A personal tribute to Lakshmi Shankar
By Kanniks Kannikeswaran
I still clearly remember the day almost ten years ago (1 May 2004), when our stage manager Radha Ganesan held Lakshmi Shankar by the hand and escorted her from the green room to the makeshift backstage area at the Great Hall, Tangeman University Center, University of Cincinnati, where a 120-member mixed choir and a 25-piece orchestra stood in readiness to sing along with her, my newly written music score of the oratorio ‘Shanti– A Journey of Peace’ in its premiere. As the sutradhar, I narrated the script from the control room and ran through the audience to the backstage area to sing Navabharatam with the guest artiste Lakshmi Shankar. Lakshmi’s alap in desh in the high sruti of C sharp rang loud and clear. At the conclusion of the alap, she gently touched my hand and cued me to sing the opening phrase of the Tamil composition.
Several thoughts ran through my head. I was standing next to a grand old lady just ten years younger than my grandmother. She was from the family of India’s best known musician in the western hemisphere. Her name and voice had flashed through the title-credits of the Academy Award winning film ‘Gandhi’ that I had watched in India in awe in 1983. This lady was a conductor who had directed some of Ravi Shankar’s ensembles and had worked with George Harrison and others. She was a Hindustani musician with an array of recordings and concerts and a large fan following, a Carnatic musician, a polyglot, an accomplished dancer and more. She had interacted with such great personalities as Jawaharlal Nehru, S. Balachander, S. Rajam, MS Subbulakshmi, Pandit Ratanjankar, Madan Mohan (composer of film music)– just to name a few.
I woke up from my reverie, sang the song with her and ran back to the control room to monitor the rest of the production. It was this opportunity to collaborate with her that led to several musical sessions and discussions with Lakshmi Shankar. It was during one such session that it occurred to me that Lakshmi’s story needed to be told.
Some seven years after the thought first struck me, I spoke with Sruti editor Ramnarayan regarding the idea and actually sat down to compile the information that I had gleaned from her and documented during my music lessons and long phone conversations with her.
Lakshmi Shankar first made a name for herself in Bharatanatyam and contemporary classical Indian dance and on the tinsel screen and then rose to great heights as a renowned Hindustani musician.
Lakshmi is held in high regard in Hindustani music circles and has etched a name for herself in her own Patiala gharana-entrenched style of raga exposition. Her solo discography is a long list of albums featuring renditions in such ragas as dhani, jog and more as well as a litany of bhajans tuned and rendered soulfully. In addition, Lakshmi specialises in thumris and lighter compositions in various Indian languages. Yet, it is interesting to note that her journey into the the music world began in the realm of Carnatic music particularly with the music of Muthuswami Dikshitar.
I had been introduced to Lakshmi through her good friends Sonal Sanghvi and Dr Vijay Sanghvi as their ‘beloved Guru’; I met her for the first time in 1996 when she had attended the premiere of my choral musical theater production ‘The Blue Jewel’ in Cincinnati. I even attempted to speak with her in Hindi, completely unaware of her Tamil origins. It was at Sonalben’s daughter’s wedding in 2003 that she complimented me on my Hindustani violin playing and spoke with me in Tamil, even while being surrounded by Gujarati and Marathi speaking guests. ‘Tamizhlapesa chance kedacha vidamatten’, she had said with a grin, sitting in the midst of her Hindustani music fans and students.
Lakshmi’s father RV Sastri hailed from Pudukkottai and was an established lawyer in Madras. Her mother Visalakshi was from Palakkad. Her sister is the well known danseuse Kamala Sastri Chakravorty. TL Venkatrama Iyer, a friend of RV Sastri used to make frequent stops at the house to teach Dikshitar’s compositions to Visalakshi. The young Lakshmi grew up listening to these and could reproduce everything that she heard.
She sang Tyagaraja palayasumam and Swaminatha paripalayasumam in vilambakalam and exclaimed, ‘This is how TL VenkataramaIyer used to sing them in the 1930s’. The cutcheri rendition of these compositions had already been altered in Lakshmi’s early years. ‘There is absolutely no connection between how it is rendered now and how I learned it’, she said. She further quoted her mother’s words of condemnation of maestro GNB’s reduction of this vilambakala kriti into a madhyamakala rendition with ‘odukkal’ that suited his style. She went on to add that her mother was a great admirer of Veena Dhanammal, and encouraged Brinda and Mukta.
