Playing the notes of life

As translations of the autobiographies of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan hit the stands, readers will get to know the aesthetic approaches of the two titans of sitar

For Hindi readers interested in Hindustani classical music, this is no mean coincidence that translations of the autobiographies of two great sitar maestri – Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan – have appeared in the current year. Bharatiya Jnanpith has brought out the Hindi version of Ravi Shankar’s autobiography while Rajkamal Prakashan has published Vilayat Khan’s life story under the Raza Pustakmala Series. As were the playing styles and the aesthetic approaches of these two titans radically different from each other, so are the flavour and the resonances of their rendering of their life stories in their own words. Lovers of Hindustani classical music cannot escape the all-pervasive magic of Ravi Shankar’s and Vilayat Khan’s sitar and, therefore, these two autobiographies are a must read for them. They do not contain only the history of their lives, but they also contain the history of Hindustani classical music, especially instrumental music, and its evolution in the 20th century.

Honest appraisal

Originally published by Welcome Rain Publishers of New York in 1997 as “Ravi Shankar: An Autobiography” with a sub-title “Raga Mala,” the book was edited and introduced by George Harrison, a prominent member of the iconic music band The Beatles, who had become the sitar maestro’s student and close friend. Oliver Craske, who himself penned a biography titled “Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar”, has added his own comments that are interspersed in the entire text of the book. The book, titled “Raga Mala” has been translated into Hindi by Hari Kishore Pandey.

In the preface, Ravi Shankar has honestly admitted that some of the views expressed in the book could have been different had he voiced them 25 or 50 years ago. He has also confessed that while he has tried to be as faithful to the truth as was possible, he has avoided saying unpleasant things about a few people. Raga Mala is a musical format in which one raga remains the pivot but the musician approaches many different ragas in a systematic manner and periodically returns to the main raga in the course of his or her performance. He explains that as one memory rekindles another but one inevitably returns to one’s original or primordial memory, he finds the entire process quite similar to the one of playing a raga mala. Little wonder that chapters have been named after the ragas that Ravi Shankar created such as Gangeshwari, Bairagi, Parameshwari and Jogeshwari.

Most of the facts of his life are well known by now. However, in the chapter entitled “Jogeshwari”, Ravi Shankar offers a heart-wrenching account of his relationship with his extremely talented but wayward son Shubho. Those who have read his first wife Annapoorna Devi’s autobiography would find a huge divergence between their accounts. But, it is not for us to sit in judgement over which of the two is closer to truth.

Maestro’s writing

Ravi Shankar’s autobiography is unique not only because of his analytical mind and modern world view but also because it is the only autobiography that has been actually written. There are many autobiographies of musicians available but nearly all of them have been written by others to whom the musicians told their stories, relying solely on their memory.

Ravi Shankar, on the other hand, wrote it himself and consulted old newspaper clipping, tape recordings and other such material to cross check facts.

Vilayat Khan’s autobiography was first serialised in Bengali in magazine “Sananda”, edited by well-known film actor-director Aparna Sen who most appropriately named it “Komal Gandhar”. The sitar wizard spoke to Shankarlal Bhattacharya who later wrote it on the basis of the conversation’s tape recordings. Dr. Ramshankar Dwivedi has translated it from Bengali into Hindi and the book also contains essays written on the great musician by Neelaksh Dutt, Ashis Chattopadhyaya and Joy Goswami. However, one feels a little intrigued when Chief Editor of the Raza Pustakmala Ashok Vajpeyi renders the first two names as Neelabh Dutta and Ashis Bhattacharya in his foreword.

Vilayat Khan’s account of his own life shows how deeply interested he was in the Khayal form of vocal music and how intelligently he absorbed music of great vocalists of the 20th century and used it to fashion his own unique style of playing. It also amply demonstrates how an instrument is merely a vehicle of a musician’s creativity and has to be crafted and re-crafted to suit the creative requirements of a particular musician.

It too has many a poignant episode like his father, the great Inayat Khan, dying while he was asleep as a child and how great vocalist Amir Khan died in his lap. For those who want to understand how he evolved into a great sitar player facing extreme adversities, this book is simply unputdownable.

Bharatiya Jnanpith has also brought out an autobiography of renowned santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma titled “Santoor: Mera Jeevan Sangeet” (Santoor: The Music of My Life). It has been translated from English into Hindi by writer Shailendra Shail. There are a few other notable books too in this genre. Alladiya Khan’s “My Life” (As told to his grandson Azizuddin Khan), Allauddin Khan’s “Meri Katha” (translation by Rahul Barpute of Marathi “Majhi Kahani” that was itself a translation of Shubhmoy Ghosh’s Bengali “Aamaar Kotha”), Amjad Ali Khan’s “My Father: Our Fraternity” and Bala Saheb Poochhwale’s “Main Jaisa Bhi Hoon”.

The writer is a senior literary critic

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