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Ravi Shankar: A Profile

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Ravi Shankar: A Profile

The Illustrated Weekly of India, September 25, 1955

The article as it first appeared in print.

The article as it first appeared in print.

78 - Ravi Shankar A Profile - Illustrated Weekly - 25 Sept 1955RAVI SHANKAR, the famed sitar-player, ranks among the great musicians of today who have devoted their lives to the revival and enrichment of our traditional music with fresh inspiration.

Scion of an aristocratic Bengali Brahmin family, 35-years-old Ravi Shankar is the youngest brother of the world-famous dancer, Uday Shankar. He was born at Banaras. Right from his early childhood, Ravi Shankar evinced an interest in music and dance and tried his hand on various musical instruments. After a couple of years’ schooling in the holy city, he accompanied Uday Shankar on his Continental and American tours at the early age of nine. Paris was the “rendezvous” of Uday Shankar’s troupe, and it was here that young Ravi received further education and studied French and other European languages.

Meanwhile, Ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar, one of the greatest maestros of our time, jointed the troupe in 1935. Ravi Shankar, who had by then made his mark as a dancer of promise throughout the United Kingdom and the Continent, steadily came under the influence of the great master. During his short association with Uday Shankar’s troupe, Ustad Allauddin initiated the youngster into the mysteries of traditional music and imparted to him basic training in vocal music and sitar-playing. Ravi Shankar’s association with the Ustad was thus destined to prove a notable musical team in the years to come; for it was this association that helped him to discover his true vocation. In 1938, Ravi Shankar finally forsook dance for music, much against the will of his celebrated brother. He returned to India the same year to continue his musical pursuits under the guidance of his master.

Allauddin Khan found in Ravi Shankar a pupil of promise, prepared to pursue his vocation with tenacity and undaunted courage. By the time he was twenty, Ravi Shankar was such a consummate artiste that music conferences and the radio began to claim his performances.

In 1945, he joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association to be in charge of the music and production of the ballet India Immortal and of the films Neecha Nagar and Dharti Ke Lal. He rendered his services to the Indian National Theatre for the production of the Discovery of India and was also associated with the Indian Renaissance Artists’ Association for some time.


Ravi Shankar with the author during an interview.

Ravi Shankar with the author during an interview.

Late in 1948, Ravi Shankar was offered assignments simultaneously by the British Broadcasting Corporation and All India Radio and he accepted the offer from the latter. It was in A.I.R. that he saw the realisation of his long-cherished desire to carry on systematic experiments with the orchestration of Indian music. Ravi Shankar is now conductor of the Vadya-Vrinda (Orchestra) at A.I.R. Delhi, and to him goes the credit of having given the inaugural performance of the weekly National Programme in 1952.

Undoubtedly one of the best virtuosos of our times, few musicians have enriched the domain of instrumental music as Ravi Shankar. Well-versed in the traditional style of Beenkars, he excels in alap, jod and jhala. He plays both the Masitkhani and Razakhani styles with equal distinction.

His renderings are subtle in conception and exquisite in execution. One finds in his alap a happy synthesis of linear grace, tonal vigour and lucidity in slow rhythm; while in quick movement, the artiste impresses his listener with intricate phrasing and delicate accent modulated to a remarkable speed. This he does with unfailing precision. Uncannily, the performer evokes the atmosphere of the raga by steadily unfolding the full sweetness and purity of each swara that constitutes his musical theme, maintaining the accuracy of the raga all the while.

His fingers move over the saptakas lightly, but with rapid and sure cadence. The subtleness with which he interprets the concordant relation between a raga, its dominant mood, the infinite number of melodic patterns he creates out of the same combination of notes, the imagination with which he weaves them in to his basic theme – all these mark him out as a supreme executant. His varied modes of expression enable him to play dignified alaps, fluent gatkaris and sprightly thumris with equal ease and mastery.

Although well-versed in the tradition of old masters, Ravi Shnakar is an artiste of modern outlook. He is not afraid to experiment with new styles and vogues rooted in classical tradition. His musical score in Neecha Nagar and other filmic ventures, referred to above, was full of sensitivity and deep feeling, and was a pioneering effort in using the indigenous music idiom for cinematic purposes. In his orchestral compositions, technique and creative imagination are happily blended.

The music world is full of feuds, and does not take kindly to innovators. It would indeed be hard for us to believe that there was a time when the exuberance and freedom of Ravi Shankar’s style had come in for severe criticism. The very authenticity of his tradition was questioned.

