It is with sadness that i learned that Ravi Shankar, the great, trail-blazing maestro passed away. He created forms tof music that didn’t exist and put Indian music on the map for the rest of the world, paving the path for so many of us to walk across. I had a brief encounter with him many moons ago, and i thought I’d share it.
It was a warm day in New York City. I stood outside Allice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, chewing the nails of one hand while wielding a tanpura in the other. I was very nervous.
I would be auditioning for Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and I had heard he was moody.
He strode into the entrance, a tiny man surrounded by about ten blonde goddesses. Each one with bigger breasts than the next.
One of the beauties crooked a painted nail at me. I obeyed. We entered a dressing room filled with the scent of jasmine where a man sat fiddling with tablas. I realised he was Allah Rakha.
Someone shoved me in front of the master.
“Hmmm, you play the tanpura?” enquired Mr Shankar, melodiously.
“Yes,” I said redundantly. Any moron can play a tanpura. It’s meant to drone inconspicuously behind musicians and singers. I was a singer and even if the New York nightclubs called for jazz, I’d usually cause quite a stir with my tanpura, short spiky hair, leather bustier and pants. But he didn’t need me to sing jazz, or anything else for that matter.
He looked me up and then down. “These clothes won’t do. You have to wear a saree,” he said.
“Yes sir,” I said, gleefully. Clearly I’d passed the audition. Thousands of New Yorkers would come to see Ravi Shankar… and me.
“What’s your name,” he asked, an afterthought.
“Radha,” I said.
“Ok Radha, let’s do a little riyaz,” he commanded. Practice. That’s what us classical music types do before shows.
I began the rhythm of the strings. He began the alaap to a Megh Malhar. Monsoon clouds and dark skies. He soared here and flew there. I stayed rooted to the tonic, straying only briefly to the fifth.
“Give me that,” said the maestro suddenly, grabbing my instrument. The clouds disappeared.
“Whaaat,” I jumped.
“It’s out of tune,” he barked and tightened the wooden knobs. He handed it back. “It’s fine now,” he said. His sense of pitch, perfect.
I reshuffled my legs and began twanging, already feeling like a house-hold name.
“What did you just do?” he cut in sharply.
“Nothing!” I said hastily. “I’m just getting comfortable.”
“No,” he said conclusively. “No comfort. You may not budge. Not even an inch. Like a statue. A statue with fingers that move. Do you understand me? You cannot uncross your legs once they are crossed.”
“Yes sir,” I said. I could see my legs falling off like dead branches from a tree by the end of the night.
That night my fifteen minutes of fame lasted about three hours. At the end of this the audience clapped thunderously, and as I wobbled up with Mr Rakha and Mr Shankar to take a shaky bow in front of New York’s finest, I made a vow to myself.