Lakshmi Shankar was conversant with several of Dikshitar’s kritis; she referrred to the collection Swaminatha, Tyagarajapalaya, Sri Sarasvati, Mamava Minakshi and Sri Kamalambike as the ‘pancharatna kritis’ of Dikshitar (as told to her by TLV). She recalled her mother learning Budhamasrayami, Brhaspate, some of the Navavarana kritis, Varalakshmim (Saurashtram), Pahimam ratnachala and Kumaraswaminam from TLV. ‘TLV did not have a great voice; he was not an expressive singer either. But his repertoire was vast and he was greatly concerned about the compositions and their lyrics. Amma used to learn from him and I would reproduce what she learned. In fact, I used to be able to reproduce anything I heard during that stage. TLV was a close friend of my father’.
Lakshmi Shankar was always a living link between the northern and southern Indian performance traditions. She sang in the southern idiom in the mega dance productions staged by California-based Viji Prakash. She had enjoyed cutcheris in Madras in her early years; GNB was the rage during her time; her mother was a fan of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and she herself a fan of Madurai Mani Iyer. She had great regard for Maharajapuram Santhanam in the 1980s, particularly for his janaranjakatvam. 'I was completely knocked out by Santhanam’, she said. She had great words of praise for contemporary vocalists TM Krishna and Sanjay Subrahmanyan.
In her later years, Lakshmi Shankar was a regular visitor to sabhas during the Chennai music season, during her visits to Chennai in the winter months, when she stayed with her sister Kamala in her flat in Indira Nagar. It was during one of these concerts in Chennai that TM Krishna smiled at her from the dais and launched into Hamsadhwani to render the bhajan ‘Jaya Jayati’ tuned and popularised by her. ‘I was pleasantly surprised’, recounted Lakshmi of this experience. Jaya Jayati – a delightful soundscape of lyrics in Hamsadhwani is just an example of the numerous bhajans tuned, rendered and popularised by her. Lakshmi Shankar’s Chennai visits ceased after her sister moved out of her flat into the outskirts of Chennai.
Her Hindustani music concerts drew a wide range of audiences. The Hindustani music community in Cincinnati used to invite her to reside in the city and teach music to a number of her fans. Lakshmi Shankar obliged generously, related personally with each of her students and her stays here would conclude with her performance. Dr Vijay and Sonal Sanghvi were her hosts during each of her visits. When Sonal Sanghvi succumbed young in 2004 to cancer, Lakshmi Shankar was deeply saddened. ‘I have lost a daughter for a second time’, she exclaimed.
Forgotten in the midst of her stature as an established singer in the Hindustani idiom is the fact that she had been an accomplished dancer in her early years. ‘I remember her prowess. Lakshmi was very talented’, recollected S. Rajam in a conversation with me in July 2009, speaking of Balasaraswati and Lakshmi Shankar in the same breath.
‘I had my arangetram in a blue satin salwar and kurta when I was 11; I had a zari vest over it’, laughed Lakshmi Shankar as she recollected this experience from the 1930s. She went on to add that costumes were very simple in those days; ‘Balasaraswati used to wear very simple costumes; now, jewellery and costumes have come a very long way.”
After her arangetram she was invited by Uday Shankar to join his Almora cultural centre, where her eyes were opened to a world of other dance forms and to Uday’s borderless approach to ‘movement’. ‘My mother was very progressive and she encouraged me to go to Almora; she even came with me’, recollected Lakshmi. Those were some of her most memorable years.
Lakshmi married Rajendra Shankar, brother of Uday Shankar and became a daughter in law of the Shankar family. She holds brother in law Ravi Shankar in the highest regard as her ‘guru’ and a kindred soul.
