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Where Ravi Shankar, Beatles and Peter Sellers shopped

Legendary sitar maestro and composer Ravi Shankar did not just play strings but also virtually connected three cultures, three continents and three legends together, all with a little help from a small music shop in Delhi.

Rikhi Ram and sons, located in the posh Connaught Place market in central Delhi, not only crafted sitars for the late music icon and his daughter, The Beatles’s George Harrison but also had produced a made-to-order sitar especially for the 1968 cult classic and Peter Sellers’ starrer ‘The Party’.

‘Guruji was a regular visitor at our shop. It was like family and from the late 80s he had been using our sitars crafted especially for him. And, The Beatles came to our shop in 1966 while they were returning from their Tokyo concert. They not only bought sitar but also some other instruments and my father had some privileged time with them,’ said Ajay Sharma, grandson of the founder and current owner. ‘But, our most dubious distinction would be the sitar which my father made for the Hollywood movie ‘The Party’ and in fact after the movie Peter Sellers sent him a letter telling the scene where he plays it,’ Ajay told PTI in an private interview at his shop lined with old nostalgic photographs of Panditji, The Beatles visit to Delhi, among others. Peter Sellers was friends with the late musician and The Beatles and our shop name must have figured in their conversations, Ajay conjectured of those days. ‘Well, that was Ravi Shankar. He not only connected cultures through his music but spanned and bridged different continents literally on his string,’ Ajay added.

And as he pulled out well-kept old albums from behind of polished wooden cabinets, he said that flood of memories were rushing back and he could remember the human, the humble, the proud and the humours side, among others of Ravi Shankar which he believed the world hardly knows of.

‘Once, while I visited him for instrument-servicing at his 95, Lodhi Estate house here, he asked me to drive him for shoe shopping. And, he wore moccasins. So, we went around South Ex market and later at the Khan Market where they asked for his shoe size but he just wouldn’t tell despite repeatedly being asked,’ Ajay said as he broke into a laughter recalling the incident.

‘After leaving the shop I asked him why he wouldn’t tell so and to which he humanly replied-’I have child feet. I cannot tell my number. Were you trying to embarrass me by asking that in front of everybody?’,’ Ajay recalled further as tears welled up in his eyes. He said he later got him a custom-made shoe from the ‘John Brothers’ shop, as they both laughed back in good humour. ‘He may have had small feet but it was enough for him to span the universe,’ Ajay said with pride writ large on his face.

Ajay said he learned so much from the life of Guruji, as he fondly called Panditji as, but added that we as audience see only the persona but do not know the pains a musician goes through for his performance, an iconic figure no less.

‘I was accompanying him during one of his tours abroad once and he had some heart trouble and had to be put on intravenous feed later. The concert was after three days and he stayed overnight the day before the concert and the next day in the evening he not only enthralled the crowd, he received a standing ovation,’ Ajay told PTI. ‘After the performance, I saw his hands. It was all swollen and I could empathise with how much pain musicians go through for their dreams. But he said in a triumphant manner - “This is Ravi Shankar’,’’ Ajay recalled it with pain and pride. But he (Panditji) also told me later that ‘Ajay, god has blessed me with lot of energy but my heart pulls me back’ and incidentally he died of a heart ailment only, Ajay said.

Rikhi Ram and Sons family originally from Lahore started their business in 1920 and later after partition shifted to India.

‘My father (Bishan Dass) set up the shop in Delhi and must have met Panditji at the All India Radio during the 1950s when both worked there.

In fact, he (Bishan) later became his disciple and learned through the maestro the sounds and tones of the Maihar Gharana,’ Ajay said. ‘I’ve been to his San Diego house and we were shocked to receive the message of his passing away. My first thought was- all the sitars in the world are gently weeping,’ Ajay said as he flipped through one of the albums titled ‘1998 trip with Guruji’.

‘I have grown up in front of him and seen the many phases of his life. And, he symbolised a syncretic culture where east indeed meets the west unlike the ‘boxing ourselves in’ culture which has set in today,’ Ajay said as he tuned a guitar with equal ease. ‘Our association with the Shankars is long and enduring.  In 1965, my father devised an all wooden Tamboori to replace the huge Tanpuras which Panditji used to complain about. These easy-to-carry Tambooris are used today by all the musicians,’ Ajay told PTI.

‘Not only Guruji was musically so prolific, he even along with his disciple, designed an instrument called the ‘Hamsa Veena’. There it is,’ Ajay points to it as he opens the cabinet. Ajay recalls of the days when the maestro’s two daughters were still coming of age and ‘virtually unknown to the world.’ ‘Anoushka has changed so much now and I remember Guruji allowing her slots in between his own performances, when she was growing up literally and musically,’ Ajay said About Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Norah Jones who was born as Geethali Norah Jones Shankar, Ajay says he knew she’d become a star the moment he’d heard that beautiful girl playing the piano back in the 90s.

‘Panditji would affectionately call her ‘Geethu’ and I still recall once watching her play a piano at home, in the US. It was ‘Come Away With Me’ I think, and back then no one knew this would become one of her signature songs later,’ Ajay recalled with fondness.

In fact the Blake Edward’s classic has a rather flattering line from Sellers, playing an Indian, who on provocation says - ‘In India we don’t think who we are. We know who we are.’ Well now, we also somewhat better know who Ravi Shankar was. Don’t we?
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