Sukanya Shankar

"I’m but dust at his feet."

By Kavita Chhibber

"Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation."
- Khalil Gibran

If there is anyone who defies that quotation, it’s the love story of Pandit Ravi Shankar and his wife of over 3 decades - Sukanya Shankar.

Pandit Ravi Shankar turns 93 today - April 7th 2013.

And as I sit here in my home office listening to the many recordings I have of his interviews with me -  recordings that I haven’t deleted and of Sukanya Shankar over the years - I decide I will begin this year long tribute by sharing Pandit Ravi Shankar through the eyes of the woman who brought him back from the jaws of death so many times... far more than the media and the general public has been aware of. There is no other way that I would start this year long tribute. I must honor the woman who added years to Ravi ji’s life and shared him with all of us so generously and with such joy.

My favorite picture of Sukanya is that of a young woman surrounded by pigeons, joyful, one with nature. And that inner beauty has not dimmed with the passing of time and neither has her love and devotion to the man she has known for over 3 decades.

For those who believe in the afterlife and that the soul does not die and that our loved ones are still around us if we listen deeply and pay attention, I can say that Ravi ji hasn’t left her even after his physical body has returned to the elements. There have been messages, signs too strong to ignore not to believe that. And I have personally experienced them myself. Even as recently as just 3 days ago when I sat down to seek his blessings to start the year long tribute to him.

I was surviving on little sleep, brain was a mush and I sat down and bowed my head and prayed to Ravi ji that this year long celebration of his life was going to start with Sukanya and if he had a message for her to tell me. And that I needed his blessings. I heard his voice very clearly and laughter at my misinterpreting the message. But I know Sukanya understood what he said. Even in San Diego last December at his Memorial, I saw something which I conveyed to Sukanya and again it was something I would not have known, so he is very much around if we believe. And I believe…

This tribute was a special series that was supposed to happen 3 years ago to celebrate Ravi ji’s 90th birthday and I had done an interview with Sukanya Shankar as a surprise for him. The interview was never published because I got involved in Pranic healing and took a break from writing. And circumstances prevented me from flying to California to be a part of the celebrations as well.

Last night I pulled the interview out and heard it. And today I wanted to share those moments with you, not only as a tribute to Ravi ji but as a reminder for those of us who are with a partner, that you can create your own heaven on earth, if you learn to love like Ravi and Sukanya Shankar. I did speak with her a few days ago and will also add the parts of the conversation that are not private. She was not ready but honored me by calling and sharing some thoughts.

During our interview I had asked Sukanya ji, what had been her idea of the perfect man, the ideal man before she met Pandit Ravi Shankar?

She had said to me: "I didn’t have an ideal. My father was very strict and my brothers were petrified of him. So he was not my idea of what a perfect man would be. And my first marriage too wasn’t an ideal one but when you don’t know any better, you believe that what you have is perhaps how it is supposed to be. You have nothing to compare it to."

"But when I met Ravi ji - the moment I met him - I knew he was someone very different, very unique from any man I had met before. And I was not even looking at him as a woman would look at a man thinking ’Oh this is someone I am attracted to.’ He was not in my age group. It was just his aura that left me totally in awe. It was like this God like person who had manifested himself before me. I met him in 1973 and called him Kaku for 5 years. Our relationship began in 1978 so for 5 years there was nothing between us. But now when I analyze in my mind, I realize that I always loved him but didn’t know it myself."

"I think the thing that struck me the most was how professional and elegant he was. And such a perfectionist. My father was a very highly educated and well spoken man who took me to a lot of western concerts, operas etc, which were meticulously presented. So when I did go for an Indian concert it was very different."

"It was not until I saw Ravi ji on stage for the first time that I realized how he brought the same elegance and perfection to Indian concerts."

I first saw him at the Royal Albert Hall, and actually played Tanpura for him. He was very particular about what colors would be there on stage, how everyone would dress up, how they would be seated and how they would smile at the audience. He wanted it to be a memorable experience for everyone. I used to be a giggler and he told me "No giggling on stage."

