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ISBN-13: 9781566492171
Publisher: Welcome Rain Publishers
Publication date: 09/28/2001
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.52(w) x 8.94(h) x 1.03(d)

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Chapter One


The whole world where I was born in Benares was like an India as it existed two thousand years ago. Apart from a few automobiles, cycles and other little emblems of modernity that were around me, everything was really old: the way of life, the city's temples and ghats. Ghats (literally 'sloping places') are the tiered steps on the banks of the river, and Benares is famous for its ghats, because it is there that you witness complete life itself, from childbirth to death. Everything happens there: there are plays going on, songs being enacted by dancers telling the story of Krishna and Radha, or the devotional kirtans sung in Bengali and bhajans sung in Hindi. Benares is so cosmopolitan; people come from all over India to this city of pilgimage. It has such power because these people's faith merges there; they come to Benares to die and to be cremated according to old Hindu rites, because they believe this will bring immediate nirvana and thus release them from the cycle of reincarnation.

    Kashi is the oldest name for Benares. But it is another old name for the city, Varanasi, that has come into use again. The British couldn't pronounce many of the place names in India so they distorted them, and for a couple of centuries Varanasi was known as Benares.

    My greatest joy and excitement as a child was to visit the ghats with my mother, my brothers and my brothers' friends. There was so much activity, so much natural entertainment, so many different types of music. In Benares, sound is everywhere. To hear the shahnai being playedin the temples and palaces ... All the maharajahs had their mansion or palace on the bank of the river, and many of them had their own shahnai-player. These musicians had five or six duties per day — early morning, mid morning, afternoon, early evening, evening and night. Constantly one heard the beautiful ragas of that particular hour, and altogether it created a music of its own. They blended so beautifully, into a harmony, really. That particular sound of the ghats in Benares was unique. It is still there, but no longer the same: now it is more of a cacophony and has become commercialised, mixed in with Hindi film music with its elements of pop, rock and rap.

Growing up in this supremely spiritual environment was an auspicious beginning for a young Indian destined to achieve the greatest heights in his nation's classical music. But the path of Ravi Shankar's evolution towards his accomplishments would not be a conventional one. His early years were to contain a blend of the sacred and the material, of deprivation and excess, of dedication and triviality, of East and West — an unconventional background for a distinguished Hindustani musician. Yet this diversity of ingredients fused in him to emerge ultimately in a truly global artistic concoction.

To begin at the beginning, Ravi Shankar was born on 7th April, 1920, at his family's rented house in the city of Benares, in a lane known as Tilebhandeshwar Galli. Thousands of years old, Benares is the most sacred place on earth for a Hindu, a city of two thousand temples situated along the banks of the great Mother Ganges, and reputedly the abode of Shiva.

Ravi's father, Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, was a Brahmin (a member of the priestly caste, the highest in the Hindu caste system) from Jessore in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). A highly educated and cultured Bengali, he achieved distinction as a statesman, lawyer, philosopher, writer and amateur musician. From about 1905 he had served as Diwan (chief minister) to the Maharajah of Jhalawar, a small native state in what is now Rajasthan. During this period Shyam had become estranged from Ravi's mother, Hemangini, and without divorcing he had remarried. (This was not an unlawful practice in India then, although it was rare and generally frowned upon. The Hindu marriage code prohibiting bigamy was only introduced after independence.) Shortly before Ravi's birth, he left to practise law in Calcutta and London. When Ravi was only a few months old, Shyam's eldest son Uday also left for London to study fine art at the Royal College of Art.

Hemangini was from the small village of Nasrathpur, about seventy miles from Benares. Her father, Abboy Charan Chakrabarti, had been a prosperous zamindar (landlord) — as had Shyam's father — and in her youth she had lived in a beautiful stone mansion in the nearby town of Ghazipur. But those riches had disappeared as a result of the profligacy of the men in her family and, after Shyam had left, Hemangini brought up her children in Benares while surviving on a pension awarded to her by the Maharajah of Jhalawar. Ravi, or Robindra as he was named at birth, was her last child, nearly ten years separating him from the youngest of the four other brothers who survived infancy.