“In olden days,” says Ravi Shankar, “the instrumental tradition was marked by specialisation in only one of the several styles of playing as represented by different schools or gharanas. A sitar-player, for example, who was well-versed in the gat toda style was expected to show his virtuosity only in that particular aspect of playing. So was the case with those proficient in the playing of alap and jod styles.

“Nevertheless, it is important to note that our old masters all along laid greater emphasis on music rather than the vehicle of expression. At no time in the past did we have any common authority of standards governing the interpretation of different style of music on particular musical instruments. This is in sharp contrast to what obtains in the West, where I found that uniform standards were laid down for the interpretation of different styles of music on different musical instruments. In the case of the violin, for instance, every aspect of playing the instrument – right from its shape and size, bowing and fingering actions, down to sound-production and actual composition – is governed by a set of rules implicitly accepted and respected by all stylists alike. This has never been the case with Indian instrumental tradition.”

Today, the time-honoured and artificial barriers between different schools are slowly breaking away. The technique of music initiated by Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan represents a brilliant synthesis of Gayaki, Tantrakari and Layakari. The success of Shankar’s impressive mode of expression can well be judged from the large following he commands among the up-and-coming stylists of this country.

Ravi Shankar is a confirmed optimist and sincerely hopes that something good will come out of the current trends in music. Today’s mass education, in his opinion, has considerable advantage from the point of view of the listening public, in that it helps to educate the public taste for music and bring forth appreciative connoisseurs. He, however, hastens to remark: “Musicians cannot be created out of cold print. For, our music is a Gurumukhi Vidya (learnt at the feet of the guru) handed down from generation to generation. Memory and tradition have helped it to survive the ravages of time and history.”

He was a member of the Indian Cultural Delegation which visited Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other European countries in late 1954. Recounting his impressions about his tour in Russia, he revealed that there was compulsory basic education in music in that country and it formed part of the curriculum of instruction right from the primary stage. He was surprised and happy to see that even a peasant or a mill-worker could appreciate the subtleties of a ballet of Tchaikovsky or an opera of Glinka. He feels confident that the adoption of a similar system of music education will go a long way to ensure for our music a bright future.

Hindustani music abounds in a rich variety of ragas and raginis, and most of our top-ranking musicians pursuing their vocation depend on these musical creations of the past. It is a fact that we have few great composers and sincere experiments in contemporary times. Ravi Shankar is one of the very few artistes who have ventured to move away from the beaten track of rendering the ragas composed in the past.


Modern music conferences, in his opinion, are in the nature of carnivals, lacking in conscious aesthetic effort. He insists that all music conferences should start early in the evening and end before midnight. While he welcomes the encouragement being given to the younger artistes, he decries the growing tendency on the part of sponsors to hold amateur performances side by side with those of professional stalwarts. He commends the convention followed in the musical “soirees’’ of South India, where a separate session is exclusively held for amateur participants.

Ravi Shankar has extensively toured South India and has drawn vast, appreciative audiences there – a unique distinction for a Northerner. He is all admiration for the “huge and discerning audience, perfectly disciplined in behaviour” he witnessed wherever he went.

Of slender build, Ravi Shankar has a striking personality with large, eloquent eyes and chiseled features. His innate affability and sense of culture are unspoilt by success and fame. He has a word of encouragement for every promising musician.

The petty jealousies of a musical coterie are unknown to his nature. His conversation is softly–feelingly of his guru, and of Ustads Abdul Karim Khan, Faiyaz Khan, Wahid Khan, Pt. Rameshwar Pathak and Vidwan Vasudevachar, the renowned South Indian savant. He admires a great deal many of our old and young contemporary musicians and he is all praise for such artistes as Karaikudi Sambsasiva Iyer, Palghat Mani, Ameer Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Vilayat Khan and D. V. Paluskar. Towards Ali Akbar Khan, his admiration takes the form of a very deep and intimate friendship, seldom noticed among two such stalwarts. The success and the proverbial accord achieved by them in their “Jugalbandi’’ is only one of the many proofs of this great friendship.

He has many friends abroad. Notable among them is the famous violinist, Yehudi Menhuin, and they have great admiration for each other’s art.

Ravi Shankar married Annapoorna Devi in 1941 and has a son. His wife, too, is an accomplished artist, expert in the playing of Surbahar. Simple in his habits, he is endowed with a spiritual bent of mind, and is a believer in the powers of Yoga.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, September 25, 1955


  1. Exhaustive information about a giant of Indian music
    and the areas of his excellence.

  2. An article with criticism as it should be. A right appreciation highlighting the basic important contribution to thought of the Indian classical music .

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