Each night, the brothers and their wives would gather after dinner to discuss the script, music and choreography/presentation of the various acts of Jawaharlal Nehru’s book ‘The Discovery of India’. ‘Those were some of the most magical moments’, recollected Lakshmi – of the creative energy that would pour forth in those discussions. She played multiple roles in the ballet and has the program notes from this production among treasured possessions. Prime Minister Nehru witnessed one of these performances. During the final performance, Lakshmi was diagnosed with pleurisy; she danced with a raging fever and literally collapsed off stage.
She recovered from her illness, never to dance again.
If dance was one dimension of Lakshmi Shankar’s artistic personality, acting in films was another. She played the role of Sant Tulsi Das’s consort Ratna in the film Bhakta Tulsi Das. BS Ranga from Bangalore, a cameraman, raised the finances to produce this picture; the financier was Tamilnadu Talkies Soundararajan. Raja Iyengar (brother of BS Ranga) was to play the role of Tulasidas. The original music director of the film was S. Balachander. All four major ‘ratnas’ of Tulsidas were recreated in Tamil by Papanasam Sivan and tuned as modern compositions. One of the songs sung by Lakshmi Shankar was Karunanidhipol katchialippadum kapatanatakama. This song ended up sounding very western. The producer did not like the compositions; he contacted Anil Biswas to retune the compositions. Lakshmi Shankar’s song came out as a 78 RPM record. Neither the film nor the recordings are available now.
How did Lakshmi Shankar become a Hindustani musician?
Rendered unable to dance, Lakshmi Shankar in Bombay considered a career in Carnatic music; however at the insistence of Ravishankar and film music director Madan Mohan, she came under the tutelage of Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan. ‘When I met him, I knew that I had found my guru’, she says. All that she learned for a whole year, was raga Todi. All the way from sargam through paltas through alap, her life was nothing other than the raga. It was the Ustad’s insistence that the distinctions that she developed in Todi would extend to any raga that she sang. Her mastery of the idiom grew, until the point where thanks to miscommunication and gossip, the relationship with her guru soured. Prof BR Deodhar (a student of Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande) offered to continue to teach her and she developed her own signature style of singing – marked by an exceedingly sweet and expressive voice.
‘For a South Indian trying to make a mark in Hindustani music, the challenges were many’ recollects Lakshmi Shankar. ‘Mistakes would always be spotted first’. It was over the years, that she gained a steady reputation for her soulful rendition of bhajans, thumris and other compositions. She was fluent in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and other languages and her renditions won her fans all over India.
Lakshmi Shankar regarded Ravi Shankar as a major musical contributor to her life. ‘What has he not accomplished’? she asked. ‘He completely captured the world by his music, whether it was classical or folk or western or exploratory music. There was nothing that he left out. He was always a pioneer in everything. Yet, he was very humble. No one knew Carnatic music deeply as he did. He held the pedagogical tradition in Carnatic music in the highest regard, especially given the diversity in teaching techniques (across gharanas) in Hindustani music. He however rued the lack of emphasis on voice culture in Carnatic music’.
One of Lakshmi Shankar’s greatest adventures in music was the ‘Music festival from India’ – a project conceived and executed by Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. This project featured many stalwarts of Indian music in their youth: HariprasadChaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, L Subramanian, Vijayashree, Kamala Chakravarti, TV Gopalakrishnan, Sultan Khan and Alla Rakha – literally a who’s who of Indian music. The principal sound engineer on the project was Kumar, Lakshmi Shankar’s son. Lakshmi was the featured vocalist whose sublime voice covered three octaves with ease. She was more than the featured vocalist on this project.
Rangasami Parthasarathi of Oriental Records spoke of the manner in which Lakshmi Shankar served as the intermediary between the maestro and the musicians in interpreting and teaching the music score. ‘Raviji used to come up with ideas spontaneously and I used to notate them’, recollected Lakshmi Shankar.
Indeed, when Ravi Shankar took ill during the tour, it was Lakshmi Shankar who took over the responsibility of conducting this ensemble. A photograph of all the participants decorates one of the walls in Lakshmi’s beautiful Simi Valley home.
I enjoyed learning from Lakshmi. An electronic tanpura filled up her music room, where she sat on a divan. She launched into Jog, Dhani and other ragas and explained their nuances. She emphasised the need to start the alap in the tara sthayi if it preceded a bhajan.
