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Ravi Sundaram, man behind Chura Liya guitar riff, Mehbooba mandolin

The veteran musician, whose banjo and mandolin solos were also used in several hit songs of Laxmikant-Pyarelal, RD Burman and Naushad, passed away last month.

Sonal Pandya

The versatile Ravi Sundaram, who was born on 17 June 1947, played the banjo, mandolin, balalaika, bouzouki and the guitar with several of Hindi cinema's best composers — from Naushad to Jatin-Lalit. His solos pieces are very popular, though, of course, hardly anyone knew the musician behind them.

From the iconic guitar riff for ‘Chura Liya’ in Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) to the memorable mandolin in the RD Burman-composed ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’ in Sholay (1975), Ravi was the unknown musician who brought these amazing compositions to life. 

Ravi, who suffered a massive heart attack and died in Navi Mumbai on 13 November, began his career while still in his teens. His daughter, Sangeeta Sundaram, recalled: “My grandfather, Sundaram, was a violinist from Hyderabad. He used to play on All India Radio. This goes back to the Nizam's days [in Hyderabad]. They had to flee from Hyderabad and came [to Mumbai]. My grandfather enrolled with the Cine Musicians Association (CMA) at some point. That’s how [my dad] was part of the CMA from the age of 13.”

A tribute to Ravi Sundaram, through some of the songs he worked on:

Tushar Parte, an accomplished guitarist and fellow CMA member, remembered Ravi. He said, “He knew my father, Jaykumar Parte [a music arranger in the film industry]. He had come to my wedding, I have a photo. He was a down-to-earth musician, no gossip; he was very dedicated to his music, playing the mandolin.”

Parte recalled the folk songs for which Ravi played with Lata Mangeshkar. “[The Marathi] folk songs like ‘Mi Dolkar’, in those songs he played the mandolin. They are very famous songs and famous mandolin pieces are there. In Maharashtra, everyone knows these koli [fisherfolk] songs, they are all-time classics sung by Lataji. I’m not sure of the dates but even in my childhood I used to listen to those songs.”

Parte was present when the CMA felicitated Ravi Sundaram for winning the Dadasaheb Phalke Film Foundation award. The honour was conferred upon Ravi in April; he had joined the CMA in 1961 and Sangeeta recalled how happy he was. “He was very happy when he won the Dadasaheb award this year. After that he was felicitated at the CMA for winning the award by Hari Prasad Chaurasia who is a good friend.”

Sangeeta narrated an incident related to her father's favourite instrument, the mandolin. "He was inspired by the movie The Godfather (1972) and especially the solo track which is played on a mandolin, that was his favourite," she said. "So every time I’d put that up. In fact, you won’t believe, the Saturday night before he expired, The Godfather [was playing on TV]. I came home and asked him, ‘Hey, The Godfather’s on TV, do you want to watch?’ We sat and watched The Godfather the night before.”

Ravi got his musical start at home with lessons from his father. “My grandfather had a typical gurukul system of making everybody learn, so everybody in my family, my dad’s side of the family, learnt when they were very young," Sangeeta said. "They used to wake up at 5 am and learn how to play the mandolin and the violin. Basically, everybody starts with the harmonium, so that’s the basis, and then you pick up whatever you like. My dad used to like the string instruments, so he picked the mandolin and that’s how life began for him.”

He wasted no time and began playing music “at the age of 13 [when] he used to be in school, people used to come to his school and tell him, ‘Hey, there’s a take or session happening, why don’t you go?’ He wouldn’t even change, he would take his mandolin and just leave,” Sangeeta said.

Apart from playing with the best music composers, Ravi went on tours with singers like Lata Mangeshkar and composers like RD Burman. He even played at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

His daughter said, “Every time he used to travel, he would first go to a music store and see his favourite instruments. [Ravi] was the first person to introduce the balalaika and bouzouki [in Hindi film music]. One is Greek and the other is Russian. He picked them up himself. His rapport with RD Burman was such, he would suggest maybe we should do this, maybe we should do that. And then they would pick it up. They would jam on something and be like, ‘Hey, this sounds right, maybe we should do this’."

