A Favourite Disciple of Ravi Shankar

“Is it possible to get A.R.Rahman? If it is not possible, how about Balamuralikrishna? At least S.P.Balasubramaniam?” These were the questions posed to me by a Manager in charge of Music in an important Malayalam TV Channel on the morning of 11th December, 2012, the day Pundit Ravi Shankar passed away! The idea was to get a few popular figures in the field of music to talk about Pundit Ravi Shankar and get it telecast as a channel tribute. I told him that there is a person in Chennai who is better qualified to talk about Pundit Ravi Shankar. “Is it Ilayaraja?” he asked me. I said, “No. He is Pundit Janardhan Mitta.” He responded saying “Even I do not know of him. So where is the question of viewers knowing of him?” Then I asked him, “Do you know who Vilayat Khan is?” He said, “I have heard the name somewhere, but cannot place him.” “Do you know who Annapurna Devi is?” I continued. He said, “No”. “Nikhil Banerji?” “No”. “How about Shahid Parvez?” He did not know him as well. I disconnected telling him that it was no surprise that he had not heard of Pundit Janardhan Mitta.

If Pundit Ravi Shankar represents a great peak of sitar then Ustad Vilayat Khan stands as another great peak. Nikhil Banerji is another peak in the world of sitar. The genius of Annapurna Devi in sitar is well known. She was the first wife of Pundit Ravi Shankar. Ustad Allauddin Khan was the father of Annapurna Devi and a Guru to all the above sitar maestros! If Shahid Parvez is the present day sitar wonder, then Pundit Janardhan Mitta is South India’s best sitar maestro.

Among the few disciples of Pundit Ravi Shankar, Pt. Janardhan Mitta is an important one. He had moved closely with Pt. Ravi Shankar for almost half a century. But, as he had spent almost 45 important years of his life in the film music industry, barring composers and artistes in the industry he remained unknown to common people and music fans.

My relationship with Pundit Janardhan Mitta’s music began from the days of Salil Chowdhury composing music for the Malayalam film Madanotsavam. The song ‘Saagarame Shaantamaka Nee’ from that film was later translated into the Tamil song ‘Kaalamagal Medainadakam’. It is one of the most emotional songs that I have heard. I can never forget the sorrow-filled parts of the sitar portion in the song. Janardhan’s sitar music had also starred in the many songs of another of my ideal Malayalam film music composers, Baburaj. Baburaj was greatly infatuated with Hindustani music. He had composed many songs in ghazal, tumri and dadhra styles. And he unfailingly made great use of Janardhan’s sitar music.  

After I became a resident of Chennai, I searched for and visited many music artistes who played some fantastic instrumental pieces in many of my favourite numbers to spend hours of marvelous times with them. Important among them are flute wonder Guna Singh and violin genius Rama Subbu. That was how I first met Pundit Janardhan Mitta. That relationship continues to this day.

Pundit Janardhan, who was the sitar artiste dear to Salil Chowdhury, was not aware of the difference of opinion between his Guru Pt. Ravi Shankar and Salil Chowdhury that was practically music tiff. Salil Chowudhury had, in many of his numbers like ‘O Sajna Barkha Bahaar Aayee’ in the film Parakh, used sitar for a western technique like obbligato. At this, an angered Pt. Ravi Shankar had objected saying that Salil Chowdhury had no right to trivialize the treasure of Indian music, the sitar, like this.

Salil Chowdhury had reposted to this criticism: “I am not in the sad position of having to learn from Ravi Shankar how to be an Indian in music or how to go Western.” Later, however, Ravi Shankar corrected himself saying that his stand on the issue was wrong and that the score of Salil Chowdhury was superbly creative. He also said that he could never have composed music for films like Salil Chowdhury, S.D.Burman or Madan Mohan!

Pt. Janardhan had called me the evening of the day Pt. Ravi Shankar had passed away. Seeing his number on my cell, I greeted, “Good Evening, Punditji”. He sounded tired when he responded: “How could this day be good, Shaji?” I could feel the heaviness of his sorrow in his voice. I could feel his heart crying out in memory of his Guru Pundit Ravi Shankar, a person he worshipped, someone he valued like his own life.

Pt. Ravi Shankar was born in Benares, Uttar Pradesh. Bengali was his mother tongue. His father was an advocate. His elder brother was the internationally renowned Indian classical dance genius, Uday Shankar. Ravi Shankar started his artistic career as the dancer in his brother’s dance troupe at the age of 10. He started on his foreign tours then itself. He heard and was mesmerized by the sitar play of Ustad Allauddin Khan at the age of 14. He, at that very inspired moment, left dance to learn playing sitar as the disciple of Ustad Allauddin Khan. Ravi Shankar completely dedicated himself to music. By the time he was 20, Ravi Shankar was already a music genius. His fame spread across India. His music concerts in India and abroad were of prodigious count.

Janardhan Mitta was born into a Telugu family in Hyderabad. His father was an advocate, too. A music teacher used to come to their house to teach his elder sister music. His sister used to learn sitar, as well, from him on occasions. Janardhan, who was fascinated on seeing this, started practicing on sitar whenever he got time. Pretty soon, he started playing the sitar well.