     My full name as pronounced in Bengali is 'Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury'. The name 'Ravi', meaning 'the sun', comes from Sanskrit, the origin of almost all modern Indian languages. The pronunciation has changed greatly from Sanskrit to Bengali, and thus 'Ravindra' and 'Ravi' in Sanskrit became 'Robindro' and 'Robi' in Bengali. So in Bengali I was originally called Robindro (although, strangely enough, in the English style it was written 'Robindra'); it was only later, when I was about twenty or twenty-one, that I changed my name to Ravi, the equivalent used in the major part of India.

    My nickname from childhood was 'Robu'. That's what a few of my family and friends call me. Similarly my brother Rajendra was known as Raju, and Debendra was Debu. I also called Raju 'Mejda' (meaning 'middle brother'), and Debu, 'Sejda' ('third brother').

    Our original family name had been Chattopadhyaya. (The British could not pronounce that word either, so when they arrived they turned it into Chatterjee, which is why one now comes across so many Chatterjees, as well as Banerjees and Mukherjees — originally Bandopadhyaya and Mukhopadhyaya.) Later the Muslim rulers of the day gave my ancestors land and made them zamindars. Along with that they were awarded the title 'Chowdhury', which from then onwards replaced Chattopadhyaya as our last name. For a few generations we were actually known as Hara Chowdhury, because we used to worship at a Shiva temple (Hara is another name for Shiva). While in Udaipur, where my brother Uday was born in 1900 (and from where his name was taken), my father had dropped the 'Chowdhury' and thereafter just used 'Shankar' — which we have all maintained since.

    My mother actually had seven sons but, believe it or not, no daughters. She so much wanted to have a daughter — and I missed having a sister. Uday was the eldest son (and therefore known to us brothers as 'Dada'), the next child was stillborn, and then came Rajendra (born in 1905), Debendra (1908), and Bhupendra (1911).

    Next was an unusual child, nicknamed Puchunia, who died at only ten months, although everybody thought he was two years old. He was big and healthy, and from the age of five or six months he used to do strange things that no one could believe. He started walking and talking very early, and was highly intelligent; there are baffling stories about the things he could do. The Maharajah used to visit sometimes because he was fond of this baby boy. Puchunia liked the Maharajah to smoke his cigar, and would even mime smoking a cigar and blowing out the smoke!

    Bhupendra, whom I called Chhotda, was the tallest of us, about five foot eight inches. He was very handsome, with curly black hair, and used to write poetry and songs, which my brothers would tease him about. He wasn't interested in playing football or any other sports, though he was quite robust; sometimes they would say he was a sissy, and he would stay at home and then cry like a girl. I used to be the closest to him. We were like friends. Sometimes we would sit on the rooftop together: he would play the harmonium and we would both sing.

* * *

    In 1917 or 1918, while my father was in Jhalawar, he had married an English lady named Miss Morrell. That was where the gulf between my parents had widened; they had been living separately, and then my mother was given a mansion there in Jhalawar. Miss Morrell died around 1925 or 1926, at a time when my father was in Calcutta practising law; they had no children. He then returned to the West to spend the rest of his life, splitting his time between London, Geneva and New York.

    After he left Jhalawar for Calcutta in 1920, my mother came to Benares and lived there with me and my three brothers (Dada having already left home). Along with all of our belongings, she brought from Jhalawar two or three trunks that were full of presents she had received over ten or twelve years. She was a great consort of the Maharani (the Queen) and, as was the custom in those days with royalty, on a festival day or on the birthday of anyone in the royal family, they would give presents — gold or diamond rings for the nose, a diamond earring, a gold bracelet, locket or chain, as well as expensive saris made of gold brocades.

    It was fixed that we would get a pension sent to us from Jhalawar every month. Two hundred rupees was the amount set, which was very substantial in those days — but those were also the princely days when there were such thieves and robbers on the staff of the aristocrats, and some of these took five or ten rupees each. Within a year or two, by the time it reached us the pension had dwindled to sixty rupees, even though it was still officially two hundred in their books. Sixty rupees was nothing, really (about two American dollars at today's rate), for a mother to pay for her children and their education in college and school, house rent and household expenses, and myself the youngest of the four!

