Updated: Jul 5, 2019
Rabindra Shankar Chowdhury, the son of an English barrister was born in Varanasi in the days when it was known as Benares, . But Rabindra didn’t want to follow his father’s footsteps. He went on to create his own legacy. He changed his name to Ravi Shankar.
He is probably the greatest sitar maestro, introducing the Indian stringed instrument to the world stage. Even though he passed away in 2012, his legacy is still carried by his Grammy-nominated daughter Anoushka Shankar who is an incredible sitar player herself. On another note, his other daughter Norah Jones has also made a name for herself as a Grammy-winning jazz-pop singer.
But before Norah and Anoushka, a then 21-year old Ravi Shankar had a son with his first wife Annapurna Devi who was just 14 years in age at that time! He was named Shubendra but everyone called him by his nickname Shubho. Apart from his sitar-playing father, his mother was an astounding talent at the Surbahar (a bass sitar) while his uncle, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was a master of the sarod.
Growing up in a musical family, a child is either forced to pick up music as a hereditary vocation or is inspired enough to pick up music out of choice. In Shubho’s case, it was the latter. Even though his father wasn’t always there , Shubho still wished to play the sitar like him.
So how do you become like your idol? You either work yourself or get the idol teaching you to be like him. The latter is what Ravi Shankar did. Shubho received his initial training in music from his mother and then shifted to the United States to get lessons from his father Pt Ravi Shankar.
What Shubho probably didn't realise is that coaching was no cakewalk; it involved years of perseverance and patience. The greats of Indian classical music picked up and still pick up their skills by undergoing elaborate practice routines with their Guru's. India might be changing but remnants of the guru-shishya parampara still remain in music circles.
Shubho’s more popular half-sister Anoushka confesses that she had to sacrifice a lot of her school life and teenage fun for learning the sitar under her father. But in the end, it was all worth it. In fact, a day came in 2012 when both father and daughter’s albums were nominated against each other at the Grammy’s!
After setting foot on American soil, Shubho couldn’t give the entirety of his focus to music. He spent time with teens his age, who discussed bands, smoked marijuana and had some dreams which they would probably not achieve in life. But it’s not like Shubho didn’t have any life goals.
"Art was a big thing to me," and this is the road he took while still learning the sitar from his father who had become nothing short of a rock star by now in America. Starting off by making designs for telephone directories, Shubendra Shankar furthered his reach as a graphic designer.
Working with design companies provided him with a decent salary and a sense of freedom. Like many star kids, he felt glum on how he was seen as just the ‘son of that great sitar player’. Being born in the Shankar family, Shubendra got everything except an identity.
One can speculate that maybe this might be the reason that Shubendra let the strings of his sitar bite the dust and let his brush paint his future. Then came a point when the notes of his music somehow played again in his head.
At the age of 40, people face mid-life crises. It was around this age when Shubendra too began questioning his life choices. He decided to pick up the sitar once again. Shubendra wanted to go back to his Shubho-days.
“To play after so long away from an instrument is a very, very difficult job, but I had the willpower”, said Shubho in a 1989 article from the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps the article’s title itself summed up Shubho’s mood well. It read ‘Shubho Shankar's 2nd Career Turns Out to Be His First Love’.
The next year, he met his estranged mother in India after a gap of twenty years. Ravi Shankar may have been hailed as the best sitar player but Annapurna Devi was no less for Shubho. His mum resumed his sitar lessons.
It would have been truly cinematic if Shubho shone in his comeback moment as a reputed artist in his own right. But this was no movie. Even though he performed a few concerts with his father and drew a few cheers, he couldn’t set a benchmark.
The last straw was a show at the Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune. The critics here commented on how Shubho’s music was average and there were moments when he even went out of tune. It was time for Shubho’s sitar to get locked in the closet again. He left India, telling his mother that it was ‘too late now’.
What Shubho did for the remainder of his life remains unknown as he cut himself off from everyone he knew. It’s sad to note that the next time he made the headlines was when he passed away fighting pneumonia.
His father won acclaim for his music all through his life till he died at the ripe age of 94. Meanwhile dying at 50, Shubho didn't leave any such legacy but he certainly tried.
Shaurya Singh Thapa