Pandit Ravi Shankar and the sitar are practically synonymous. Bringing Indian music to a global audience and incorporating Western elements into his repertoire, Shankar successfully passed on his glorious lineage to his daughter Anoushka. She is the face of a new wave of Indian classical music that combines tradition and contemporary innovation. In an email conversation, they reminisce about the early years of the father-daughter, guru-shishya relationship between them and the evolution of classical music.
Pandit Ravi Shankar (RS): Questions about the current scenario of classical music in India and other countries should ideally be answered by genuine lovers of Indian classical music, with sufficient knowledge and appreciation of all other types of music . I find it difficult to give my own perspective as a hardcore Indian classical musician. Whatever experiences I have had, they are all based on classical music. There is a world of difference between the two classical forms of India – the northern Hindustani system and the southern Caryatid system. When we talk about classical Indian music, it’s not just Hindustani. It is amazing to see the state of Carnatic music. The classical tradition has been revitalized by young musicians. You see this wherever a South Indian lives, whether inside or outside India. But we have a problem with Hindustani, although Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune, Delhi and some other cities are in a better position as some of the great living musicians stay there and classical music events are also held there. Delhi is spoiled, however; people pay for all other types of music, but don’t buy tickets for classical music.
Anoushka Shankar (AS)): There is a big difference between how traditions are maintained in the north and in the south. However, I feel more able to speak about my own experiences in northern India, and in Delhi in particular. What I find difficult to accept is that in the media, classical music is often forced to occupy the same place as other genres, which means that we rarely have sufficient airtime at the radio or television. India is driven by media marketing and that means classical music is struggling to get a slice of the pie.
RS: There is so much music there. I haven’t heard it all, but from what I’ve heard, some of it is extremely good. I was also very impressed by some film music. Today’s musicians are fond of experimentation, but they must know the essence of classical music.
LIKE: I don’t think we can generalize “the young generation” in classical music. Just as there are many artists who are young and dedicated to the classical form, there are also those who are all for experimentation. The problem starts with the overwhelming media attention to experimental works, which creates a bottleneck that forces artists to do the same thing again to advance their careers.
RS: Technology has improved presentation and made our lives easier, but sometimes over-amplification ruins the quality of the voice or lead instrument, especially when the accompanying instruments are as loud as the tabla or harmonium. .
LIKE: Sure! I often find it hard to listen to classical concert recordings because it’s not the kind of music you want to be bombarded with. It is interesting to compare Indian classical music with its Western counterpart, because the latter is never amplified; all of their instruments were designed and built to be played and heard in concert halls. Ours were built for use in smaller rooms.
RS: Today’s musicians have an advantage over us. We could only learn from our guru or by listening to experienced musicians. There were no tape recorders or computers, televisions or DVDs, except for the new 78 rpm records and the radio. However, to learn Indian classical music, it is essential to have a guru. I was with my brother Day Shankar’s troupe from age 10 to 18, touring the world as a musician and dancer. Two wonderful musicians, Timir Baran and Vishnudas Shirali, enlightened me about classical music at that time. I then went to stay with Guru Baba Allauddin in the isolated Maihar of Madhya Pradesh for almost seven years to learn classical music in the ancient gurukul system. You (Anoushka) started learning from me when you were around eight years old. At the beginning, I taught you fixed compositions or streamers and you would pick them up quickly. Sometimes, when I improvised on the same compositions, you complained that Bali (dad) played everything wrong. It was different between us, because it was not only guru and shishya, but also father and daughter. As we got serious in the music room, you being very close to me would put your feet in my lap, not get up (in deference) every time I passed or offered pranaam like my other disciples.
LIKE: I believe the guru-shishya relationship has evolved over time. The age-old stories you hear about gurus as tyrants who abused their students and tied them to trees seem totally unacceptable today. This is similar to the evolution of parenting techniques. However, I believe that the essence of the relationship remains the same and that the magic of being able to pass on a living tradition and culture from generation to generation, from one dedicated person to another, is still there.
RS: More than ever, there is an abundance of talent today. I am speechless watching some of the talent shows when I have time. Classical music training should begin at kindergarten level, with basic melodic structure and rhythmic compositions like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Those who prove talented and interested can then learn the classic from competent teachers.
LIKE: I think claiming our time as the time of change is shortsighted. It’s safe to say that the feeling that the world is changing around us is pervasive across all generations. That said, talent, when cultivated, will flourish.
RS: Whatever kind of music you play, if it touches the soul or the senses of the listener, it’s successful. Speed and virtuosity are always appealing and exciting, but when a quiet note touches the heart or brings tears, to me, that’s next level.
LIKE: I think classical music will always have its place in our cultural landscape. But we need to make sure it gets more support and keeps trying to reach new audiences.
(The article was published in the INDIA TODAY edition entitled “Conversations” of December 12, 2012)