‘It is a pukar, you are crying out to the divine’, she illustrated. Her explanations were full of narratives on the handling of various ragas by maestros and of her encounters with various music personalities.
There was humour; there were many stories from the past. She remembered Palghat Mani Iyer with fondness. He told her on one occasion that he was going to play for DK Pattammal. ‘Pattamma, Dikshitar cutcheri izhukkum, raattiri late aagum’, he joked. There were other humorous stories of the struggles of a shehnai player in the Ravishankar ensemble. Then there were musicological references to the Adi Basant raga in the dhamar Khelat Ghanshyam in the Music Festival project. There were references to the musical genius of TV Gopalakrishnan. She played to me an unpublished recording of a khayal (Sajanva) in Kedar sung by her and TVG as part of Ravi Shankar’s project.
Her music was certainly not uni-dimensional. She recorded for films. She sang for vaggeyakaras like Ratanjankar. As recently as Dec 2013, when I discussed the dhrupads of Swati Tirunal with her, in preparation for my lecture demonstration at the Music Academy, she exclaimed, ‘Ratanjankar tuned them all; he invited me to sing them’. She listened intently to my singing the ragamala dhrupad and gave me a few suggestions.
To me, memories of working with her on my oratorio ‘Shanti – A Journey of Peace’ are priceless. She travelled all the way from California to Cincinnati at the age of 78 to sing for this production. A rousing ovation from the 150-member choir greeted her as she came to see one of our rehearsals in Cincinnati. I was amazed by her commitment to the project; I was thrilled at her writing down the sargam and the lyrics in Tamil as I sang and demonstrated them. She insisted on staying backstage and singing seated on a chair. Her alap interspersed with the chants for peace rang clear in the audience as the mixed choir sang my arrangement of the Shanti Path from the Yajurveda. She was full of encouragement for the oratorio and described it as ‘a breathtaking experience’.
I had invited her to the College Conservatory of Music to have a dialogue with composition major students. In what turned out to be a memorable session she talked in impeccable English of the recording experience for the film ‘Gandhi’, her association with Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and others (just a day before the premiere of Shanti in Cincinnati in 2004).
The human side of her was that of a full fledged Tamil speaking grandmother . She insisted on spoonfeeding my four-year old daughter Sukhita back in 2004. During Vinayaka Chaturthi in 2006, she served me kozhukkattais she had personally made. She was full of warmth when our family visited her home in 2008, when she introduced us to Sukanya Shankar and Ravi Shankar and later on followed up with us to see how our visit to Raviji’s house went.
The childlike element in her was the most precious. I once dropped her off at the Los Angeles airport and went to return a rented car prior to boarding my flight. I went to check on her well being in her terminal, knowing that there was a full hour left before her flight would depart. I didn’t find her at the gate and was concerned. Soon enough I saw her saree clad octogenarian form walking out of a nearby McDonalds; she gave me a mischievous smile as I noticed her smacking her lips - an ice cream cone in her hand!
I had started writing this article a few months ago with the idea of sharing it with her before getting it published. When I spoke with her in early December she sounded unusually tired and even mentioned that she might not be around for too long. Despite this hint, it was a shock to hear that she had breathed her last on 30th December 2013, the very day that
Ramnarayan and I had had a conversation at the Music Academy canteen about her and the need to write this article as soon as possible. Her end came before I finished writing this.
It is unfortunate that apart from Gowri Ramnarayan’s article and another story in India West, the media has not marked her passing with an outpouring of reports. It is also unfortunate that the Government of India has not honoured such a musical being with Padma and other awards. Lakshmi Shankar did not care about all that. She was beyond awards and recognition.
What is the message from her that still resonates with me?
“God gives certain talents to some people; he also gives them the opportunity to do big things. One should never miss out on these opportunities”.
Lakshmi Shankar’s music lives through her recordings. I will miss speaking with her in a mixture of English and Tamil and her jokes in Hindi or Bengali, like one regarding the inadvertent presence of ‘Shri’ in ‘Puryadhanashri’ in the rendition of leading singers: ‘Puryadhanashri mein ‘Shri’ hai na?’ and above all her cheerful sprit and her warmth and blessings during Vijaya Dasami each year.