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Remembering Panditji

columns Updated: Dec 29, 2012 21:50 IST
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Although he was unaware of it, my first moment of what I think of as fame - if you'll permit a little blowing of the old trumpet! - was because of Pandit Ravi Shankar. It happened in January 1977. I was President of the Cambridge Union and determined to do something out of the ordinary to ensure I was remembered.

What I hit upon was a Ravi Shankar concert at King's College Chapel to raise money for Oxfam. The Union had never seen anything like it before. Nor had Ravi Shankar.

It was fixed for the 30th, which turned out to be the coldest day of the year. Although over a thousand crammed into the Chapel, perfumed for the occasion with joss sticks, the venue was unheated. The stone floors and towering stained glass windows only enhanced the chill.

"We're going to have to play furiously to warm this place up!" Panditji quipped, moving a collection of lit joss sticks a little closer in the hope they might offer some heat.

What followed was entrancing. Panditji was accompanied by Alla Rakha and Prodyot Sen. Encouraged by the unique setting and the enthusiastic response they played past midnight. As the evening reached its climax the heavens opened and it stared to snow!

I'm not sure if, 35 years later, the Cambridge Union still remembers the occasion but, at the time, it was the talk of the town. Both the local Cambridge Evening News and the London-based Guardian carried pictures on their front pages showing Panditji playing in the chapel in the precise position where the altar should have been.

The next time I met the sitar maestro was 1983 at a special television concert for Eastern Eye, a programme I helped produce. On this occasion, however, Panditji's music created a unique problem for the director, Mike Toppin. "What do you mean the piece he's playing can change depending on his mood?" he asked, unfamiliar with the influence of improvisation on Indian music. "How can I direct the cameras if I don't know what's happening?"

Try hard as I did to explain, Mike's dilemma only got worse. I could sense his mounting exasperation. Fortunately, Panditji stepped-in the day before the concert.

"Sit with me Mike," he said, gently patting the area on the floor beside him. Over the next half hour he explained how Indian music worked. In turn, Mike explained the grammar of television studio direction.

"I'll tell you what", Panditji suddenly said. "I'll play the raga I'm going to play tomorrow and you can record it on your little tape recorder. I promise you it won't be very different at the concert."

Panditji and Mike worked out a secret arrangement to indicate to the uninitiated Englishman when the alaap would end. If I recall correctly, it was a nod to Camera Three. Till then the focus was firmly on him and the sitar. Thereafter, six other cameras came into play.

My third and final meeting was 17 years later at an interview for the BBC. When I introduced myself, he interrupted with a big hearty laugh. "How can I forget that night in Cambridge when you gave Alla Rakha sausages to eat claiming you didn't realise he was a Muslim!"

Then, when he saw my face fall, he added: "This time you're going to come to my home and meet my family. I've told them all about you."

I remember that dinner very well but, sadly, we never met again.

Views expressed by the author are personal