    My father never sent anything to us, presumably because he believed that we were provided for. I don't know whether my mother was too proud to let him know that these people were not sending us the full amount. I think my brothers did try to contact him about it. To me it was a mystery, this side of my father; because whatever he was doing, he was always earning money - maybe not fabulous amounts, but he had an income through his legal-advice work or his teaching. He would help a few students in Calcutta with their studies by sending them each one pound (and in those days one pound was quite a sum), and he would also send money to my aunts (his sisters), some of whom had become widows. With all these people he was very generous, but as far as we were concerned he never sent any help. It seemed very strange at the time, although I did come to understand it better much later on.

    I saw my mother suffering. With that small amount of money she would manage the house, pay for our education and never let us be hungry — but we lived in a very frugal manner. She was a great cook. Whatever she cooked was like nectar to us; even if she made plain spinach, it would be so tasty with the rice. My brothers would bring some of their friends round and they would all say, 'Oh, Auntie, we want to eat! We hear you cook so well.' My mother would never refuse, no matter whether she was prepared for it. They would ask for more and more, and we would all eat, too. But when they had left, there would be no food remaining and she would take some jaggery (a coarse brown sugar lump) and a pot full of water from the tap. I saw her do that so many times and I really felt for her. I was close to my mother. I saw all her pain and her loneliness, but even then she didn't show her bitterness; she was full of love.

    When we were getting poorer she would open one of the trunks and take out a golden bangle or earring, or an expensive sari, and in the evening when the streets were emptier she would cover herself with a shawl, so people wouldn't recognise her, and take me with her to a shop in the main road at the end of the lane. This was a shop that sold all the different oils. The shop owner was also our landlord and very rich, and he accorded her a lot of respect, calling her 'Mother'. (It is an Indian tradition that elder ladies are called 'Mother' by a younger person, just as women of a similar age are called 'Sister', and much younger ones, 'Daughter'.) She would pawn one of the articles and get maybe twenty or twenty-five rupees. For those few years this was how she brought us up.

    She also bought a Singer sewing machine, and to earn some extra money she would sew ladies' blouses for a person who would come and take them away. Her cousin Brija Bihari came to live with us in order to help her in this. My mother really struggled so much.

* * *

    By now we were living in a different house, in the same street where I was born but on the other side. Opposite us there was a very rich Bengali family of landlords who lived like maharajahs. They had a mansion and tennis courts, plenty of land with flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables, and a motor car, which was quite something at that time. They held special functions that brought many famous musicians to the house. It was a joint family — two brothers, their children and their grandchildren. Amongst the grandchildren there was a boy called Bulu, who went to the same school as I did, and we became good friends. I used to go to their house and play, and my brother Mejda also used to visit for games of tennis.

    Mejda was a sportsman, a champion at badminton for some time in Benares, and he used to play cricket also. He was a member of a social-cultural club called Sangeet Samiti, where he used to play musical instruments: cornet, harmonium, dilruba, esraj and even a small sitar, which was kept in the corner of a room in our house. There were a few instruments of his at our home, and they were the most important playthings I had. Whenever my brothers were away and my mother was busy in the kitchen, I would strum the sitar as best I could. The harmonium was easier, because all I had to do was press the keys as on a piano keyboard and operate the squeeze-box with the left hand. Whatever few songs I knew — and I was learning some songs by Rabindranath Tagore (we call them Rabindra Sangeet) from Bechu-da, a friend of Mejda — I would play and sing as well as I could train myself to.

    In the afternoons I was passing my time playing with my friend Bulu in his large house opposite, and this was where I saw riches for the first time. The ladies upstairs there — the mothers, sisters and cousins — used to adore me. They fed me with such delicacies as puri, halua and a variety of sweets and fruits, all served on marble plates, with juices in marble goblets, on marble tables! You can just envisage what a big impact this had on me, as my own family were going through that very tight period financially at this time.

    These were my early years, seeing everything all around, poverty and riches, and soaking in the sights, sounds and spiritual aromas of Benares.

* * *

    Reading was my childhood passion from the moment I learnt to recognise the alphabets, principally in Bengali and then in English. At about the age of five I started reading in Bengali, mostly children's books, and I picked it up so quickly that within a year or so I was reading anything I could lay my hands upon. Around the house there were plenty of books belonging to my brothers: detective books, romances and other stories. I acquired a taste for Tagore and Dwijendra Lal Roy — who wrote wonderful songs as well as books, stories and plays — and the works of my favourite author, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. Then, again and again, I became drawn to mythological books. The great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana soon became my favourites, just as my daughter has now become hooked on them as well.

