The doyenne of classical, light classical and devotional North Indian vocal music, Smt. Lakshmi Shankar, passed away on 30th December 2013 in Los Angeles at the age of eighty seven. Over a singing career of more than fifty years, her voice retained, to the very end and as if by divine protection, a radiance and depth of spirituality, a meditative quality that seduced her listeners on several continents
In an in-depth interview I had with her in 2001, this dancer turned singer spoke of her initial training in dance and of her own mother’s tenacious efforts to ward off criticism of a young girl from an orthodox South-Indian Brahmin family taking to Bharata Natyam. She spoke of her long association with the Shankar family, first with Uday Shankar, whose school she joined in Almora in 1940, and subsequently with her Guru and Mentor, Pandit Ravi Shankar (her wide-ranging repertoire included items based on rare ragas and compositions created by him), of her marriage to their brother, Rajendra Shankar. Shattered to develop pleurisy and be asked to stop dancing, it was her husband and family who encouraged her to take up intensive Hindustani vocal training under Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan and complete her Bachelor of Music degree under Professor Deodhar.
Lakshmiji also spoke of her association with the world of Indian cinema. She took an active part in playback singing in Hindi and Tamil films and acted in a Tamil film ‘Bhakta Tulsidas’, singing the songs and directing the dances. She also performed in the ballet ‘Discovery of India’ based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s work. But classical music was now her main focus and interest so, after the initial five years of training with Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan, which she equalled to fifteen to twenty years in intensity, she gave her first public concert in Calcutta. She acknowledged that her sound training in Carnatic music in her early years helped her immensely when she started learning Hindustani vocal. Acquiring knowledge of both systems also helped her to learn many Indian languages and sing bhajans in Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujerati, Kannada and Telegu.
She is credited with being one of the first Indian singers to tour the west (with Uday Shankar and Pt. Ravi Shankar in 1962) and her pioneering efforts since that time to propagate Indian music in the west, through her performances and recordings, have been widely recognised. What began as a matter of curiosity in a novel experience many decades earlier, burgeoned into a full-fledged commitment to propagate her art to western audiences, proving that music is universal, transcending all languages and cultural barriers. She eventually settled in Los Angeles, where, even as she retired after five glorious decades of public performances, she continued to teach her much-beloved students to the very end.
For all those whose paths she crossed, Lakshmiji will be remembered for the immense lady she was. I recall awaiting our first professional encounter in 1981 with trepidation. But everything in her demenour - simple, modest, unpretentious - put me at ease. Over the ensuing twenty five years I was privileged to be associated with her, that pleasure increased, as did my admiration of her sense of tolerance, her capacity to accept people the way they are and her generosity of spirit towards all people, irrespective of their walks of life. But, above all, in our troubled world, her unflinching integrity was a source of great inspiration, her immense dignity in the face of tragedy a lesson in life itself. I hold myself - as do all those whose lives she touched - extremely privileged to have known her.
Lakshmiji will be remembered for the depth and devotion of her music. She once said, with the humility that so characterised her: ‘I never worry about criticism for critics have a right to give their honest opinion. Besides, I welcome it, as long as it is not biased, for it helps me to correct myself.’ Music was not an end in itself but, particularly through the devotion she infused into her Bhajan compositions, a means to acquire an inner serenity and draw her audiences ever closer to the beauty and subtlety of her art.
Lakshmiji characterised music as that “many splendored event’ in her life. That ‘many splendored event’ will live on, for the way she touched our hearts and soul. RIP, my very dear Lakshmiji.
Smt. Lakshmi Shankar in concert with Parthasarathy Mukherjee (tabla), Fida Hussain Khan (harmonium) & Gilda Sebastian (tanpura).