Ragini Shankar: Playing in Harmony with God

Ragini Shankar in Concert. Video by Thea Piltzecker



RISHIKESH – Ragini Shankar, sitting with her legs folded under her on the small stage, takes her violin, raises it up and flips it over so that the top, known as the scroll,  rests on one leg. The violin, a gift from her maternal grandmother, is more than an instrument in her hands, she says. It is an extension of her very being. The audience can sense this even before she starts to play. Shankar looks out and smiles as she raises her bow to the strings.  A sound akin to a melodic human voice fills the hall. Is it Shankar or her violin that we hear? The two seem inseparable.

Ragini plays the violin in a North Indian classical style known as “Hindustani,” but since she left a career as an engineer, she has spent much of her time collaborating with International artists - cellist, singers and tabla players - creating a fusion of Indian and Western classical music, and in the process, Shankar has become an international ambassador for Indian music.

On a cool spring night in March, Shankar, accompanied by the tabla player Shubh Maharaj, performed Indian ragas for our Columbia group on the rooftop of a hotel in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges. The private concert came on the eve of a concert tour of the United States that would take Shankar to major cities like New York, Boston and Houston. The tour saw her playing at small, intimate venues like the Baithak Center in Boston and the Arthur Zankel Music Center at Skidmore college. Ragini says she enjoy playing in America because the sounds are always new to the audience.

Over breakfast the morning after the private concert in Rishikesh and on a long bus ride to New Delhi, Shankar spoke about her musical and journey, her embrace of the violin and her ambitions for the future.

Watching the tabla player and Ragini riff off each other, it becomes clear that Indian sacred music is a combination of score and improvisation, realism and faith. With that in mind, its success rests on a number of factors: the relationship between the musician and instrument, the interplay between the musicians themselves and their personal relationships with the divine. Ragini explains that her name comes from the root word “raga,”  which means melody in Sanskrit and she laughs when it’s suggested that her name alone had her destined for musical greatness.

Classical music

As a brisk breeze rolls over the stage above the Ganges she slows down the cadence of the bow across the strings,  looks up and smiles again at the audience before bursting into a playful construction of ascending notes. She’s playing a raga, and every raga is intended to evoke a certain emotion in the listener: tranquility, devotion, eroticism, comedy, pathos, heroism, wrathful, terrifying, odious and wondrous according to the Bharat Natya Shastra, a sacred Hindu text dedicated to the performing arts.  In this case, it seems to  “color” the listener with joy and delight.

The word raga first appears in the Bhagavad Gita where it points to a certain heightened psychological state. Ragini’s sometimes ghastly, but often cheerful tunes seem to lull our group into a blissful state of mind.  Her performance routine is almost meditative; her face holds an expression of deep joy and concentration. So do the faces of her audience.

To her, the stage is sacred. Her violin is her connection to what she calls “a great force in the universe.”

When she plays, Ragini says that her mind is focused on one thing: the flow of energy. She believes that her energy precedes her; she is “introduced” to the audience by her aura even before she speaks or plays. Every time before she plays, she pauses for a moment and allows the feeling of extreme gratitude to permeate through her bones. This allows her to consistently perform at her best and carry on the legacy that she’s inherited coming from a long line of musicians.

She likes to believe she chose this path in life, but she acknowledges that family, and possible even the divine,  had a strong hand in the way her story has unfolded. She was s educated in engineering from the University of Mumbai, and had been determined to follow this professional path but she realized that the decision had already been made for her, she was to carry on the musical tradition of her ancestors. Growing up, playing the violin was a job, but by the time she’d finished her engineering studies, it had become a passion, a passion that allowed her to ease into a career she truly loves. Her career has taken her to the United States, Canada, Singapore, Dubai, and countless religious festivals throughout her home state of India. She was born in Kerala, in the south of India, but now resides in its capital city, Mumbai.  

The bar is high for Ragini, who surprisingly can’t read Western music. In the West, the violin is tuned to GDAE, whereas Ragini’s violin is tuned to EBEB. Ragini describes her style as fusion, drawing mainly from classical Hindustani music. Her grandmother is Padmabhushan Dr. N. Rajam, her mother Dr. Sangeeta Shankar. She’s the eighth generation in a long line of musicians. Both have created a legacy as India’s most celebrated musicians. Ragini refers to her grandmother and mother as guru-ji, having been raised on the collective knowledge and talent of the two. She inherited violin, which she considers sacred,  from ancestors.  She knows attachment to the physical is frowned upon, but she feels her connection to the inanimate violin. She started playing at age 3, but it was only at age 11 when she switched from practicing to truly enjoying the music she was creating. In the morning, she prays, eats breakfast and then practices and in the afternoon, she makes sure she resumes practice around four o'clock, because the energy in the universe is very high at that time. On a given day, she will practice for anywhere from four to eight hours a day.  

Classical music

Ragini is Hindu, and her devotion to music is what she would call “the highest expression of life.” Creating something out of nothing is her way of practicing bhakti. “When you create something that has never existed before, you are experiencing the divine,” she believes. To her, the creative process is meaningless without a sense of bhakti. Bhakti is to immerse yourself in something and entirely devote your energy and mind to it, and to Ragini’s mind, there is nothing that requires more devotion that art. “Bhakti comes through performing wholeheartedly,” she says. She also believes that the vibrations she creates with her instrument have the power to charge people, to energize people.

A crisp breeze rushed through the small crowd fixated on the young artist. The moon glistened off the rolling Ganges, and a hollow note emanated from the rooftop. It was the closing note to Ragini’s performance; the note hangs there, with varying pitch, like a question. Will Ragini bequeath her musical legacy to a ninth generation?

The next day, on a bus barrelling down a busy Indian highway, horns blaring, she answers the question with a similar smile to the one she puts on while she performs. She pauses for a second to consider the question.  “If it is willed, it will happen,” she says.