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City first stop in his journey as musician

Pandit Ravi Shankar came to Mumbai in the mid-1940s to make a life as a musician; it was here that the sitar maestro invented the raga Nat Bhairav. Amarendra Dhaneshwar reports.

mumbai Updated: Dec 13, 2012 01:26 IST
Amarendra Dhaneshwar

Ravi Shankar had a unique relationship with Mumbai, from where he set sail for Europe and the US. He has written in some detail about his life in this city in his autobiography Raga Mala.

After spending seven years of rigorous training and riyaaz, or practice, in Maihar, a traditional centre for music in Madhya Pradesh, under the strict and watchful eye of Baba Allauddin Khan, a Bengali sarod player who was one of the most influential Hindustani instrumentalists of the 20th century, Ravi Shankar came to this city in the mid-1940s to make a life as a musician.

He stayed at the Madgavkar Bungalow in Borivli, from where he would commute every day in the afternoon to Churchgate to meet his friends, such as music lovers VR Diwanjee, Harihar Rao and Shantaram Ullal, at a tea house near the Bombay Stock Exchange in Dalal Street and discuss the possibility of finding work and concerts.

Many decades later, during a press conference in the city in connection with his concert at the Shanmukhananda Auditorium in Matunga, he enquired about these very friends. Diwanjee, now 95, is still in Mumbai today, residing in Nalasopara. We also know that Ullal was one of the founding members of the Suburban Music Circle, a prominent Mumbai institution based in Santacruz (West), which hosted Ravi Shankar's concerts in the early fifties.

In the city, Ravi Shankar also became associated with the local Indian People's Theatre Association group, which was a cultural front of the undivided Communist Party, directing the music for several of the group's plays. He also composed music for the film Dharati Ke Lal, which was based on the famine that devastated Bengal in 1943, made by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, who was deeply influenced by the group. He also scored the music for Neecha Nagar, directed by Chetan Anand, Dev Anand's elder brother.

Ravi Shankar eventually broke off with the group, saying that he felt suffocated by its demand for ideological conformity and wanted to retain his artistic freedom.

It was in Mumbai that Ravi Shankar invented the raga Nat Bhairav, which over the years won widespread approval of musicians and music lovers. In 1962, Ravi Shankar started the Kinnara School of Music at Breach Candy. When he began travelling in the US and Europe for long periods, his senior pupils, such as Shamim Ahmed Khan and Kartik Kumar, who became famous, would teach students in the city. It was here that Ravi Shankar also conceptualised special theme-oriented programmes, such as Navrang, featuring all north Indian musical forms.

As he started staying abroad for longer periods and began playing fusion programmes with virtuoso Western classical musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin or Philip Glass, orthodox musicians, some out of envy, would criticise him. Yet Ravi Shankar, during his annual visits to Mumbai in winter, would prove his credentials as a true-blue Hindustani musician by playing purely classical music at traditional venues such as Chhabildas High School in Dadar (West) or the Brahman Sahayak Sangh near Shivaji Park. These concerts, many of which this writer has attended, would begin at 9pm and go on till dawn. He would treat the audience to ragas such as Yaman, Bageshri, Malkauns and Bhairavi. He and his tabla accompanist Alla Rakha would often play on energetically till one could hear the clinking of milk bottles being taken out of vans arriving from the Aarey and Worli dairies.

Ravi Shankar's participation in the Jan Fest, an annual festival hosted by the Indian Music Group, based in St Xavier's College, was what gave a big boost to the event. For many years, he gave marathon performances in the last session of the last day, which was usually January 25. He would begin playing in the college's open air quadrangle at about 1 pm under the moonlight and would go on until one would all of a sudden feel the gentle warmth of the rising sun - an unforgettable experience.