His Master’s Strings

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As Pandit Ravi Shankar crosses 90, his disciple Subhendra Rao tells us how his guru groomed him for the world.

Shubhendra Rao’s first memory of his revered guruji, Pandit Ravi Shankar, is of the time when he was just three-and-a-half. Rao, a noted sitar artiste and one of the best known young disciples of Ravi Shankar, recalls the experience vividly: “My grandmother was ill at our home in Bangalore. Guruji was also in the city at that time, and since my father was then his disciple, he came home to meet my grandmother.”

Forty years on, the spotlight was again on Rao; he was handpicked to play at the first concert held in India to celebrate Ravi Shankar’s 90th birth anniversary. “Guruji is in California, where huge celebrations have already been held. Guruji’s achievement in this field is no mean feat. As a disciple of such a maestro, I consider it a great honour to pay my tribute to him on this occasion through my music,” says Rao. “Whenever I meet him, I find that he still has the same mental agility: a body that’s entered its ninth decade, but a mind that’s still 19. No wonder he is the one person whom I have idolised and worshipped through my life.”

Having spent almost half his years in his guru’s company, Rao likes to chronicle this period decade wise. “I have gone through different phases in my discipleship. In the beginning, it was as my father’s son. I recall playing for him, placing the sitar veena style on the ground. Then, when I was about seven, he [Pandit Ravi Shankar] taught me how to hold the instrument the conventional way, in an upright position. At that time, he was my father’s guru, associated with the family.”

The next phase, says Rao, began when he became a serious learner. He moved into his guruji’s home in New Delhi for the next eight to nine years, living according to the principles of the guru shishya parampara. “He would give talim in various forms, and not just through the playing of the instrument. He would speak extensively on a variety of subjects, and each raga was analysed, imbibed in thought and spirit and mapped out both physically and through its other implications. At times, he would be inspired to teach me a bandish. So, the talim structure was integral rather than routine,” he explains.

The next phase, that of being launched on the concert stage, was not as simple as it sounds. Pandit Ravi Shankar had to be first well satisfied that his disciple had been thoroughly groomed before he was allowed independence in choosing his concerts. “The phase of performing independently does not come in a hurry,” says Rao, “My first concert was in my home town, Bangalore. I was approached by the organisers of a youth festival. I informed guruji and he listened to all the details carefully. Only then did he grant me permission, saying that since it was a youth festival, he had no objection to me playing in it. After that, I would always ask his permission before accepting a concert offer and that is what guruji wanted done.”

On hindsight, Rao realised the efficacy of this technique. For two years, he continued to seek permission before accepting a concert offer. “Guruji always obliged, but reminded me of the necessity of asking his permission. Then, one day, when a concert offer came my way, he surprised me by saying that I no longer needed to ask his permission to perform. I was free to go wherever I wanted and perform at will.” This was the start of another definitive phase in Rao’s musical career.

As an independent performer of considerable standing, did he move away from the guru’s guidelines? There are subtle and almost invisible ties to the imaginary apron strings, one discovers. Rao notes that even now, when he sits down for riyaaz or a recital, the talim details come to his mind. He continues to build his performance repertoire based on that phase of his learning. “Guruji always told me to build my identity based on the talim, and that with maturity, I would be able to carve out my own path. I find that all his sayings now reflect in my music. And though I want to express only myself through my chosen path, that path wafts the essence of my guru,” he says, adding, “Practically too, I still have questions that need answers from my guruji. I often have to turn to him about ragas, and I come back to him to tell him when I’m stuck at some point with my instrument.”

As for his own music, Rao says that when he plays, it is his complete personal expression that is on view. The gharana mould is largely visible when he plays a solo concert in the classical style. “But as Guruji often says, he is half artiste and half composer. He has done some amazing innovative compositions. So I too have explored my own style of play and created some numbers of my own that may not be truly gharana conformist.”

This wasn’t very forced, he says, since he’s had an inborn streak of wanting to break free since his childhood. “As a south Indian, I opted to learn and excel in northern gharanedar music. I firmly believe that to break a rule, you should first fully know the rule. If you have a strong foundation, even if you go in different directions, you don’t sway away. In my growing years, through the 1980s and 1990s, this gave food to my individuality.”

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s current association with him, says Rao, is more in the nature of a figurehead. With concert schedules and the travel involved, it has got that much more difficult to stay in close touch. “But it is immaterial whether I see the person. I can feel the vibrations, and hence he is with me 365 days of the year.”