The transcendent musical genius of Lakshmi Shankar

Timeless tunes: Lakshmi Shankar was among the most prominent Indian female singers in the West   -  IMAGE COURTESY: KAVITA DAS

Kavita Das on her biography of Lakshmi Shankar, a prodigy who never chased the spotlight and remained eclipsed

Though vocalist Lakshmi Shankar’s name does not feature on the high recall list of Indian musical greats, one has only to listen to one of her concert recordings or her voice in the Oscar-nominated track for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) to realise that the omission is not owing to a paucity of talent, but a lack of aggressive marketing by a singer only interested in her art.

Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar is New York-based writer Kavita Das’s way of introducing the Grammy-nominated artiste to the current generation, even as she reminds an earlier one about Shankar’s extensive knowledge of music, sweetness of voice and prodigious achievements. Das, who was barely six when she first heard Shankar sing live, counts herself lucky to have been able to listen to the singer over the years.

Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar; Kavita Das; HarperCollins; Non-fiction; ₹399

 

The sister-in-law of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, she was “pleased and supportive” when she heard Das (44) was working on her biography. Unfortunately, the singer never saw the final product, for she died in 2013. Poignant Song is Das’s ode to a woman who was “far ahead of her time, unclassifiable and uncontained by her culture, gender or geography, transcending boundaries with her voice and music, all the while clad in a Kanjeevaram silk saree and sporting her trademark large bindi”.

 

Author and biographer Kavita Das   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

Excerpts from an interview:

What motivated you to write Lakshmi Shankar’s biography?

My main aim in writing Poignant Song was to illuminate the life and music of Lakshmi Shankar as the most prominent Indian female singer in the movement that brought Indian music to the West. I was interested in seeking to answer two questions. First, as a woman of her generation, how did she achieve everything she did as an artiste, from her myriad recordings and performances, to lending her voice to the award-winning film Gandhi, to earning a Grammy nomination? Second, given all of this, why did she not receive greater recognition and celebration in her homeland, India?

How did you go about with the research for the book?

When I started working on the book I was in New York, so the research and data collection was challenging since Lakshmiji lived in Los Angeles. I began by travelling across the US to interview her. But just a year into working on the book she passed away, so I pushed forward with finishing the biography through other means of research and interviews with her family — especially her son, Kumar, her granddaughter Gingger, and her niece, Raviji’s daughter, Anoushka. I also did some research in India, including visiting the site of her house in Chennai.

What was it like to write about a period and setting that might have been unfamiliar for you?

Since my main aim was to illuminate Lakshmiji’s life and music, I believed it was important to provide as much historical and cultural context as possible... and how Lakshmiji and her music fit into them — from Gandhiji’s freedom movement and India’s Independence to the cross-cultural movement that brought Indian music to the West alongside Western classical musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin, jazz greats such as John Coltrane, and rock ’n’ rollers such as George Harrison.

A large portion of the book deals with Ravi Shankar’s tours. Was this intentional?

There’s no denying that Raviji was the most prominent figure in the movement that brought Indian music to the West — through his early tours and recordings in the US and his participation in major musical events such as the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. But there’s also no denying that Raviji had collaborated with Lakshmiji since the 1930s on his musical vision, from his early musical ballets, such as his adaptation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s book Discovery of India to the landmark Festival From India album and tour, to his score for the film Gandhi. Out of all the Indian singers and musicians, he chose to collaborate with Lakshmiji over and over again. Lakshmiji herself never emphasised her role in these collaborative projects, because she was not someone who sought the spotlight. And I believe that in addition to issues such as institutional politics and gender bias, her reluctance to draw attention to herself also contributed to her lack of recognition.

What challenges did you face when you were writing about your subject?

One of the challenges of writing a biography of a singer is that you are limited to the written word when it comes to describing the timbre and inflections of their voice or their unique vocal style. Although I was trained in classical Western violin and Carnatic vocal music, I wanted this book to go beyond music aficionados, to those who may not be so steeped in music but are curious about Lakshmiji’s life. In the book I share Lakshmiji’s own insights into being a Hindustani vocalist and how she approached global audiences who often didn’t understand the words she was singing. She herself was amazed at the transcendence of her music and how it garnered her fans from all over the world. But I also share a very condensed history of Hindustani and Carnatic music, so that even those who are not familiar with it can glean how significant it was for a South Indian Brahmin woman to become a critically acclaimed Hindustani singer. I hope that readers will discover or rediscover her sublime voice and expansive range of work, from Bollywood soundtracks, to Hindustani thumris and bhajans, to global fusion tracks.

Sathya Saran is a journalist and editor based in Mumbai

Published on July 26, 2019

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