His Guru’s string of faith

Sumati mehrishi profiles the noted Sitar player Shubhendra Rao.

There are only two ways a musician could live up to his ‘star’ guru’s name. As an artiste-disciple he could either be infringed by the monumental magnanimity of his guru’s name; going down in layakari over his wobbly legs before a close-fisted music fraternity at a performance, crumbling under the pressure of having a guru as illustrious and ingenious as Pandit Ravi Shankar. Or — he could let the Guru’s music grow below his skin, into the penetrable soul, riyaz after riyaz, decades over — to become a representative, a reverberation of his revered art, skills and thoughts — like Shubhendra Rao, the Delhi based ace sitar artiste and composer.

Outside Panditji’s biological periphery, Shubhendra was named after his Guru’s son Shubhendra ‘Shubho’ Shankar.  He says, “My father late NR Rao’s, one of the closest disciples of Panditji would take care of Shubho Da whenever Panditji would be away on concert tours. He was really attached to Panditji’s son. It was in Bangalore in the 1970s that Panditji would visit us at home. I was only seven when he gave me my first lesson.” Today, when Panditji is close to 91, Shubhendra Rao walks around with the weight in his name and the impending responsibility in it.

Many times, before his performance, we have seen him smoking at the back of the green room, where he solitarily stands puffing into his cigarette thoughtfully, his eyes fixed over a rose or a mogra bush, his silk kurta sleeves folded up his wrists. He would look aware, and lost in parallel thoughts, the monsoon drizzle settling on his curly hair, as would remember during a July evening, a monsoon afternoon at Panditji’s Lodhi road residence in the 1980s for you.

The next moment he transforms into an observable offshoot, orderly and unmistakable when he places the sitar on the arch of his steady foot – to perform. He says, “Guruji hasn’t been in Delhi for quite sometime now, but his absence only makes me stronger. That’s how it is supposed to be, to grow as an artiste and a person I need not have guruji with me all the time, because I am so close to him in soul that I feel close to him the whole day long. In the 1980s, Guruji would be in Delhi for merely 60 days in a year. But we would make the best of his stay. My lessons would start at 4.30 in the morning, we would take a short break, play badminton, go for walks to the Lodhi Garden. My father has seen Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Panditji and Annapurnaji just sitting peacefully and playing.”

Year 2010, when Panditji’s 90th birthday was celebrated in the Capital, oddly, in his absence from the country, has been very special for Rao. There was a memorable short concert held at the Delhi’s Meghdoot Theatre where Rao performed for the Sangeet Natak Akademi with Murad Ali Khan, the sarangi artiste and Sanjeev Shankar, son of shahnai maestro Pandit Daya Shankar the shahnai artiste from Benaras gharana. Then, in July, at Pandit Ravi Shankar’s 90th birthday celebrations, he played a string of melodies Rasiya, Yaman Manj and Tilak Shyam in the Thumri style followed by the theme of Pather Panchali. “Out of all the melodies created by Panditji, Parmeshwari is the closest to my heart.” A few Malhar concerts in the rainy seasons led him to a busy tour for the SpicMacay, between and after these, trickling over to the beginning of this year are duets with wife and cello exponent Saskia Rao de Haas, of which their rendering of Hemawati, another melody conceived by his guru lingers in our mind — in phrases, grains, pauses and harmonies.

When you hear him playing the alaap in Puriyadhanashri, you wish he would, over another concert, play Tilak Kamod. In his duets with Saskia and collaborations with ace tabla exponent and friend Akram Khan where you feel Shubhendra has sapped from his Guru’s style more than any of his sitar artiste disciples. There is religiosity in his composing, a tenacious, unbound urge for orchestration in his composition based on melodies created by Panditji. His progression into and through taans is more soulful than a mindful. He says, “My training in Carnatic music and, its layakari under the legend TV Gopalakrishnan helped a lot.”  Then, there is the exemplary on-stage sobriety he could be an inspiration for. There is something extremely content about the way he rewards himself on stage.

Recently, he performed at musical tribute to commemorate the 82nd birth anniversary of the Late Pandit Bishan Dass Sharma, the inimitable maker of musical instruments and a musician. In the audience there were Pandit Rajan and Sajan and Mishra, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pandit Satish Vyas and Ustad Sabri Khan. Rao looked around before the first strum and sketched over a very detailed alaap in Puriyadhanashri the night melody. Each detail in his alaap showed he was aware of the fact that he was playing before the Mishras, the undisputed kings of the night melody; Ustad Sabri Khan, who despite his frailty has an unforgiving, devouring ear for the slightest of error, laziness in swar vistaar; Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, the rooted perfectionist and the conventional practitioner who would never allow discounting on details for tempo and temptations arising from tempo. We observed sons of maestros less popular than Pandit Ravi Shankar eagerly grabbing, smirking at points where they had anticipated Shubhendra could be stuck, waiting for weak links in the laya in the jod taans. So daunting can be “growing” as Pandit Ravi Shankar’s prime disciple soloist. And Rao, who gave his first performance in Bangalore in 1987, has been sailing out of it all most aesthetically.

Rao, who, to be fairly precise, falls in the chronological slot three of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s disciples (he was the youngest of the shishyas when Panditji created in the 1980s the remarkeable taal vaadya ensamble of which Pandit Ronu Majumdar, Pandit Kumar Bose and Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt were members) had shifted to Delhi in 1984 from Bangalore, where his father, the late NR Rao, He adds, “Panditji would call me his memory bank. In my entire association with him I haven’t picked a notebook. I would remember the orchestra pieces after playing them once over my sitar.”

Melodies and memory do make an exponent, but Shubhendra Rao is stringed in, like the kharaj in Pandit Ravi Shankar’s lineage and Maihar’s.