Strings of Genius

By Pickle  June 22, 2020

Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Indian film music output was sparing but all of it was pure magic. This is his centenary year and Saibal Chatterjee goes down the memory lane

Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar was a year older than Satyajit Ray. At the very outset of his career, the filmmaker who was to become one of world cinema’s biggest luminaries by the end of the decade requested the classical instrumentalist to compose music for him. The sitar icon did the honours for the Apu trilogy. He also composed music for Ray’s first film outside the trilogy – Parash Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1958).

That was not all. Ray also planned a film on the virtuoso. The idea was to record the sitarist at work as he composed music. The director made a detailed storyboard for the proposed project. But for reasons unknown, the project was shelved. Less than a decade ago, the visual storyboard for the Ravi Shankar documentary, a true collectors’ item for cineastes, was published in the form of a book.

Ray never used Pandit Ravi Shankar again for a film after the end of the 1950s, but the sitarist continued to sparingly compose music for the cinematic works of other filmmakers.

In fact, almost a decade before Pather Panchali, the musician had composed the score for Chetan Anand’s 1946 film, Neecha Nagar (The Low City). The film, loosely adapted from Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths, shared the Grand Prix with ten other titles at the first Cannes Film Festival. The musical score of the film was also very well-received.

One of the admirers of Ravi Shankar’s work for Neecha Nagar was the French composer Maurice Jarre, who did not begin composing for films until the second half of the 1950s but made a tremendous reputation by scoring for David Lean films – Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India.

Less than a year later, Pandit Ravi Shankar composed the music for Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal, a tale set in the time of the Bengal famine of 1942. It was adapted from the novel Nabanna written by Bijon Bhattacharya.

Incidentally, both Chetan Anand and K.A. Abbas as well as Bhattacharya were active members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, of which Ravi Shankar, too, was a part until he branched out into the wider world of global music.

Unlike Neecha Nagar, Dharti Ke Lal, had songs, as many as ten of them. Initially, Ravi Shankar was reluctant to come up with musical numbers for a realistic film about famine. But Abbas managed to convince the sitarist. The lyrics were penned by the poet Ali Sardar Jafri and film lyricist Prem Dhawan, among others.

Among the numbers that the sitarist produced for Dharti Ke Lal was the folksy Jai dharti maiyya jai ho (Blessed are you, Mother Earth), which celebrated the peasants’ relationship with the land that they tilled. But several of the other compositions captured the dire straits that the farmers found themselves in when starvation set in – Bhookha hai Bangal (Bengal is hungry), Beete ho sukh ke din (The days of joy are gone) and Aaj sukha kheton mein (The farms are dry). For Chetan Anand’s 1952 film Aandhiyan, sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan did the music direction.

The title piece and the background score had Ali Akbar Khan on the sarod, Ravi Shankar on the sitar and Pannalal Ghosh on the flute. It was a combination made in heaven, one that was, unfortunately, never repeated.

Bengali filmmaker Tapan Sinha worked with Ravi Shankar on Kabuliwala. Ravi Shankar scored haunting melodies for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha (1960) and Godaan, adapted from a Munshi Premchand story in 1963. The songs of Anuradha had the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Kapoor. Two Ravi compositions – Jaane kaise sapnon mein kho gayi ankhiyan, Kaise din beete kaise beete ratiyan and Haai re woh din kyun na aaye – had Lata in exquisite form.

Nearly two decades later, Pandit Ravi Shankar returned to Hindi cinema with the musical score of Gulzar’s Meera, starring Hema Malini. The musician stirred a bit of controversy by ignoring Lata Mangeshkar and opting for the younger Vani Jairam to render the songs of the film.

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