    Whatever I read stimulated my imagination, and because I was a loner it became my passion to stand in front of the mirror and act out all the stories: I was the hero, the heroine, the lover or the villain. There was hardly anyone to play with since my brothers were at school or college, so I entertained myself until I joined the school and made some friends there.

    I studied at the Bengalitola High School for a couple of years only, between 1927 and 1929. I remember one curious thing that happened around the age of eight. A class friend of mine, who was very naughty, kept telling me for many days that his family was having a house built and electricity was being fitted, which very few houses had. Eventually he said, 'Come with me and I'll show you something fantastic there which will give you a nice feeling. You won't believe it! We have sweets and fruits, and you can have them.'

    So one day after classes he took me to the unfinished house, which was not far from school. Like any new house being built, there were things scattered around. He took me to a wall and made me touch a raw electric wire — and I was electrocuted! What a traumatic experience! You can picture me there: furious, shouting and crying at the same time, and wanting to hit him. It was so cruel of him, and so stupid of me — even now I think of it and cannot understand my foolishness. I never saw him again after that — I didn't want to!

    (This reminds me of another 'electric' experience! In January 1995 my wife Sukanya and I were staying in Calcutta at a friend's house, where I was electrocuted while taking a shower. It seems there was a leakage from the water-heating geyser onto the wall, and when I touched the wall my whole system was jolted into a million vibratos and tremolos at the same time! With water and electricity involved together, it was a miracle — one of the many miracles in my life — that I survived.)

    Another school friend told me one day that the Lord Shiva, one of our holy trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), and his wife Parvati (the Mother Goddess) had come as human beings to a house. Naturally I was very curious, so we bunked a class and around one o'clock we went to a rich man's house. There were a lot of people sitting in a room singing bhajans, and I saw a gentleman with a beard like Shiva's, and coiled, matted hair. Around his neck he was wearing a garland of rudraksha, which is made from reddish-coloured dried fruit stones and is supposed to radiate spiritual powers. (It is worn by most devotees of Shiva). The lady was so beautiful, of fair colour, wearing an off-white silk sari with a red border; she too had matted hair, and had a round red tika on her forehead. They were so radiant, especially the lady, that I felt they really were Shiva and Parvati.

    Many years later I discovered that she was the very famous lady yogi Mata Anandamayi (meaning 'mother full of bliss'). She had ashrams everywhere, with hundreds of thousands of disciples, but she was not affected by her success; she continued to be the same fantastic soul. After a few years of marriage, her husband became her disciple and remained so as long as he lived. I met her again in the early Sixties, and when I told her about the incident from my childhood days, she laughed! I became a devotee of hers until she died in the early Eighties. She was one of the greatest souls that I have ever encountered: a true ever-loving mother! I loved her so much, and was lucky to have received her love and blessings.

* * *

    When my family had been in Jhalawar, there had been many chances to hear music. Jhalawar had no musicians of its own, but famous musicians and dancers often visited to perform at the court, so my mother heard some of them, especially the lady musicians and singers — famous names like Gohar Jan, Malka Jan, Zohra Bai and Kajjan Bai. After their regular progamme in the Maharajah's court, these female musicians would attend a zenana (ladies') court in the presence of the Maharani, who was accompanied by her close relatives, her friends and the wives of senior officials. Male musicians also performed sometimes, but on those occasions the ladies had to sit in the dark behind a curtain made from chik, very fine straw matting through which they could see but which veiled them from the men's gaze.

    To this day there exists a tradition throughout India whereby the women from all generations sing together accompanied by the dholak (a drum). The ladies sang so beautifully for the different festivities, such as the birth of a child, a marriage, the harvest festival, the colour festival (Holi) or the light festival (Diwali). My mother had considerable musical talent, and was blessed with a soft but very melodious voice; she also knew a variety of folk music and semi-classical music such as thumri, kajri and dadra.

