Millions of music-lovers all over the world must have been in a sorrowful mood during this holiday season, because sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, who has done so much to popularize Indian classical music in the West, has passed away. Although I am just one of those millions and am quite an insignificant figure in the global arena of art and culture, there was an occasion 40 years ago when Ravi Shankar thought I was a very important person -- because when we came face to face in isolation, I automatically became a symbolic figure who represented all those millions of admirers living all over the world. Rather than talk about it now, let me just recall an essay I had written a few years ago in my column Musicscan in THE HINDU, telling the whole story:
Of course, there was just a chance that he might have seen my story in the Evening News four years earlier; but when I asked him about it, he said no, he hadn’t, and I believed him. And this happened in 1989 — eighteen years after our airport encounter, during which time the maestro had scaled still greater heights, not only as a performing artist but also as a composer of Western orchestral music with intriguing Indian colors.
August 22, 2008
Of ego and humility
After discussing two weeks ago my emotionally charged interview with the venerable Carnatic vocalist Semmangudi in 1978, I am tempted to talk about a different kind of encounter with the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and a revealing sequel several years later, which showed how powerful even an ordinary music-lover's image can be in the mind of a great and sensitive musician.
Let me first tell the original story by simply quoting from an article I had written in the Evening News, New Delhi in 1985, under the headline Airport Encounter:
“On Friday night we saw. . . . a few snatches from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Ravi Shankar’s composition, Sitar Concerto No. 1, and some crisp chats with conductor Zubin Mehta and soloist Ravi Shankar. . . .
“What struck me forcefully was the utter simplicity of these men who have achieved such success, such fame, such glory. Neither Zubin Mehta nor Ravi Shankar sound like men who have conquered the New York Philharmonic, with its proud set of musicians who’ve got their own king-size egos — though that’s exactly what the maestros have done!
“You may say Ravi Shankar has a super ego, as does Zubin Mehta, and what they say to the TV camera doesn’t mean a thing. But which great artist doesn’t have a colossal ego? How could he or she ever achieve greatness without an ego made of solid concrete?
“I’ve had only a single face-to-face encounter with Ravi Shankar, but it’s enough to convince me of the essential humility of the man, no matter what the rest of the world thinks or says about him.
“It was in 1971. I was on an Avro flight from Vizag to Hyderabad. On the way the aircraft landed at Vijayawada, and Ravi Shankar and [the tablah artist] Alla Rakha got in.
“There were only a few passengers on board. I was occupying a window seat on the left side, with nobody else in that row on either side. Ravi Shankar took the window seat on the right side in the row just ahead of mine, and Alla Rakha took the aisle seat next to him.
“I had a perfect side-view of Alla Rakha with his cherubic face and balding head. I had all the privacy I needed, and I couldn’t resist taking out a pad and sketching his profile. It came out perfectly.
“As we all got down on the tarmac at Hyderabad, I approached Ravi Shankar and showed him the sketch. He showed it to Alla Rakha, and both of them expressed their appreciation. We chatted as we walked towards the arrival lounge. Answering a casual query from Ravi Shankar, I said I lived in Madras.
“Oh, we are giving a recital in Madras!” Ravi Shankar said, mentioning the date. “Why don’t you come?” I whipped out my wallet from my hip-pocket, and showed him my ticket for the concert.
“I would never have believed it, but it had a tremendous impact on the world-famous musician. His face lit up: he seemed surprised, delighted, absolutely thrilled. ‘ By God, you’ve bought a ticket for the concert already?’ he asked.
“ ‘Of course! I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world!’ I said. ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ Ravi Shankar said, ‘Do come and meet me back-stage after the recital!’
“Of course I never did go back-stage and meet him. There were a hundred admirers milling around the maestro at the end of the recital, and I wouldn’t have counted. But out there on the tarmac at Begumpet airport, I did count for something in Ravi Shankar’s life. He can’t possibly recognise my face after 14 years, but I am sure he still remembers me!”
Well, that’s the story as I had told it in the Evening News, New Delhi, in 1985. And there was an intriguing sequel four years later, when I spotted Ravi Shankar in a buffet luncheon in the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in the Capital.
I walked up to the maestro and introduced myself, giving him my visiting card. In the course of the pleasant conversation which followed, I mentioned that we had actually met earlier, though I didn’t expect him to remember the occasion. He looked rather surprised, and asked: “Oh, really? When was that? And where? Can you please remind me?”
I said briefly: “Hyderabad airport, 1971. I showed you a picture of Alla Rakha.” Ravi Shankar stared at me for a few seconds, and his face lighted up with pleasure. “Of course! Of course! I do remember!” he said, “You also showed me a ticket you had for my concert in Madras, didn’t you?”
And as if that wasn’t enough proof that he did remember and wasn’t pretending, he took a very intense look at my clean-shaven face and asked: “Weren’t you having a pencil-line moustache then?” Which really took my breath away, because I did have a pencil-line moustache those days!