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It was the morning of the 30th of December 2013 in the thick of the music season when I had a brief conversation regarding veteran musician Lakshmi Shankar and her sister Kamala Sastri at the canteen of the Music Academy with Sruti Editor Ramnarayan; it seems surreal to hear that she passed away on the very same day in Simi Valley, California.
Lakshmi Shankar is known to the world as an established Hindustani music singer of the Patiala gharana and a member of the Ravi Shankar family. She is the sister-in-law of Pandit Ravi Shankar. She is known, in particular, for her sweet voice and her expressive rendition of bhajans, khyals, thumris and compositions in several languages. I still remember the manner in which she held the attention of the audience with the purity of notes, sweetness of voice and richness of expression even at the age of 78 when she sang in Cincinnati.
The world knows her through her voice that rang crystal clear with her rendition of “Vaishnava Janato” and “Raghupati Raghava” in the Oscar winning film Gandhi in 1989.
I have had the honor of collaborating with her, when she sang the lead parts in my oratorio “Shanti–A Journey of Peace”—which she described in 2004 as a breathtaking experience.
Lakshmi Shankar was born in Madras in 1926 to Pudukkottai R. Viswanatha Sastri and Visalakshi, Lakshmi Sastri. Few musicians have straddled South and North Indian classical traditions with the same grace and ease as Lakshmi Shankar. Her contribution to the arts is immense. The recognition that she received was primarily from other musicians and her fans; yet, Lakshmi Shankar had no regrets about the lack of institutional awards. She taught and shared music even until the very last years and she sang with fidelity to the sruti of G-sharp, even in her 80s.
It is not known to many that her foray into the world of art started with bharatanatyam. Lakshmi had her bharatanatyam arangetram at the age of 11 attired in “blue satin salwar and kurta”– a total contrast from the costumes that outdo each other today. The late S. Rajam, actor, painter and Karnatik musician, recalled her prowess and grace as a dancer—in a conversation with me in July 2009.
Soon after her arangetram, she left for Almora to join Uday Shankar’s (Ravi Shankar’s brother) Almora Cultural Center where her horizons widened considerably thanks to Uday Shankar’s global approach to dance and his integration of various traditional elements into his formulation of a “modern dance paradigm.”
Lakshmi Viswanatha Sastri married Uday’s brother Rajendra Shankar and became Lakshmi Shankar. Lakshmi Shankar recalled with nostalgia the creative outpouring of energy while discussing the script for Discovery of Indiawith the Shankar brothers.
She has the highest regard for Ravi Shankar. “Is there any sphere of music that Ravi ji has not touched?’ she remarked often, as she talked of the instrumental ensembles that Ravi Shankar conceived of and directed. Each performance of The Discovery of India was intense. Her musical involvement with Ravi Shankar was a lifelong one and she expressed loneliness after the maestro’s passing about a year back.
It was after her last performance in Discovery of India as a dancer in multiple roles, that Lakshmi fell severely ill and had to give up dancing. For a person of South Indian origin grounded in the arts, branching off into Karnatik music was a natural choice; however, it was due to the advice of Ravi Shankar and noted film composer Madan Mohan that she took to Hindustani music.
Lakshmi Shankar trained under Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan and then later under Pandit Deodhar.
Her dulcet voice lent itself freely to the evolution of a unique style that was at once expressive and exceedingly sweet. Lakshmi was fluent in Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Marathi, Gujrati and Bengali and her renditions endeared her to audiences everywhere.
Lakshmi Shankar’s musical personality was further shaped by her full spirited participation in the Festival of India an ensemble performance directed by Ravi Shankar. She participated in Festival of India’s world tour in 1974 and later recorded an album by the same name.
Lakshmi Shankar’s life has been associated with a galaxy of historic personalities from the 1900s including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, musician T.L. Venkatarama Iyer and filmmaker S. Balachander. Lakshmi Shankar stands apart as a consummate artist. She spoke both the North Indian and the South Indian idioms. She could translate music to movement and expression. She was a polyglot. She acted in and sang for movies.
Lakshmi Shankar’s home is full of relics and images from her work. She treasures the old program notes from Discovery of India, a group photograph from Festival of India which looks like a collection of the Who’s Who of Indian music.
Lakshmi Shankar used to visit India each December and was frequently seen attending concerts in sabhas in Chennai. Her last performance was when she performed with Gayatri Venkatraghavan in the United States in 2013.
During my last conversation with her in early December 2013, she made oblique references to her health and even remarked that “I don’t know how much long I will be around.” I didn’t realize that the end would be upon her so soon after our conversation. Lakshmi Shankar as a mortal is no more; yet her voice lives on and continues to move countless admirers around the globe.
Kanniks Kannikeswaran is an internationally renowned musician, composer and music educator, whose award winning research on the Indo-colonial music of Dikshitar is beginning to influence Indian music pedagogy. Kanniks is a pioneer of the Indian American choral movement. He teaches Indian classical music at the University of Cincinnati. www.kanniks.com.