When my husband and I moved to India, we promised ourselves to study ethnic instruments. He is a drummer, so he pledged to try the tabla. I am a pianist and guitarist, so I naively said I’d attempt the sitar. I had always loved hearing Ravi Shankar.
Soon after our arrival, I visited a music store in Connaught Place in Delhi and was so overwhelmed by the 21 strings and the odd gourd shape that I changed my vow from playing the sitar to seeing Ravi Shankar play it. And what a gift that turned out to be.
As people mourn the passing of the ninety-two year old maestro, I am filled with awe and warmth as I remember first seeing him in concert and then meeting him at his home in the Ravi Shankar Center in New Delhi.
In 2004, I went with a group of friends to see Shankar’s tribute to his most famous pupil, Beatle George Harrison. Shankar performed with his stunningly gorgeous daughter, Anoushka, a Grammy-award winning sitarist. The songs were long, but we were enthralled. Father would improvise and daughter would match him measure for measure. And we were transported to a higher plane of consciousness by the intricate plucking, humming and twanging of the strings. In between, Shankar talked about the joy he experienced hosting and teaching Harrison in India. Olivia Harrison came on stage with a moving description of Shankar’s influence in her husband’s life—many may remember the haunting sitar accompaniment in Norwegian Wood. She then showed a video tribute to her husband on this date of his birth.
A year later I joked with one of my friends, who is a classical Indian dancer, saying that Ravi Shankar had built a music center down the street from where I taught and maybe she could arrange a field trip for me. I was shocked when she came through. Soon some fellow teachers and I found ourselves walking our students to the Ravi Shankar Center. Inside, we sat on the floor in a small performance hall and spoke with Shankar himself. In a white kurta pajama (tunic and pants), he sat cross-legged on a two-foot stage with his latest students, who had recently joined him from San Diego. Though in his mid-eighties by this time, he still loved teaching, and these two guys seemed to keep him young. Since his fingers were sore, he did not play for us but talked us through a lesson with his pupils. Then he patiently and humbly entertained teenagers' questions. Yes, he was equally proud of both musical daughters, Anoushka Shankar and Nora Jones. He also beamed as he introduced us to his wife, Sukanya, an Indian singer.
It was such an inspiration to be in his presence, to be with the master of the sitar, to be so close to one who has uplifted my spirit for decades. And it’s comforting to know that Anoushka will carry on his tradition.