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The most important thing that India can give to the rest of the world is simply its Indianess. If it were to substitute this for a cosmopolitan veneer, it would have to come before the world empty handed,” Ananda Coomaraswamy, the philosopher and cultural historian, had said. Perhaps Pandit Ravi Shankar, Robuji as we called him, was the greatest apostle of the above. I give below some of my memorable personal anecdotes.
I do not recollect when I met Robuji. As children, we were taken to live concerts which would go on till the wee hours of the morning. We would fall asleep on wooden chairs, but the refrains of the music would enter our beings, to blossom many years later.
India got independence in 1947 and prominent artists were in Delhi. Robuji urged my mother, Sumitra Charat Ram, to have an all-night music festival to celebrate “freedom from bonded music”. Pursuing the success of this, a monthly music circle called Jhankar was formed. Robuji was a prominent performer. Some rare concerts took place under the banner of Jhankar such as the duet between Robuji and Vilayat Khan. Later Bharatiya Kala Kendra was formed. Annually a music festival was held and Robuji was a regular performer, amongst others.
Because Robuji was staying with us, my cousin Arun Bharat Ram and I began learning sitar from him. I think I was eight when we, the grandchildren of Sir Shri Ram, were asked to present a concert for him. Arun and I presented Raag Bhimpalasi. This established the seed in me to pursue music and dance.
Although I had joined the Kendra in 1969, it was only around the mid-’80s that I began to play the sarod. I began to seriously appreciate Indian classical music.
Till about 20 years ago, Robuji was very accessible. One day he called to say that he had done a dance drama called “Ghanashyam” and needed wigs and beards for it. I took these to his home in Lodhi Road.
A few years later, when the closing ceremony of the Festival of India in the Soviet Union took place, he composed magnificent music for it. He called me home and gifted me an autographed copy of it. When I came home, I listened to the soundtrack. It was truly exhilarating. The second piece, “Shanti Mantra”, caught my attention for it was very danceable. So I rang Robuji to ask if I could use it for a dance. He readily gave permission.
We acquired his CDs of his music solos. But, more importantly, we bought his improvisational music which included “Genesis”, his collaboration with Philip Glass and Tana Mana. Listening to these, one gets a sense of his total command over not only the classical but the folk melody also.
Another event that I recollect is his silver jubilee concert at the Kendra’s music festival. He had given strict instructions that no one was to record the concert. But I was determined to get the recording and arrangements were made for it. I left the concert before it was over and told my mother to bring the recordings home. When the concert concluded, Robuji remarked that this was the best he had played but sadly not recorded. Mummy asked for the recordings — in the presence of Robuji. So he called me at three at night for a copy. Not knowing whether my plan to record had gone through, I requested him to call at nine. By that time I discovered that the two sets of recordings had been done and was happy to part with one. We had a talk about this and he agreed with me that music is to be shared with students rather than be allowed to gather dust.
Robuji’s immense virtuosity over the sitar was such that he could perform for the uninitiated and still make an impact. He believed in practising daily, weaving magic with the strings.
Shobha Deepak Singh is director of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra