It is difficult to believe that Pandit Ravi Shankar , my guru, my mentor, is no more. Everyone knows he is the man who made Indian music reach unprecedented heights. But he was also the person who inspired me on so many levels — musical, personal, professional.
With his demise, a large and very important part of my life is lost. I knew him from my childhood through his association with my father, Pandit Shankar Ghosh. But my real association with him began on November 16, 1993, in Brussels. After hearing me in a concert there, he invited me to play with him. I will never forget that day because that’s when it all began. When someone you have idolised for years asks you to perform with him, you don’t know how to react. It is one of those rare gifts. I had the privilege of sitting on stage with him for a decade. A million memories are floating in my mind.
I found guruji to be one of the most curious people I have ever known. A book cover, a strange sound, an interesting story, a colour, a smell, a sight from a plane, a pretty lady — everything around him was an object of curiosity. I think it is this quality that made him the unparalleled personality that he was. This space is too short to list his achievements. From being involved in dance theatre with his brother, the great Uday Shankar, to performing in legendary concerts, to playing with and teaching musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin, Philip Glass and George Harrison and putting Indian music on the global stage, he was brilliant at everything he did. In 92 years, he packed in what somebody could have done in 500. How many people are so prolific?
I started getting to know the man better when he was in his seventies. I have rarely met an older person who is so keyed in to what is being said. Telling him a story was a pleasure. Hearing one from him was even more fun because he told you that story with a rare sense of involvement and passion. Almost always, when he saw, read or heard something interesting, his eyes sparkled. I still remember a concert in Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall, where I was accompanying him. His health was not very good that day and he was on heavy medication. So after playing the alaap for three minutes, he set his sitar down and closed his eyes. In a hall so silent you could hear a pin drop, everybody looked on with bated breath. Some minutes later, he opened his eyes. There was a strange sparkle in them. He picked up the instrument and played one of the best concerts of his life. Tears rolled down my cheeks — and I am not an overtly emotional man. It was as if he had summoned all his spiritual energies and channelled them into one concert. There was a godly presence in the hall that day. That moment inspired in me the deepest respect for him. One of my tours in 1995 was with him in Japan. In the past, I had struggled, without success, with the raw elements of Japanese cuisine. As Raviji and I sat on the traditional Japanese dining table, with a host of dignitaries around us, he sensed my discomfort. He said something in my ear that night that has changed a lot of things in my life. He said, “Bickram, you have been a Bengali boy all your life. It is up to you to decide if you wish to continue being a Bengali all your life. Or if you wish to change that by deciding to take this opportunity to become Japanese for a week. If you do the latter, I guarantee, your life would be richer.” Something snapped in me that night, and I took a slice of squid and put it in my mouth.
Apart from everything else, look at how the West woke up to India and Indian music through him. His incredible performances abroad opened doors for others to think of travelling abroad for concerts, something unheard of in earlier days. My bag of memories is overflowing. It is impossible to delve in and bring each one out at this point. But I will say that when people compliment my compositions and my sincerity for what I do, I always say a silent thank you to Pandit Ravi Shankar.
These are just a few things about him, but enough for you to unravel a tiny bit of the man who, for more than half a decade, was the greatest ambassador of music to the world. He paid his dues to his nation, which loved him and revered him as synonymous with the sitar. It is not just that he will be sorely missed. He will be remembered by the generations to come, who have much to learn from the oeuvre he left behind.
As told to Suanshu Khurana Ghosh is a percussionist