Ravi Shankar - The Teacher - Key Works

Posted By MiOd On 11:24 AM Under
Ravi Shankar has been described in many ways. He has been hailed as a mediator between a traditional musical form and modernity, a master melodist who bridged continents and cultures, a lightning rod and a pioneer. He is the man who introduced the sitar, directly or indirectly – and, in the process, Indian music – to a world beyond the Indian subcontinent. He did not necessarily do it all alone but he spearheaded the movement as far as millions of people were concerned. Even his tabla accompanists such as Chatur Lal, Alla Rakha or Kanai Dutt energised people’s imaginations with their wondrous rhythmical cycles, intellectual muscularity and proof that life existed beyond the bar length. Ravi Shankar changed lives either directly or through the work of the Byrds, the Beatles, Traffic, the Incredible String Band, Yehudi Menuhin, Philip Glass and Mickey Hart. In the early sixteenth century C.E. Mughal warriors began building a new empire in the subcontinent. These invaders not only breached the subcontinent’s ancient Hindu integrity but also broached a whole new julabmost (sherbet) barrel. They brought Islam, Arabic and Persian, and a system of modal music similar to the subcontinent’s improvised raga form but outlandishly different too. They brought strange foreign food like apricots, pistachios, walnuts and almonds but discovered delights like jackfruit, snake and bitter gourds and mangosteen. The passage of the years and the arrival of more tolerant, more culturally curious Mughal rulers created a new hybrid culture in the conquered regions of Northern India. The cultivators of this particular orchard grafted Islamic and Persian principles onto a Hindu and Sanskrit rootstock. Over millennia, the Indian subcontinent had honed a system for handing knowledge down the generations known as guru shishya parampara. It was a chain for transmitting knowledge from guru (teacher or master) to shishya (disciple or student), a continuity of transmission down a line of preceptors. The shishya learned everything by word of mouth, example and heart. Everything was taught orally. The system ingrained respect for the guru. Guru shishya parampara underpinned Hindu culture and conduct. It handed down the entirety of Sanskrit literature, Hindu observance and ritual, legal codes, philosophic tenets and the arts in all their manifestations. The guru-shishya-parampara method of teaching worked and remained the model for teaching in the North of the subcontinent. Regardless whether they were Muslim or Hindu, professional Hindustani or Northern Indian, musicians learned this way. And as similarly happened in Europe when German composers or Flemish painters learned from masters, it created schools of singing and painting (or, for example, wrestling) known as gharanas, a word rooted in ghar meaning ‘house’. Before radio and television linked communities the way it does now, the gharana system created oases of stylistic difference. Any given raga, no matter how basic to the core repertoire, might be interpreted with gharana-specific trademarks even if its chemistry of essential juices or rasas remained unique to that particular raga. Regional stylistic variations peculiar to Agra, Gwalior, Jaipur, Kirana or wherever, prospered. Ravi Shankar was not born into a family of hereditary musicians. His father was a minister in the court of the Maharajah of Jhalawar. He travelled abroad and encouraged his eldest son, Uday Shankar to experience other worlds. His youngest son, Robindro Shankaur Chowdhury – as it would be pronounced in Bengali - was born in April 1920. It wasn’t until around 1940 that Robindro adopted the Sanskritised version of his name, Ravi. He was only a boy when his father died in never satisfactorily explained circumstances in London. Robindro arrived in Paris in 1930 and his eyes went saucer-sized. His eldest brother Uday effectively became his teacher. He began dancing and playing a little incidental music in his brother’s internationally acclaimed dance troupe. He studied with, and got pointers from, various musicians but he dithered about becoming a musician. He could not make his mind up about being a dancer. Eventually, he took the plunge and asked to learn from Allauddin Khan, a formidable talent and a formidable man. He was accepted and began learning in the time-honoured guru shishya parampara manner. Side by side with Ali Akbar Khan and his sister Annapurna Devi (Shankar’s first wife), he learned at his guru’s feet. He soaked up the ‘house style’ and practised his ‘musical signature’. The next leap was to sign his playing with an individual flourish. The Hindustani tradition demands a balance of continuity and change. There are copycats everywhere and that applies particularly to art forms as improvised as the subcontinent’s classical music. But people can plagiarise themselves as well as others. That is called replication. Innovation within the tradition is what counts and Shankar created a signature style with a wonderfully romantic touch. Ravi Shankar’s sojourn in Paris and his wide travels in Europe, North America and Asia provided him with a cosmopolitan sensibility. He realised there was a gap in the teaching process. Non-Indian audiences probably had no notion of what a raga performance entailed, so he took time to explain key features that would assist comprehension and enjoyment. In so doing he created a new convention of stagecraft. Even if we never sat at Ravi Shankar’s feet and committed the route maps that are ‘Bhatiyar’, ‘Jhinjhoti’ or ‘Rasiya’ to memory or could not authoritatively pass the blindfold test and ‘name that raga’, millions learned from him. Surely, that is the mark of a teacher supreme. Along the path his music has enlightened, entertained, and, yes, educated millions. 1. Raga: Jhinjhoti 13’21” (Alap, Jod, Jhala & Gat: sitarkhani taal) ‘Jhinjhoti’ is a versatile raga usually performed late at night. 2. Raga: Patdeep 4’39” (Gat: sitarkhani taal) Raga is the melodic template that nourishes both the Northern (Hindustani) and South Indian (Karnatic) classical music systems. Raga also irrigates many folk and film music styles. As a historical generalization, the working repertoires of many Hindustani performers were smaller than those of their Karnatic counterparts. With the advent of radio, the potential of sound retrieval and a global market, many Hindustani musicians responded to the challenge with a new ingenuity. Raw material from light classical, folk and original sources was adapted. Ravi Shankar was no exception, as this relatively modern, afternoon raga illustrates. 3. Raga: Devgiri Bilawal 7’37” (Dhun: ek taal) Ragas are hymns to Nature and each raga has particular qualities that distinguish one from another. The majority are associated with a particular time of the day or a season. The appropriate time for the ‘Bilawal’ family, of which ‘Devgiri Bilawal’ is one, is from the late morning to noon. The great Alla Rakha (1919-2000) accompanies. 4. Raga: Rasiya 3’19” The arrival of recording technology meant rethinking how best to present a raga. This performance reflects one way in which microgroove EPs conditioned minds. 5. Raga: Rasia 20’56” (Gat: Vilambit teen taal) One step on, and a performance tailored to the opportunities of a performance lasting one side of a long playing record. 6. ‘Farewell, My Friend’ 12’30” Raga: Rajya-Kalyan (Alap, Jod, Jhala & Gat: teen taal) Years before the Beatles and the rest of the world’s youth went all sitary, Ravi Shankar’s name entered the western consciousness through the films of a fellow Bengali artist called Satyajit Ray (1921-1992). Shankar’s score for the Apu Trilogy was composed spontaneously to screen image. In April 1992, partway through recording an album he learned of his friend’s death. This performance is his reaction to Ray’s death with thoughts of his friend uppermost in his mind and music. Abhiman Kaushal accompanies on tabla. Ken Hunt

1. Raga- Jhinjhoti
2. Raga- Patdeep
3. Raga- Devgiri Bilawal
4. Raga- Rasiya
5. Raga- Rasia
6. Farewell, 'My Friend' Raga- Rajya-Kalyan

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