    In Benares, I loved to lie on our flat third-floor roof in the evenings with my head on my mother's lap. She would pat me, and I would listen to her singing in her beautiful voice, looking up at the clear night sky (free from pollution in those days). I used to admire the sky much more without the moon; the light from the stars was so powerful that they would shed their own light. She would tell me the names of all the stars, and mythological stories about our gods and goddesses. Sometimes, because she had no one else to talk to, she would speak of her Jhalawar days, and how my brothers used to live like princes: they had been to the best schools and even had a little tiger cub to play with. She described the mansion with its large retinue of servants, maidservants and gardeners, and the sentries who would give a military salute to her and my brothers each time they passed. To me, all those stories sounded like a fairy tale, and made me feel slightly jealous.

    She also related stories about her childhood, in particular the eccentricities of her grandfather, who was hot-tempered and big-hearted at the same time, with an insatiable appetite for enjoying life and spending money on keeping the best wrestlers, horses and — as you might expect — concubines. He had been a very rich landlord. Indeed it was he who had had the mansion in Ghazipur built, and he also owned cottages and houses in Nasrathpur. He used a fast two-horse cart to travel between the two places, although he had more fun staying in Ghazipur which was really in its prime then. The mansion had been a fantastic house built entirely from stone and beautifully decorated with traditional-style filigree work, but after his death everything was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. His sons started the family trend for living more in Nasrathpur, so that in my childhood whenever we went away from Benares, as we did every summer (during my brothers' school or college holidays), it was to Nasrathpur, not Ghazipur. I did go to the mansion, and stayed there for one or two nights, but by the time of my first visit there were only a few rooms worth living in.

    Those couple of months I spent each year in Nasrathpur were unforgettable. Mostly we stayed at the large house of Chhoto Dadamoshai's, my mother's uncle. His single-storey home was arranged around a central square courtyard with a veranda. There was a huge garden — some parts of it with so many trees that it seemed like a forest — filled with about twenty different types of luscious tropical fruit: sitaphal (custard apples), jamuns (large blue berries with stones), mangoes, lychees, guavas, jack fruit. There would be about a dozen of my young aunts, uncles and cousins at the house, aged between four and fourteen, and together we would roam around the garden all day long, playing hide-and-seek, climbing trees and gorging ourselves on the fantastic fruits. In the sweltering weather, with temperatures of up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit, we were so grateful for the deep well in the garden. The water in it used to be ice cold, even in the severest summer. We would all sit down in a row and wait our turn as the servants collected water in a balti (bucket) from the well and then poured it on us one by one. We would shriek with pleasure!

    Those of us from the cities were made to take an afternoon nap indoors in a dark room cooled by ingenious methods. In the centre of the ceiling was a special pankha (fan), which was operated by means of a cord pulled by a young servant who sat beside the wall. The windows and doors were blocked up with khus khus tatti, blocks of scented straw kept moist by being sprayed with water at intervals. The hot breeze from outside would blow through the straw as cool air. The effect was like air-conditioning with an added fragrance. It was so delightfully cool. How inventive were the people of olden days, surviving without the electricity upon which we are so reliant today!

    I must also tell you about the great feasts we had in Nasrathpur (food always being a favourite topic of mine). All my elder mamas (maternal uncles) were hunters and every morning they would go off with their guns, returning with killings in abundance: ducks, pheasants and partridges, sometimes wild deer and once even a wild boar! They would also catch shrimps, crabs and other fish from their own large ponds and from distant lakes. My mother's aunt was in charge of the cooking. She was a tall, strong, attractive lady and a magnificent cook. We called her 'Boudi', the name we use for a sister-in-law, instead of 'Grandma', because she was so young for a grandmother. With the assistance of my mother and all the young aunts she would prepare dozens of delicious dishes — chicken, mutton, the hunters' catches of fish and meat, vegetables from the garden, salads, hot and sour condiments and chutneys, special breads and rice. All the cooking was done in pure ghee or mustard oil. Home-made rich creamy yoghurts were made from the milk of the cows and buffaloes which were kept at the house, and we ended each meal with malai, rabdi, kheer or other sweets. They were amazing feasts. Mind you, this all happened twice a day! We would have lunch at about two in the afternoon and then, after we overactive youngsters had collapsed, exhausted, at the end of our day's fooling around in the garden, we would be forced to wake up again for dinner at about ten or eleven in the evening. On top of all this were the hearty breakfasts and tasty snacks with our late-afternoon tea. I can still recall the aromas of all the exotic spices, and the food cooked with such expertise and invested with such love.

