Sukanya Shankar: Pandit Ravi Shankar had a father-daughter relationship with Norah, a guru-shishya bond with Anoushka
As we celebrate the centenary of the birth of sitar master Pandit Ravi Shankar today, his wife Sukanya Shankar tells us about his passion for the trade, how his admiration for Kaku (uncle, as he used to call him fondly) turned into love, Pandit Hee The relationship with his daughters Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, and more. Meanwhile, the centennial world tour scheduled to commemorate the occasion has been postponed amid the coronavirus outbreak. The family, however, will broadcast live prayers.
You were probably 17 years old when you shared the stage, at the Royal Albert Hall, with Pandit Ravi Shankar. What are your earliest memories of him?
I met him for the first time in 1972, at Charles Street in London. I was friends with his niece Vi Hee , who introduced me to him and asked me to play tanpura for him. I was only 17. No one had ever asked me for a tanpura rehearsal before. So, I went and met him. The moment I held the tanpura in my hand, he said, "You have long nails, you can't play like that!" I replied, "That is how I've always played tanpura." He immediately came back with a nail clipper and clipped the nails on one hand. Then he said, "It will look bad if I don’t do it on the other." Then he cut the nails on my other hand, too. This is one of my earliest memories of him.
Most artists don't care who plays the tanpura on stage, but how particular it was! He asked me: What color are you going to use on stage? Without greens, without blues. I just want sun colors on stage. Use warm colors: red, garnet, orange, or yellow.
He was like this unreachable person to me. He was a beautiful man. The Royal Albert Hall show sold out. Coming from South India, this was my first introduction to North Indian classical music. I could appreciate it, but everything was new to me. Looking at the meeting that had come to listen to him, I had the feeling of knowing someone a little above the human level, someone you admire. I was amazed, this was my fangirl moment. Love came later.
You used to call him Kaku (uncle). How did that affect turn into love and when did you realize it?
(Laughter) Yes, it is true. I used to call him Kaku (uncle). I think I must have loved him all along. But sometimes you don't realize yourself. One fine day, he was playing at Greenwich Town Hall and I went to listen to him. He asked me: Where are you sitting? I said to him: In the first row, a little to the right. So, he went on stage and sang my favorite raga: Yaman Kalyan. When he held the microphone and looked at me, they sold me.
Did you express your feelings then? Despite meeting the women in his life, you still made the decision to be with him ...
He never made any promises. He never led me. I chose to do what I did. He put his cards directly on the table and said: I can't get involved. I cannot compromise. Sometimes reason tells you one thing and your heart tells you another. For 16-17 years, meeting him even once or twice a year was rare. I would wait for him to come. I knew you would never marry me. He wanted something that was part of him. I knew I was with other people. But I chose everything and kept going. When you love someone so deeply, you don't reason. There are no answers for certain things in life.
You wanted to have a child with him, but he didn't. Was it your extraordinary love for him that led you to make that decision?
Not that I didn't want to have a child with me. He just didn't want to commit. I was afraid that if I had a child, society would know and be tied down. So I said to him: He will be my son. I will take care of her.
I didn't expect anything from him, emotional or financial. I wanted a child for me and then it happened. Anoushka is a blessing in my life. I could not have asked for anything better. She is talented and famous, but what is so important to me is that she is such a good human being, so honest and precious. She opened me up and made me accept many things. She taught me not to judge. I learned all of this from her and I am so grateful.
Pandit Hee met Anoushka for the first time when she was two months old. How was that meeting? Was he restrained or comfortable?
I wanted to leave them alone for a moment. So I went to the kitchen to prepare rice and asked her to keep an eye on her. He was downstairs and I could hear him sing to him. That was a beautiful moment. When he saw her next, he must have been seven or eight years old. He had had Norah before, who was in New York. I will never forget his expression when he saw Anoushka. Oh my God! They (Norah and Anoushka) don't even seem to have different mothers. They are very similar, he said.
When did you meet Norah? What are your earliest memories of her?
I met Norah when she was almost 18 years old. When we got married, her mother took her away and he couldn't meet her for almost eight years. We try to find her and send her messages through many sources. One day, Pandit Hee I was giving Anoushka lessons when the phone rang. Anoushka picked it up and it was Norah. Anoushka already knew about her, so she gave him the phone. He asked: Hi honey, how are you? I quickly picked up the phone and asked Geetu for his contact. Her name was Geetali at the time and we used to call her Geetu. I asked him: Would you like to come here? She said yes. She was in Dallas at the time and we were in California. I sent her a ticket and she came. Guru Hee and I went to the airport to look for her. I recognized her before he did! I haven't seen her in eight years, but I've never seen her. Norah and I have a very special bond. Anoushka has nothing on me, she is totally like a guru Hee . Norah also looks like him, but she has something about me, which is very strange. We joined immediately and she has been very close to me ever since. Of course, she and Anoushka are also very close, and now they both have children too, which is lovely. I keep visiting them. Everybody call me ammama .
Tell us about Pandit Hee 's musical influence on his daughters?
Norah did not learn from the guru Hee at first but she received some lessons from him. This is all in the genes, you know. There is something very musical about both. Norah encourages things like him: improvisations come naturally to her. Anoushka is completely like her father while performing on stage. She likes to give a good presentation. She is really committed to the public and likes to deliver a finished product. I admire her for that.
With Norah, guru Hee had a father-daughter relationship. He called his baby and she was the daughter he always wanted. Of course, he loved Anoushka too, but with her, he was more of a guru. shishya relationship. Anoushka found it difficult when she was growing up, since he was very strict. There was no nonsense in the music room. Once they left the music room, they were father and daughter again. When they didn't want me to understand their conversation, they spoke in French (laughs).