"But what really stood out was the fact that he even checked my nails. He said ’You are playing the tanpura. Do you have long nails?’ They were slightly long and I said ’I’ll go cut them.’ But Ravi ji said, ’Let me see." and then proceeded to get a nail cutter and cut my nails himself. I was thinking ’This man is crazy.’ Here he is - this great legend - and he is cutting my nails but he had no ego about grabbing a nail cutter and cutting the nails of a young girl but that is how much of a perfectionist he was. This was his concert and he wanted everything to be perfect... even my nails, even though no one was going to look at anything or anyone but Ravi ji! But Imagine - that was my first physical contact with him!”

Ravi ji told me that it was his older brother Uday Shankar who taught him so much by example - how to conduct yourself, how to present your work in the best possible way. The quest for that perfection stems from those early years, and remained the hallmark of any Ravi Shankar concert you attend. His only regret, Ravi ji said to me, was that he grew up far too quickly. Still he loved being surrounded by music and dance.

What was also his hallmark was that he took his brilliance so lightly. Sukanya said to me, "I would see him perform – everything would be picture perfect and he would go on stage and he would not give elaborate speeches or have people do long introductions. He didn’t try to prove himself. He just came and performed... and let his music speak. It moved me and others deeply."

"And he was so kind to women. The way he took care of them. He was such a gentleman. He would open doors, make sure everyone was comfortable, step back to let a woman pass, make sure we had eaten. He was so genuine and sincere in his thoughtfulness. And he has remained the same. That was then and now having known him for over 30 years nothing has changed. If we had been out and we came home and I asked him ’Shall I make you a cup of tea?’ Ravi ji will instantly say ’Darling just wait. Let me first get you a glass of water.’"

Ravi ji also had an amazing capacity to love people, to remember names, and to forgive those who had hurt him. When I mentioned that to Sukanya she said, "That is him. There have been so many instances where he would sign a blank sheet of paper for trusted people as he was traveling and they took advantage of it, and when he was ill so many times, I can count on my fingers how many people contacted him to check on his welfare. Some will text or email knowing he doesn’t use a cell phone or email. And how much time does it take to write a letter to your Guruji? The way he worshipped and acknowledges his guru is incredible."

"I would tell him exactly what I thought of people who came in, and who was being nice so they could get something out of him... and two days later it would happen, but he had the freedom to do what he wanted. I just can’t be fake. But there have also been those who have been there for him always. He used to tell me he worries about how people will treat me when he is no more because I had to step in and stop those who were taking advantage of him but I have been so overwhelmed by how much love people have shown after he left. There are more people around me now than there were even when he was here."

I think one of the things that I found very endearing about all three of them Ravi ji, Sukanya and Anoushka has always been their quick wit and sense of humor and their ability to laugh at themselves, each other and together. And Sukanya recalls, "He is such a comedian. I know everyone respects him and in the eyes of the world he is THE Pandit Ravi Shankar and he is all that but he has such a great sense of humor. There were times I’d be having this serious conversation with someone and he is standing there behind the person or next to him making faces at me, until I lose the thread and had to admonish him to stop it. And he would be, even at his age, doing these crazy dance movements. He would dance and would look so gorgeous. I say this with the utmost respect but Ravi ji was that rare man whose feminine and masculine sides were very balanced. He was extremely attractive to both men and women. He had that seamless beauty and elegance and an aura that could not be compartmentalized by gender."

"He would even dance while playing the sitar. His whole body used to be swaying... and Anoushka has the same quality. I always told her "Bapi used to do that a lot."

How can any conversation about Ravi ji be complete without a discussion of how irresistible he was to women, how much he loved them and how at ease he was in their company? I used to tell him his name should have been Rasik Bihari, not Ravi.

I’ve seen it firsthand how he could charm a bird off a tree if he so wanted. And on a personal level I have seen what an attentive man he is. If I was talking to him it did not matter who else was in the room. He would give me undivided attention, appreciate what I was wearing and ask me incessant questions about my life, my health and well being. And Sukanya is amazing in that she is the least possessive person I’ve seen in my life. She is friends with even Ravi ji’s exes and always said to me: "He loves women and respects them and I don’t feel insecure in anyway. If I stopped him, something would stifle in him."

