He has been very ill since September of last year. While his website said his concerts were cancelled due to a pulled muscle, close family and friends knew Ravi Shankar had double pneumonia and when you are in your 80s and have already battled many health issues previously, the situation becomes very tough.
I have always felt ever since I met her for the first time in 2001, that Ravi Shankar’s beautiful wife Sukanya is the single reason why he is still up and about doing the things that he does. Her tireless devotion has finally borne its fruits again and on 14th April, I don’t think there was a single individual who was not deeply moved to see the maestro back at what he loves doing most-making music at the Chicago Symphony Hall. It was a week after Ravi ji’s 87th birthday. In fact Ravi ji got a lot of ribbing that this was the third time he was playing his so called “farewell’ concert.
As I sat there in the packed auditorium my mind went back to the first time I talked to Ravi Shankar. It was 2001 and I had requested an interview. It was granted except Ravi ji was in New York and I was in Atlanta. I did the interview and then grumbled that it wasn’t fair because I had been waiting to meet him in person, it seemed, forever. Anyone who grew up on a staple diet of Beatles as I had been thanks to my brothers had to know of the stellar musician who had been such a deep influence on George Harrison. Ravi ji said-“Well bless your heart, then make sure you meet me after the show.” I then did another phone interview with Anoushka-who was riveted not so much by the questions I was asking her but by the fact that I knew she liked Metallica! She laughed and asked quite disbelievingly-“How did you know that? No one has ever asked me about Metallica before”. She was charming, super smart and full of natural warmth and also insisted I meet them after the show.
Usually many times when people say that, they are just being nice, but I realized the Shankars were different, when immediately after the show the Director at the Rialto Arts Center, where the concert was held, came up to me and said-“Please don’t leave without meeting the Shankars. They have asked me to request you to wait.”
For a family that has been in the mega glare of media stalking, I knew it wasn’t just a celebrity meets media thing. I still remember Ravi Shankar’s beautiful smile that lights up his eyes which remain curious as a child’s and full of life to this day. If there is a man who loves life, and loves people its Ravi ji. Anoushka too was as genuine and warm in real life as I thought she would be, but it was Sukanya Shankar, who has often been the recipient of brickbats because she doesn’t allow anyone to over impose on Ravi ji or take advantage of him, whose genuine warmth and forthrightness I found totally heart warming.
Having interviewed the family several times over the past years, I have seen how close knit they are and how music is the single most important thing in Ravi Ji’s life. He looks the happiest when he is performing, and it speaks volumes about him both as a musician and as a person to see the love that is showered upon him at each concert he plays in to this day. Sukanya had said the first time she met him she was dumbstruck because he looked like a living God and to this day he retains that aura around him that pulls people towards him.
It has also been interesting to realize how multi talented Anoushka is and how totally untouched by her fame. She is one of the most well brought up celebrity kids I have had the pleasure of knowing, and not only does she has her father’s looks, she is as meticulous as he is.
Anoushka has also at a very young age shown a rare generosity of heart in her cd Rise by showcasing so many different artists of different genres while taking a back seat as an artist, but reveling as a composer and creator. Her face is as lively as her dad’s and it’s really interesting to see her eyes following his every move when they play together because of the improvisational quality of his music. Each time I see Anoushka play, I see her growth as a musician and as a multi-talented young woman whose head stays firmly on her shoulders. I think she is multi dimensional and finally comfortable in her own skin after being in the limelight from a very young age. And all through the years, I have seen Sukanya stay in the background taking care of everything with quiet determination and grace.
This concert was no different in terms of the meticulous care with which each Ravi and Anoushka Shankar concert is showcased.
The first half had Anoushka performing raga Madhuvanti and a composition in Kirwani that she had composed 2 years ago. Tanmoy Bose who is really an integral part of the Shankar family accompanied her on tabla. The first half also introduced a gifted flautist Ravichandra Kulur and I hope we get to see more of him. It was really a special treat to see sitar and flute together. I think the two instruments go very well and the evening was awash with beautiful notes emanating from each instrument, as solos and then in collaboration. It was really nice to also see the number of people who were present, so appreciative of Anoushka. While it has been a blessing for her to be Ravi Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka has also had to bear the burden of constant comparisons, unlike her sister Norah Jones who didn’t take on Ravi ji’s name. Since Ravi ji’s illness Anoushka has been performing on her own even more, and I remember seeing her perform before more than 10,000 as a solo artist in Chicago and how people loved everything she did. She continues to attract a large audience on her solo concerts, which must be making her father really proud.
The second half was when the maestro was going to perform. His return to stage in spite of not being totally recovered, also happened in an unexpected way. One day Ravi ji was composing a piece for Anoushka and a violinist, and started strumming some notes on a baby sitar he keeps. It sounded so good that he was encouraged and even though he is still not fully recovered decided to come back on stage. I saw him walk on, looking frail but fresh, his eyes still twinkling with the same luster. He received a standing ovation. As a musician said to me the other day-“We are so much in awe of him, that just seeing him walk in is an honor. It doesn’t matter how he plays today-some how I’m too awestruck to concentrate on the notes-he will always remain the greatest of legends, that Indian classical music lovers have known the world over.”
I personally think that some divine energy takes over Ravi ji’s fingers when he starts playing. That night was no different. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since he could not even sit down in the traditional pose. A small settee was placed and he sat on it, with his legs hanging down on the floor, a special sitar had been created for the performance. Just to change your posture can mean a totally different kind of pressure on your fingers, and I felt myself getting anxious and protective. I need not have worried. After a slow warm up Ravi ji played non stop for over an hour-the beautiful raga Yaman Kalyan and a scintillating ragmala around raga Mishra Pilu with Anoushka accompanying him watching him constantly and adding her touches to enhance his music even further. His touch is still magical, and he can still give artists less than half his age plenty to be mesmerized by. His sense of humor as he said-thank God we have come a long way from Woodstock, at least people have stopped clapping while I would tune my sitar!” brought chuckles from the audience.
The only discordant note seemed to be some inebriated people who kept screaming and making cat calls which were very inappropriate. And yet the love and affection that he constantly receives is very heartwarming.
We were all totally thrilled at the wonderful music and to see him in good cheer. When I met him back stage after almost 2 years he looked bright and alert and fresh.
Ravi ji had once said to me that he feels that the tragedy of a musician is just as he has got the hang of it all, his body becomes frail and its time to go-how he regrets that one life time is not enough for a musician to master music . All I can say is- may he continue to discover new music on his life’s journey and may this journey become a never ending song of magical melodies.
All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber, Kavita Media and respective photographers.