I’m sitting on my bed (also known as my desk) and across from me I can see my sitar propped up against the wall. Usually, when I look at it I get a little feeling of childlike excitement. Today, I feel nothing but a heavy, and all too adult, heart.
This morning, from my sitar ustad I learned that the great pundit Ravi Shankar died three days ago. He was 92.
There are many websites you can go to and find out his history in as much or as little detail as you like. I will not do so here other than to give the very briefest of information. For anything more, see below where I will recommend sites to visit if you so wish. Here, I wish merely to add my praise to the thousands of messages being written all over the world in tribute to this great, great man.
Shankar was born in Northern India in Benares (modern day Varanasi) on April 7th, 1920. He died on December 11th 2012 with his family by his side. Despite a successful operation on his heart, his recovery proved to be too much too much to ask.
Shankar always kept a great love for India’s Bengal in his heart and when East Bengal finally became Bangladesh in 1971 he felt great concern for the people. His father had been born in Kalia in the Jessore district of Bangladesh and, very famously, it was Shankar who asked George Harrison to put on a concert to raise money and awareness for the plight of the people who were fighting what seemed an unwinnable war to gain their independence. As the Bengali people struggled to do the impossible and free themselves, so Harrison and Shankar did the impossible of bringing this tiny country to the attention of the whole world.
Of course, I had no idea of this, born as I was in that same year. But I did grow up in the shadows of the Beatles (who I love to this day) and with tales of India from my mother and her parents who were all born and raised there. I had no idea, but the stage was set for my love affair with both the Bengal region and the sitar to begin.
I became a musician, found out just why The Beatles were – and are – so important to musical history and at university was introduced to the beauty of Indian ragas on the sitar, that most famous of all Asian instruments. The raga that changed my life was Raga Lalit and I dreamed that one day I would learn to play the sitar and learn Lalit.
I had no idea it would ever happen, let alone that it would be nearly 20 years later before I would begin! Living in Bangladesh brought the opportunity for both the purchase of an instrument (expensive but not impossibly so as it would have been in the UK) and for lessons. Since early 2011 I have been having lessons twice a month and earlier this year I gave my first performance publicly playing a very short version of Raga Bhairav/Bhirob (read about that here).
Throughout this time I have read many books and websites dealing with Indian music theory but it was always Shankar’s book ‘My Music, My life‘ that I found most inspiring and most informative. It is a book I highly recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the man and about the meaning of his music.
Ironically, this morning – after two years of studying the sitar – my teacher and I sat down to finally begin learning Raga Lalit. The Raga has a sad, mystical, reflexive and peaceful character and my own sadness at the news weighed heavily on me as I began to try finding my voice with the alap section – where one improvises freely, slowly, without time and explore the rosh or the flavour of the raga. For me now, as I fulfill a lifetime’s dream, playing this raga will always bring to mind the great pundit himself and the world’s loss from his death.
Somehow, that seems quite fitting and I would hope that Ravi would have been pleased to think that a certain raga would make a person think of him, his influence, his peaceful nature and his love for the world.
Recommended sites to visit: