Ravi Shankar: the southern connect

Madras’s 1960s admirers of Ravi Shankar’s music, which seemed so much more attractive than staid old Karnataka sangitam, found it incredibly stylish when he took a break from his late-night concert at the Music Academy to wish the audience a happy new year. Though many of us did not know of his deep interest in Carnatic music or his respect for south Indian musicians then, I later came across a number of his south Indian disciples and friends—starting with Kartik Seshadri, now settled in the US, and Janardan Mitta, who made Chennai his home, both originally from Hyderabad. Closer home, not many know that the maestro gave a fund-raising concert free of charge for Samudri, a project of Chennai-based Sruti magazine, in 2001, or that he donated Rs. 10,000 on top of that to enable students to attend the concert. He also bore the entire travel expenses of his entourage.

Hindustani vocalist Lakshmi Shankar, nee Sastri, a promising young dancer, and her sister Kamala were Tamils who were part of his intimate circle from his youth. Ravi Shankar’s wife Sukanya is also a Tamil by birth. Each of these south Indian connections has a tale to tell of Ravi Shankar, and like the others, Lakshmi Shankar is a stout defender of Ravi Shankar’s classicism. “His beenkar gharana came from the dhrupad style. It is not light, contrary to all the criticism levelled against his music,” Lakshmi once said. “Even when he plays a thumri or a gat, he is strictly classical. He admitted making some format changes to attract Western audiences to our music. If he had not done that, if he had tried a one-hour alap, jod and jhala to begin with on an audience that didn’t have a clue to our music, it could have meant curtains for our music in the West.”

Lakshmi first came into contact with the Shankar family in March 1940, when she joined Uday Shankar’s India Cultural Centre in Almora, where she went as a Bharatanatyam dancer along with her guru Kandappa Pillai. Ravi Shankar’s guru Alauddin Khan, his son Ali Akbar Khan, and Uday’s Kathakali guru Sankaran Nampooodiri were all there, each supervising his part of the ballet. Soon afterwards, Ravi Shankar, a dancer in his brother’s troupe so far, became a convert to the sitar, and accompanied his guru to Maihar, where he stayed for the next four years doing gurukulavasam. The young man gave up dance to do riyaz for 14 hours a day. Lakshmi often saw blood coming out of his fingers. Her malleable voice drew admiration from the stalwarts present there.

By 1945, when Ravi Shankar was seriously ill at Maihar, Lakshmi was married to his brother Rajendra Shankar, and Ravi Shankar to Alauddin Khan’s daughter Annapurna Devi, and the Almora Centre had succumbed to financial difficulties. Rajendra and Lakshmi, who had moved to Bombay, brought Ravi Shankar home and nursed him back to good health. He was soon performing regularly at chamber concerts, and working in HMV as a sound recordist.

Ravi Shankar joined IPTA (The Indian People’s Theatre Association), composing for ballets like India Immortal. Lakshmi sang for some of them and Rajendra dramatised Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, which debuted in New Delhi in March 1947. Lakshmi was the prime ballerina and the ballet was a superhit, and Ravi Shankar’s music for it was “unbelievable”. Lakshmi was also acting in the Tamil film Bhakta Tulsidas, with music by Veena S. Balachander.

Ravi Shankar moved to Delhi, joined All India Radio and became a successful concert musician. Lakshmi was singing playback for films. When they met after a gap, she had been forced by pleurisy to give up dancing, and he said, “Why don’t you take up Hindustani classical music? Your voice is ideally suited for it.” Introduced by film music director Madan Mohan, she became a student of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and, later, Prof. B.R. Deodhar. Ravi Shankar himself gave Lakshmi an advanced course in khayal, vilambit and drut, in raga-s like Jog, Behag and Keeravani, which became Kirvani in the north. “There were no songs in Hindustani music in raga-s like Kirvani, and Ravi Shankar would compose a song in half an hour, teach it to me and there it was, one khayal in my bag,” Lakshmi Shankar said.

With deep interest in Carnatic music triggered by his early exposure to giants like Veena Dhanammal and Tiger Varadachariar, Ravi Shankar was a great admirer of its rhythmic sophistication. He continued to listen to Carnatic music concerts in the USA till almost the very end, often with tears in his eyes.  Not since the days of Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan did Carnatic music know such strong support from across the Vindhyas.