One of the earliest memories I have of him was trying to take a picture of him at an old fashioned baithak style concert seating with an almost phallic camera pointing at him.
Too young to care or even notice that it was offensive, I persisted in my quest to get a great picture. He had just started to play and after a few moments he put his sitar down and announced: “Aap jab photo khiichle toh bataiye phir main shuru karun.”
I could have died with sheer embarrassment! This was way back in the late 70s and after this I didn’t have the nerve to ask to for an interview! Many years later when I did get to interview Pandit Ravi Shankar extensively for my book A Moment in Time with Legends of Indian Arts, I had reminded him of this instance and we had huge laugh about it!
I will go on record till eternity to say that he was definitely the most charming man I have ever met in my life. There was a suave sophistication that was not only western in its manifestation and yet the metaphors and rootedness was completely Indian in content.
This was also the hallmark of his music. He was rather unwell these past few months, but laughed it off saying, “Dil ka thoda problem hai, always dil ka hi to problem tha!” (It was a problem of the heart — always it was the problem of the heart!). It was this intensity that often landed him in trouble.
While on the one hand he was seen as a creative genius, on the other was the perception that he indulged in a certain amount of gimmickry. “It is a matter of opinion. Our music has never stood still and those musicians who, like parrots, just spew out by rote, call anyone who is creative ‘gimmicky’,” he had said in one his interviews.
As for tailoring his music to the demands of a foreign audience, he retorted, “When I played with Yehudi Menuhin, they said I was doomed. When I played with George Harrison, they said I would become a raga-rock king. But that is another aspect of me — of a composer. It should not be confused with that of a musician,” he said.
“If your foundation is strong, then you can do anything and still not be deflected,” the maestro would say. Even his worst critics couldn’t help but admire the spiritual element and strength in his music. He was intensely interested in all that was happening around him. He was an interesting conversationalist and the charm continued to grow with each passing year.