A few years ago Ravi ji was so sick that doctors had told Sukanya he had only 50 percent chance of making it but there he was - Mr. Incorrigible. Sukanya recalled laughingly, "Really! He was so sick and this pretty young nurse came to me and said, ‘Mrs. Shankar, your husband is flirting with me. I have been around so many celebrities and worked with them but Mr. Shankar in spite of being so sick is looking at me with THAT twinkle in his eyes. I can never forget those eyes!’" Just a few days ago when Sukanya and I talked remembering that story, she laughingly told me that Anoushka’s son little Zubin has taken over where the grandfather left off. "He is so little but he just makes a beeline for pretty girls. The other day he saw this 9 year old pretty girl and went up to her and grabbed her and started kissing her face... I think Ravi ji is directing him! Zubin is also very musicial."

When Ravi ji was given the first Tagore award earlier this year I’m sure he must have been smiling from above. He has received so many accolades but his visit to Shantiniketan meant so much to him. I often said he was beginning to look like Rabindranath Tagore

For Sukanya what deeply moved her was that Ravi ji allowed his name to be used for PETA, because animals and their well being are so dear to Sukanya. 

The Ravi Shankar I knew for the past 12 years, was an incredibly humble man, very gentle, always trying to be in a state of balance, and very patient. I’ve seen him sit hungry and tired concert after concert but make it a point to meet everyone who had come to see him afterwards... sometimes eating his dinner at 2 am.

"He had become incredibly patient," Sukanya agrees, "In fact both our daughters often commented on it saying over and over again... Bapi is so sweet."

I said to Sukanya I was very grateful to her because if it wasn’t for her I doubt Ravi ji would have been with us for so long. I always saw her in the background, taking care of both Ravi ji and Anoushka. She said that Anoushka said to her one day "Mummy, go and do something for yourself. You are such a nun!" "And I said to her, ’Anoushka I don’t miss anything.’ I would like to visit some places that I haven’t been to but if I couldn’t go with Ravi ji I would miss him terribly and if he was not there anymore, I would still feel so guilty. I don’t really look at this as a sacrifice."

"I did everything for him. I was his barber, podiatrist, manicurist all rolled into one. He loved my cooking... and would often ask me to make chicken or macher jhol or tadka dal. Ravi ji had simple tastes. When he was on stage he was King. You should not be on stage if you can’t go there and own it... but off stage he was very simple and very accessible."

"Our home is our temple and Ravi ji and I would sit there, in the mornings, having a cup of tea enjoying this beautiful panoramic view being so close to nature and thinking this is the closest we can get to heaven. Since the past few years, I decided to make as much time as I could to sit with him and watch TV or watch movies. He loves watching TV and movies, and I had to get so much done that I still feel guilty even looking at a television set because I was not able to spend enough time watching with him."

I remember asking Sukanya what was the most romantic thing Ravi ji had done for her. She said they were always holding hands and he would write love notes to her almost daily. If she was working late he would write the note and leave it on her pillow or the wash basin where she could see it, telling her how much he loved her and how grateful for everything she did for him. 

When we spoke a few days ago, the conversation was off record because she is not yet ready to talk. She did say that at the memorial in Delhi people showered so much love that she couldn’t help herself and had to get up and acknowledge that love in a few brief sentences, and to do what Ravi ji did a lot: Say thank you.

"I have been told that I should close the Ravi Shankar Center for the Arts, that I should now sit back and relax, but when I stand there I feel his presence so strongly. Even the maid came to me and said that it feels like Guruji is here, that he hasn’t left. And I said to myself: How can I let this center go? I pray to Ravi ji to guide me. I may move to India. I want to bring his sitar and other possessions and create a shrine for him here so people can come and be a part of his life. They love him so much. And I hope they will bless this dream as well."

"Music was his life. His last concert in Nov 2012 was nothing but a miracle. Even the doctors could not believe how he did it. And I want to devote my life to continuing that work. Anoushka said it very correctly - to know him was to love him. To know his music was to love his music."

"I’m but dust at his feet. He was this mountain... he was celestial and not from this world. I am just so grateful that I was given the opportunity to serve him and to take care of him in this life time. I hope there will be many more." 

In the coming weeks, Kavita will be bringing more interviews, more sharing to celebrate the life of Pandit Ravi Shankar.

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