    At home in Benares, every full moon we would perform Satya Narayan Puja, a special celebration worshipping Lord Vishnu. I used to love the food made as offerings for those occasions too: the chopped fruits and sweets, and especially sinni, a special sweet made out of milk, flour, chopped bananas, raisins, cashews, pistachios and other nuts. It tasted so good, especially as we never had much variety of food. My brothers had known it all during their earlier period in Jhalawar, but to me all of these simple things meant so much.

    I felt so near to my mother at that period of my childhood. That was a beautiful time. She knew plenty of Bengali songs from theatrical plays. In those days there were only silent films, so the popular songs came mostly from famous musical stage plays. Each night at the time of Dassehra one of these stage plays would be put on. (Dassehra, also known as Durga Puja, is the annual festival held around September or October to celebrate Rama's defeat of Ravana, as told in the Ramayana. For four or five days of its duration we would visit the Durga temple very early in the morning, along with my brothers and a huge crowd of other worshippers.) There were several theatrical clubs, including Mejda's club Sangeet Samiti and some from Calcutta, which each rehearsed for three or four months to prepare a play. These were the main attractions at the Dassehra festival, and my mother knew many songs from them.

    I would go along to some of these plays, and found them exciting, although I usually fell asleep after some time — as all children do! On one occasion, when I must have been seven or eight, a bizarre incident occurred during a performance by Sangeet Samiti of a play called Bilwa Mangal, variously attributed to several great fifteenth- and sixteenth-century saints. This was a story about a wealthy and likeable man who had a beautiful wife but became infatuated by a courtesan. She liked him, but she always told him, 'You have such a beautiful wife in your house. How can you leave her to come to me?' He lost his mind completely, and used to visit her again and again, to hear her sing and be with her.

    Late one night it was raining and her front door was closed. He was shouting, desperate for her to let him in, but she refused. Then he saw a rope hanging from the veranda, and climbed up it to her room. Shocked to see him, she asked, 'How did you get in the house?' When he told her, she was perplexed since there was no rope hanging outside. They both went to look — and saw it was a snake! So she told him off: 'Why are you doing this? Just for this body of mine? You are so mad that you didn't know the difference between a rope and a snake! This love you say you have for me: if you could give one fourth of it to God you could have a darshan (glimpse) of him, and be liberated.' These words gave him a jolt, and he turned back and went home. Thereafter he became one of the greatest saints, and wrote beautiful bhajans.

    That evening I could not sleep during the play! I was watching it with such intensity. In the intermission one of Mejda's friends was teasing me: 'How do you like that girl who is the heroine?' To me she really looked so beautiful, with wonderful make-up and costume. I was in love with that character! He asked me if I wanted to meet her. I thought it was not a proper thing to do, and I was shy — but still very excited. He took me backstage, to where all the actors were relaxing.

    However, in those days it was men who took the female parts in these plays. Backstage, the actor had taken off his wig, blouse and artificial boobs. Sitting there, with the sari folded for comfort, he was quite dark-skinned, and he was smoking, of all things, bidi, a cheap cigarette made from dry leaves rolled with tobacco inside — mostly smoked by poor or working-class people. I couldn't understand it, since I had been told that 'he' was a 'she'. Mejda's friend was now in hysterics, repeating again and again, 'Robu is in love with you!' The actor looked like a hijra (eunuch) with a dark hairy chest and legs! Everyone else was laughing, but I started crying and wanted to go home, so I didn't see the whole play after all. What a shocking let-down!

Table of Contents

Foreword by George Harrison6
Preface (Tuning Up)8
One: Gangeshwari11
Two: Bairagi35
Three: Rangeshwari83
Four: Manamanjari105
Five: Suranjani141
Six: Kameshwari189
Seven: Tilak Shyam231
Eight: Jogeshwari259
Nine: Mohan Kauns285
Ten: Parameshwari305
Postscript: Dhun-Rasiya314
Afterword by Lord Menuhin316
Credits and Publishers' Note326

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