm with millions applauding him from between the legs of cheerleaders and having Dhyan Chand's admirers and Viswanathan Anand's fans yelling themselves bootlessly hoarse for justice, in unfashionable idli counters and tea stalls.
But if I can take you back to the time when Alla Rakha and Ravi Shankar played for hours in the open air to an audience of thousands in Monterey, at a pop festival held in 1967, and if you remember the ovation the duo received at the end of the concert, you will have a small idea of just how great those music maestros really were and how the likes of whom may never be born again.
Let us, also, humbly (if we can) be proud of the fact that Bengal has produced a galaxy of stars; unmatched blossoms in Bharatvarsha's great and diverse vanamaalah. But hang in, when you apply quantum theories to time and space and take a careful look at where we are today, it is best we kept our laurels in the deep freeze, until the dawn of a new era of great Writers, Painters, Sculptors, Philosophers, Statesmen, Sportspersons and happy Satirists, morally permit a thaw.
The Warhol story
That brings me to an amoral anecdote about Ravi Shankar. A good friend of mine, once a popular portrait painter in the United States, and a great friend of Andy Warhol, had this story to relate. It was in the days just after he had allowed Andy the use of his camera to film Sleep. Ravi Shankar, who always wanted to meet Andy Warhol, was invited to his studio in New York, on a crisp morning at 10 'clock sharp.
When he rang the doorbell at what must have once been a warehouse, its giant wooden door creaked open to reveal an enormous Lurch-like figure from the Adam's Family. "Mr Shankaar?" it echoed. The dumbstruck Pandit Ravi Shankar nodded. He was ushered into an empty floor that was half the size of a football field. There was one chair and he was motioned to sit on it. He did. Lurch left him alone.
The minutes ticked by in silence. The wail of sirens as police cars raced down New York's streets kept the adrenaline flowing in disproportion to Ravi Shankar's normal disposition. About 10 minutes after absolutely nothing had happened, a voluptuous and gorgeous woman, stark naked, walked into the room with a stool under her arm. She set it down about 10 feet away from Ravi Shankar and sat down. The minutes ticked by again. Not a word spoken. Not a sound.
After about five uneasy minutes, Ravi Shankar, with beads of perspiration glistening on his noble forehead and regal nose, smiled more to himself than his naked roommate and began easing out of his chair to beat a quiet but hasty retreat. A door swung open behind him and in walked a naked man with an easel. He set it down near the woman on the chair and walked out. In seconds, two more naked women walked in. One carrying brushes and paints and the other struck a rather embarrassing and provocative pose that ensnared the first girl.
Once again, the minutes passed. And no one said a word, or moved. By now Ravi Shankar was drenched in sweat, was beginning to get terrified of the unpredictable madness of a New York he had only heard about, and then, with all the courage he could muster, he stood up and walked briskly to the door he had come in through. "Hey RAAVI. Hey…Hi !!" boomed voices behind him.
In trooped Andy Warhol and a bunch of pranksters who had staged the whole thing to embarrass and frighten the poor, defenceless and artistic soul from the peaceful land of ragas and spiritual India.
My friend had a happy ending to the narrative, but I shall leave that alone and let it join with such mysteries as what might have happened in the Marabar caves, in A Passage to India.
The scent of a man
I had the good fortune to meet Pandit Ravi Shankar a few times but have nothing earth-shattering to report from those informal chats, except his forthrightness, amiable political incorrectness and confident humility.
In the years that went by, during my vacuous wanderings around the world, I also met with incredible minds like Tim Leary and Allen Ginsberg and Rock Stars like David Bowie and George Harrison and members of the Rolling Stones ' they all loved and worshipped Ravi Shankar's talent.
He was a great man. A great lover. A great musician. An unbearable and spoiled bohemian dandy who also once shaved his head, took Brahmachari vows, packed a small tin trunk and went off to slave and labour for years, to earn a " mother's garland of talents" from Mai-Haar, the little village where his Guru, Ustad Allauddin Khan, revealed the secrets that tuned the magic of Indian Classical Music. In other words, he also had the courage and will to give up the good life and work to achieve.
There is one thing that I do cherish as a sweet memory though. Whenever one was in the presence of Pandit Ravi Shankar, one was engulfed by a mild fragrance that made everything seem extra-terrestrial, actually spiritual. I asked him what it was. I thought it was a special ittar. He happily revealed the secret. No matter where he was in the world and where he was performing, he always lit Aparajeeta incense sticks around him. That was about 20 years ago, and I, to this day, religiously go to the Karnataka Government Emporium, Kaveri, in Calcutta or Delhi, to pick up my annual stocks and travel the world with them.
With the great Pandit Ravi Shankar gone from our midst, and two days away from the most inauspicious Amavasya in our almanac, I hear no song or strain I can believe or trust, of a new moon rising. We have been left looking the other way and become a culture that watches and worships the sun and moon as they rise from western skies, to put the east in the shade.
How quickly times change.