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In praise of muses

We celebrate the accomplishments of musicians, so why not their muses?

india Updated: Jul 06, 2010 00:40 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar
Dipankar De Sarkar
Hindustan Times

We celebrate the accomplishments of musicians, so why not their muses?

Where, for instance, is Suzanne Verdal of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, the song that launched his career? Or the Norwegian beauty Marianne Ihlen, who inspired the song So Long Marianne?

The thought came to me the other day while waiting to talk to an Indian industrialist in an upmarket central London hotel.

I was juggling with trade statistics when in walked Sukanya Shankar, wife of the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar — followed a minute later by Olivia Harrison, widow of the late Beatle George Harrison.

They were there to discuss plans for a surprise party for Ravi. "You can't write a word about it,” instructed Sukanya with tact and gentle humour. "Just ignore me," I replied.

"I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment." The two women smiled gracefully and dived into their plans.

Suddenly Olivia Harrison's mobile phone rang out in the dulcet tones of an Indian bamboo flute.

Looking out of the window on to the tree-lined courtyard, she said to no one in particular, "This is so beautiful." Ah, that's the gardener in you and George, I thought.

But just when it seemed like the sunny afternoon couldn't get any more peaceful, my iPhone decided to ring out — in the loud, embarrassing ringtone of the 70s Doors classic, Riders on the Storm, complete with its extended opening burst of thunder and rain.

In a bid to suppress spreading alarm, I went up to Olivia and told her of my wish to write about George and Dhani (her musician son, named by Ravi Shankar).

"Keep hoping," she said calmly, as I slipped her my business card. My heart sank, but as she left she said charmingly: "I'll pass on your card to Dhani."

I don't know if any of George's songs were written for Olivia — she resolutely refuses to discuss that question — but she once proved to be rather more useful than a muse.

In 1999, she literally saved his life when a mentally disturbed intruder stabbed George several times before Olivia beat him unconscious with a poker and a lamp. Her friend Sukanya tells me how she makes sure both of Ravi Shankar's musician daughters – Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones – are present on his birthdays (he turned 90 on April 7).

"It's the rule of my house," she says. "He's a very happy man in the company of his daughters." Poets sing about their beautiful muses — in my book, saving a man's life or keeping him happy at 90 are gifts that shouldn't go unsung either.