Ravi Sundaram with the bouzouki

Ravi himself wrote on his Facebook page the story of the first time he showed Burman the new instrument. “The great Bouzouki finds its origin from the Greeks. I have a very fond memory of buying this beautiful instrument during one of my tours in Rome. No sooner I came back to the country, I rushed to Pancham Da for him to hear it. My enthusiasm soon turned into nervousness as he investigated its sound with the focus of a detective. To my relief, he loved it. And thus, it was decided [that] Bouzouki will be introduced in [the] Sholay title track. I cannot thank you enough, Pancham Da, for the faith in me.”

From Sholay (1975) to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Ravi played in many major Hindi films. There are many more in several different languages that we don’t know about. Sangeeta said there are many that even family members remain unaware of. "He doesn’t have the Gujarati songs that he’s done, I think he’s done Marathi, Oriya [as well]. He would get calls from 10 different people during a day and he would just pick his bags up and leave in the morning and be back at 4 am. The same routine, almost every day. He himself doesn’t have a track because he was so busy.”

Sangeeta spoke of the pride she felt whenever she would hear on mobile ringtones the music her father had played. “With these ringtones, like DDLJ solo or the Karz solo, he has played all of this and I hear people having these ringtones and it’s right at my mouth and I want to say, 'You know what? My dad played that.' I was so proud that even [the music he played] were ringtones. Obviously, he has worked with the sort of music directors who have thought of that and it had to be my dad who played it.”

Good friend and fellow musician Ulhas Bapat said, “In one word, I can say — best. [He was] very sincere. I haven’t seen him come late to the recording [studio] without reason. He was a very punctual musician. He used to write all notations perfectly and read everything perfectly and according to me, he was the best.”

Bapat called him “his best friend” and recalled the numerous music directors he had played with from different industries. He said Ravi had worked with everyone from Sudhir Phadke and Anil-Arun to Ram Kadam and Ashok Patki in Marathi. In Hindi, he worked the most with Laxmikant-Pyarelal, RD Burman and Ravindra Jain.

The santoor player, who was much younger than Ravi, said the two of them played together on numerous occasions. He also remembered his friend’s best pieces, “In Saagar (1985), the theme music, he was chief musician there and in the background score, there is a mandolin piece [which he played]. I remember there was one dubbed film from the South, Pratishodh (1982), and we played a background score, myself, Raviji and his brother, Sailu. It was such a difficult piece composed by Ravindra Jain that all three of us tried our best to give a good result and I still remember that piece and that situation. It was recorded at Navrang Studios, Parel.”

Bapat also recalled fondly their long phone conversations in those days. "We used to be on the phone minimum 45 minutes to an hour, we used to talk and exchange experiences as musicians, of different music directors, everything. We talked about music. He also appreciated my style of playing, we played so many pieces together. Other than instruments, our personal tuning was nice. He was friendly with everybody. Every section used to love him.”

Ravi Sundaram, behind Lata Mangeshkar with her sisters Meena and Usha (Family album picture)

Ravi worked with all top singers of the day from Mangeshkar to Mohammed Rafi. His daughter said, “Till today, if he spoke of [Lata Mangeshkar] to anybody else, he would always refer to her as Didi. He would always say, 'Didi used to do this or that'. He had high regard for her, he used to say that. His exact way of telling was, 'Baki sub log ek taraf, aur Lata Mangeshkar ek taraf' because when she would start singing, people would just shut up. We all know what a great voice she has. So she just stood out, she was a cut above the rest'."

Sangeeta said Ravi had a special relationship with Rafi as well and that “Rafi used to treat him as a son.”

Ravi retired when he was in his 50s. Sangeeta spoke about how he belonged to the golden era of music. “Of course, the times are changing right now and maybe there is no value to it, but these are the small things that he used to cherish. He was very happy that he was part of something like this. Till today, people remix his old songs instead of making new ones. So somewhere down the line, we still have those old songs to bank on. When you are sad, upset, whatever, you happen to be on the radio and hear one of these old songs, you automatically turn up the volume, you have to listen to it.”

A tribute to Ravi Sundaram, through some of the songs he worked on: