One in a Million . Shankar and Gingger.
Raga Aberi. Shankar with Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram.
Eternal Light. Shankar with Zakir Hussain and T.H. Vinayakram.


In classical Hindustani music there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a composer. Great musicians do “compose” ragas. But although these ragas do prescribe precise borders for improvisations, a raga is not a melody that is played the same way every time. In Karnatik music, however, (not unlike in European classical music) reverence for the great composers of the past is a constant influence on the musicians of the present. These composers were not composers in the Western sense i.e. people who wrote marks on paper that told instrumentalists and vocalists what music they were supposed to perform. But the music they created and performed has been passed down and is still the most requested part of the Karnatik musician’s repertoire. Just as the most popular Western orchestral music is Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, so the reliable stand-bys for the Karnatik musician are “the trinity”: Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Syama Sastri, who were in fact performing and composing at about the same time as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

This reverence for the past, however, has not stifled innovation in the present. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is violinist Shankar, who created a 10-stringed double violin that enables him to add the low notes of cello and double-bass to the standard violin range. This instrument not only expanded his performance range in Karnatik music, it also enabled him to become a sought-after rock session player. His wide vibratos and swooping slides sound like bowed Jimi Hendrix when run through electronic processing, and create the perfect World-Techno solos for rock musicians such as Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads. Shankar even co-composed a film score with Peter Gabriel for Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ .

This contact with the world of rock understandably inspired Shankar to think of himself as rock star material. Like every classically trained Indian instrumentalist, he has studied vocal music intensively, and knows how to sing in a musically expressive manner. Unfortunately, writing simple music is often very difficult for people who have been trained in rich and complex traditions.

Shankar’s foray as a pop music frontman, a DVD called One in a Million, is exactly the opposite of its title. It is technically impeccable in performance and composition, and indistinguishable from millions of other albums. In an interview on the DVD Shankar says, “I play many instruments—violin, guitar—but my main instrument is my voice.” Shankar seems to think that will increase his chances of becoming a rock star. There is very little violin on the album. The instrumental accompaniment is provided by his friends from the rock world—Phil Collins, Tony Levin, and others—and they are supporting his vocals by doing pretty much what they would do on any other rock album.

Combining rock with other traditions often produces music that is fresh and imaginative. But there is no combination of styles here. If Shankar were combining Indian music with rock, I am sure that he could make music that would compare favorably with Shabazz, Jai Uttal, or Cheb I Sabbah. But Shankar has simply thrown out everything that makes him a great artist, and is pretending to be a westernized mediocrity in hopes of attracting a pop audience. He would do well to notice that this is not the strategy used by his friends who have become rock stars. There is far more world music on a Peter Gabriel or King Crimson album than there is on One in a Million.

Fortunately, the two other recordings listed above are among the many that show Shankar’s special gift for simultaneously revolutionizing and preserving Karnatik music. Both albums feature original compositions by Shankar. Eternal Light has a truly ground-breaking ragamalika which not only combines several different scales, but also includes vocal interludes, and even shifts tonal centers and taals. Raga Aberi (nominated for a Grammy in 1996) uses the traditional Karnatik format of ragam, tanam, pallavi. But the double-necked violin opens new frontiers that revitalize this tradition in truly profound ways.

A solid-bodied electric violin has no natural reverberance at all, which makes it almost sound like the listener is sitting directly underneath the strings. So Shankar adds varying amounts of reverb, (On Raga Aberi very little, on Eternal Light a great deal), which makes the instrument sound like it is two different sizes. Because the low strings are much shorter and thinner than standard cello or bass strings, they are extremely slack, which gives their sound a wild plaintive quality. And because he does not use the standard vibrato that Western string players use, these strings do not sound like cello or bass even when he is playing in the lower register. This is especially noticeable when Shankar is playing the droning patterns which Western violinists call “double-stops.” When he barely touches the high strings, he creates a delicate sound in the double-stops that flutters expressively around the melody. When he digs deep into the low strings, he creates a wide vibrato that seems to be stretching them almost to their breaking point. And there is nothing to compare to his “double-necked double-stops” in which he plays chords that do multi-octave leaps over all 10 strings.

Is there anyone else who can play this amazing instrument? Shankar’s musical partner, Gingger, has been studying with him for eight years, and plays the only other instrument of this kind in the world. Is she any good? That’s a hard question to answer with first hand evidence, for the only recording of the two of them is Shankar’s pop DVD. She and Shankar sing together for most of this album. But whatever violin-playing they do is so buried in synthesizers, it’s hard to even identify, let alone evaluate. And there are no recordings of the two of them playing classical music.

However, I did find a review on the Internet of one their live classical performances which said “After the show, I was reeling for three hours … an amazing performance which brought improvisation and virtuosity together to create an very involving experience.” There is some double tracking on the Raga Aberi album which gives some idea of how two double violins could interact with each other—octave melodies, jugalbandi—and it is quite beautiful. There is no doubt that Shankar at his best is as good as anyone could ask for. To hear him play with his prize student is sure to be an event that is not to be missed.

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.