My Guru, Pandit Ravi Shankar

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On the demise of the sitar virtuoso, his disciple and sitar artist Shubhendra Rao remembers him for the music and living life to the fullest

Main: Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu,

Guru devo Maheshwara

Guru Sakshat, Parambrahma,

Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha.

“The guru is the creator, the guru is the preserver, and the guru is the destroyer. The guru is the Absolute. I bow before you.”

It is said that it takes a lifetime to find the right “guru” and a few more lifetimes to understand what a guru actually means. One of the greatest musicians of this century, my guru Pandit Ravi Shankar left this world at the ripe old age of 92 years. Here was an artist who changed the face of classical Indian music forever, and his contribution to globalising our music will be remembered in the annals of history. Apart from the music he taught me, I have been fortunate to see the human side of this great artist. His child-like enthusiasm to learn and live life to the fullest, his humility and his humour—he taught me not just music, but about life itself.

I was born in a family where guru was the centre of our lives. In our house in Bangalore, in the puja room, next to the photo of Lord Dattatreya and Adi Shankaracharya was the photo of my guru. My father late N.R. Rama Rao was one of Panditji’s earliest disciples from the late 1940s onwards, when this legend himself was in his twenties. The close bonding Panditji and my father shared as guru-shishya (master-disciple) is spoken about in the music circles as Ram bhakt Hanuman, Ravi bhakt Rao. My father was the epitome of a perfect shishya and I grew up with lots of stories of their beautiful relationship—my father sitting behind on a bicycle with the sitar and Guruji riding the bicycle to All India Radio for his work, listening to hours of his practice with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurnaji, while accompanying them on tanpura (a kind of lute) or the festive atmosphere that would start weeks before he arrived to my home town, Bangalore. They shared a beautiful relationship, which continued till my father’s death due to Alzheimer’s in 2004.

Right from my first lesson in 1973 in Mysore (where he taught me Raga Bhairav) to the nine years of living and learning with to the numerous concerts I played with Panditji, every single day has been a learning experience. I remember the two weeks in Mumbai in 1982 when he was working with Richard Attenborough composing music for the film, Gandhi. Panditji would tirelessly teach me for three to four hours in the morning before going to the studio. In late 1983 he was given a house at Lodi Estate by Mrs. Indira Gandhi as a token of appreciation for the music he composed for the Asian Games. At that point, he wanted to spend more time in India and asked me to move to Delhi. The nine years to follow is the foundation of my life where he taught me not just music but how to be a complete artist. For him, music was always a spiritual quest and I found this in every raga that he performed.

My first concert assisting him on stage was on February 20, 1985 in Delhi. I had played with him along with three other disciples in 1983 at Siri Fort Auditorium, but never alone. I had gone out on some errands that morning and returned home when his secretary asked me to rush to Guruji since he was asking for me. He was about to take his shower and asked me if I could get some hot water from the other bathroom. I was a bit surprised because there were other people who could have done the task for him. When I returned with the water, he casually mentioned that I should sit on stage with him that evening. Assuming that he wanted me to play the tanpura for him, I immediately said yes. Only when I realised that he wanted me to assist him with my sitar did I realise what he actually meant. He was very understanding of my nervousness and truly supportive. We performed Marwa and Bhoopali in the first half. During the intermission, he said I should play more in the second half. When he started, I was a little more confident having survived the first half and when given an opportunity in the faster section, I did play slightly longish. Immediately, there was a huge applause from the audience and he smiled. It surely is a night that remains deeply etched in my memory. I played with him in many other concerts, but a concert in Bangalore with my parents and family in attendance is most dear to me. I was fulfilling the dreams of my parents and could feel their pride.

During my years of learning, I never developed the habit of writing down my lessons. I had a good memory and Guruji would call me his “memory bank”. Even when he was composing for huge orchestras like the “Live in Kremlin” show in Moscow where we had almost 150 musicians on stage, I would sit with him with my sitar and he would go on composing, as I picked up all the different pieces and later, practice it with the other musicians.

When he came to know that I was going to get married to Saskia and she was a cellist, he immediately said, “Cello is one of my favourite instruments. Ask her to come and play for me tomorrow.” When I came home and told Saskia, she was obviously thrilled but nervous too. He was very happy to hear her play and started singing raga Kafi, asking her to follow him. This went on for more than half hour until he had to be reminded about his upcoming meeting. Unfortunately, he could not attend our wedding in Bangalore but his wife had organised a surprise party at home in Delhi after the wedding. Later when my son Ishaan was born in Delhi in 2004, Guruji came to the hospital to bless him. Taking Ishaan in his arms, he said that Ishaan was only the second two-day-old baby that he held in his arms apart from his own son, Shubhendra Shankar (after whom my parents named me).

Not that everything was a smooth sailing always as in any intense relationship. Initially he related to me only as my father’s son and perhaps expected me to be his replica. There were times when he would get angry and say that this was not the way my father would have done it. It took him some time before he could see me as an individual and not just my father’s son. Last year when I visited him in his home in California, he told me, “Son, I feel bad I could not give you enough time when I had to because I was busy with my concerts and tours. But now, I have the time and want to give you everything that I have but you don’t have the time because you are busy with your own concerts. I am really happy that you are doing well and my blessings are always with you”.

Surely I do feel the void he has left behind but I know he is always with me. His smile, the twinkle in his eyes, his easy sense of humour, his passion for life and most important, his music will always live with me all my life.

As Sant Kabir said,

Guru Govind dou khade, kaake laagoon paye

Balihari guru aapki, Govind diyo milaye.

“I face both God and my guru. Whom should I bow to first? I first bow to my guru because he’s the one who showed me the path to God.”

—Shubhendra Rao is a sitar artist and composer