Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shubhendra Rao -- "The soul remains Indian; but we cross a few boundaries"

Shubhendra's e-mail of July 1,2004 to Deepak Raja

My father was a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar since 1949, much before I was born. He remained one of his closest disciples and in our house in Bangalore where I grew up, Guruji (Pandit Ravi Shankar) was worshipped as God! Even as a very young child, I was supposed to have shown my talent in music and could sing all the notes even before I could speak. I would even sing film songs in musical notations!!! This talent was noticed by Guruji too and he tested me when I was 3 years old by singing many complicated Taans which I could easily notate in swaras. Not being too strong physically because of my age and not being able to hold the Sitar in its normal position, I would hold it like a South Indian Veena (perhaps seeing my mother practice).

My first memory of my life is also of that day when Guruji, Alla Rakhaji came home to see my grandmother and have dinner with us. The year was 1968 and I was 3 + a few months at that time. My father asked me to play for Guruji which I did. They were very impressed and I have vivid memories of Guruji telling me that I should hold the Sitar in the normal position from then on and practice.

My father was my first Guru and he was very methodical in his teaching--stressing a lot on the exercises and different compositions that he had learnt from guruji. What others found difficult like meends, gamaks came easy for me and every year, whenever Guruji visited Bangalore for concerts, he would check my progress and give a few suggestions. My first lesson from him directly was in the year 1973 in Mysore where he sat with me for more than an hour and taught me Raga Bhairav, teaching me some chalans, meends and a beautiful sargam. Whenever Guruji had master classes for his senior students, my father would record these lessons and the first thing we would do together when he returned to Bangalore was to write down the notations and I could practise it the next few months. I still remember once when he returned from Benaras and there was this difficult Taan in Bilaskhani Todi which Guruji himself had said was very difficult and I could pick it up very fast just by listening to it once from a cassette.

From 1977 onwards, Guruji started calling me to different places like Bombay, Delhi and other places to teach me, either alone or with a few selected students. Then, I could get to spend 10-15 days with him and he would sometimes teach for 7-8 hrs in a day!!! At the same time, he asked me to play in his compositions and recordings that he would do. The first opportunity for me to sit and play with him on stage was in 1983 when I played with him in Delhi in Siri Fort along with 3 senior students of his. At this point, I was the baby in his group of students since I was just 18!!!

It was in 1984 that he asked me to move to Delhi since he had plans of staying in Delhi more and more. I jumped at this opportunity and even though I had 2yrs still left to finish my college, I left everything and moved to Delhi. The next 7-8 yrs were years of practice and learning and absorbing the music. Sometimes, teaching would be at midnight when he felt like it or at 7 in the morning. Even though he would go out on tours, I continued to stay in the house and practice as much as possible. I started playing with him on stage regularly from 1984 onwards and many times, he would take ragas that I had not previously learnt and talas that I had not practiced. Next day he would then sit with the same raga and we would go through it in a detailed way.

The insight he has given me into this music---the spiritual feeling to approach it with---Raga clarity and strict adherence to the raga without taking any liberties with the raga--the different moods of different ragas---everything I have absorbed from him. His humility towards the music is something I have seen and taken with me.

Performing career

I did play a few concerts when I was young--in some youth festivals or competitions but on Guruji's advice, I stopped performing completely till 1987 when an organiser in Bangalore sought Guruji's permission for me to play in a major youth festival. Since then, I have been performing regularly all over. Some of the major music festivals are Shankar Lal festival in 1993 and 1995, Saptak festival many times, Harvallabh Sangeet Mahasabha, Dover Lane Music Conference and others.

My first international visit was to Moscow when Guruji asked me to play in his creation--Inside the Kremlin. My first solo tour internationally was in 1993 to North America and since then, have been performing all over the world every year. I have played in some major music festivals like WOMAD and also collaborated with some non-Indian musicians like Chinese instrument called Pipa played by Gao Hong, Jazz Flutist James Newton---have composed music for ballets. I am also working closely with my wife Saskia who has modified and adapted the Cello for Indian Classical music. We compose and play together special pieces for the Sitar-Cello. Our music is what you could call an extension of Indian classical music because the soul remains Indian but we cross a few boundaries. These compositions have been received with great acclaim internationally.

(c) Deepak S. Raja
The finest recordings of Shubhendra Rao have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

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