He was invited to play sitar for radio events. Janardhan, without the benefit of having learnt sitar properly from a Guru, became the ‘court’ musician of Hyderabad Radio station! When Pt. Ravi Shankar came to Hyderabad for a music event in 1955, Janardhan Mitta had the opportunity of meeting him. He was introduced to Pt. Ravi Shankar as a humble local sitar player. He wanted to play sitar before the maestro. But Ravi Shankar declined assuring him that he will listen to him during his next visit.

Pt. Ravi Shankar visited Hyderabad again soon enough. Tensed by the occasion, Janardhan played something forgettable on the sitar. After listening to him, a surprised Pt. Ravi Shankar said: “You do not know the basics of playing the sitar! But, goodness me, you certainly have played some advanced bits so effortlessly”. Reassured by Punditji’s smile of approval, Janardhan fell at his feet and beseeched him, “Nobody taught me. Guruji, please accept me as your disciple and guide me along the right path.” Ravi Shankar did not have any reservations while accepting him as his disciple. He was then living in Delhi. Thus Janardhan made frequent trips to Delhi from 1956 onwards to learn sitar from his beloved Guru.

At that time, Ravi Shankar’s stay in India was only for brief periods! He was frequently visiting all the important music fora in the world to give his sitar concerts. Ravi Shankar had come close to George Harrison, the guitar artiste and singer in the Beatles Troupe, and soon became his sitar Guru as well. It was this ‘Ravi Shankar impact’ that made Harrison play sitar in a few songs like ‘Norwegian Wood’. It was George Harrison who had called Ravi Shankar the ‘Father of World Music’.

The album ‘East Meets West’, which he had made with Western classical music maestro Yehudi Menuhin, became very popular. The album ‘Passages’, that he made with American classical music composer, Philip Glass, many years later, was very popular as well. Ravi Shankar held fusion concerts with superstars of popular music like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. He was not merely an India musician famous all over the world, the fame of having introduced Indian Classical music to the world was his, too.

There was not much demand, then, for classical sitar music in South India, especially not in Hyderabad. It was a time when Janardhan was in a dilemma to continue with music or to seek some other work. Then in 1958, he was invited by Sarathi Recording Theatre of Hyderabad to play the sitar for a film. He accomplished the job easily and received good payment, too.

Many opportunities followed from the film industry. That made Janardhan decide that his career lay in playing sitar for the film industry and in January 1959, he migrated to Madras, which was the then centre for the making of South Indian films. In Madras he played sitar for the film music of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada films besides devotional albums. Now and then a few Hindi, Oriya and Bengali film opportunities also came his way.

Janardhan who started playing sitar for composers like Master Venu, Rajeswar Rao and Ghantasala continued his work playing sitar for, more or less, all the film composers of India like Salil Chowdhury, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Viswanathan Ramamurthy, K.V.Mahadevan, Baburaj, Ilaiyaraja and A.R.Rahman. One can say that practically 90% of sitar pieces in the popular South Indian music came from Janardhan! He had a special talent for playing sitar pieces for background score that enhanced the emotions of the film scenes. I would suggest that you listen carefully to the background score of the film Pesum Padam. One could deeply feel the emotion-stirring beauty of the sitar play in it.

Pt. Ravi Shankar scaled every height that an Indian artiste could dream of. He was bestowed every award of Government of India, including Bharat Ratna. He stayed, for the most part, in America. He would stay in India only for two months of the year. Pt.Janardhan Mitta continued his music lessons from Pt.Ravi Shankar by visiting him wherever he stayed in India. He practiced his sitar lesson for 10 days a year, staying with Pt.Ravi Shankar in his 3 acres farm house in his native Benares. Pt.Janardhan learned playing sitar at his Guru’s feet for almost 50 years!

Janardhan, too, has travelled to many countries and given concerts of both classical and film music. He has given classical music sitar concerts in many centres in India as well. In some of Ravi Shankar’s sitar concerts in South India, Janardhan had jointly played sitar with his revered Guru. Some sitar pieces played by Janardhan had found a place in the album ‘Passages’ of Philip Glass and Pt. Ravi Shankar. He has also released a few records and cassettes of classical music of his own. He has the credit of composing music for a few Telugu films.

Pt. Janardhan Mitta was the President of the South Indian Film Music Artistes Union for many years. He had, during his tenure, taken steps to increase the remuneration levels of music artistes and introduced quite a few new schemes for music artistes living in penury. He is now untiringly working full time for the spread of Hindustani classical music. He is running a forum in Chennai called Vishwa Kala Sangam, just for Hindustani music. He continues to give regular music concerts accompanied by a young woman tabla player, Rimpa Shiva.

Janardhan Mitta says: “My Guruji was instrumental in making Indian instrumental music stand tall in the world arena. The role played by him in raising the standards of life for Indian musicians and getting them their due respect in our society is truly historical. Janardhan Mitta worships his Guru like an incarnation for teaching him the secrets and techniques of Hindustani music on the sacred premise that ‘don’t do cheating in music’.
Today, Pundit Ravi Shankar is no more with us. But there is Pundit Janardhan Mitta who reminds us of his guru. How many people know that he can hold his own in the ‘Top sitar players of the world’? I despair to know when we are going to honour with all due respect Pundit Janardhan Mitta’s miraculously potent sitar music and his lifelong service in the cause of music!