Interview with Smt. Lakshmi Shankar

By Anita Pai

Smt. Lakshmi Shankar is one of the stalwarts of Hindustani Classical music who is also a pioneer in bringing Indian Classical Music and Dance to the Western World. Having started learning the South Indian Classical Dance of Bharatanatyam at a very young age, she joined Uday Shankarji’s India Cultural Center at Almora as part of his dance troupe. A fateful twist in her life led her to Hindustani Classical music of which she is now a legendary vocalist of the Patiala Gharana. Lakshmiji has won many awards and accolades in her illustrious career as a vocalist; her album ‘Dancing in the Light’ was a 2008 Grammy nominee. She has made Los Angeles her home for many years now and though now a proud octogenarian she still has the same melodious voice that enraptures audiences and continues to teach and train students and disciples.

Lakshmi Shankarji is being felicitated for her great contributions to the Indian Classical Arts, during the Traditions Engaged festival being held from Oct 8-10 at the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles.

Lakshmiji was very gracious to take the time out to chat about her fascinating life and also discuss topics that are important to students and connoisseurs of all Indian Classical Arts.

You are often called a dancer who became a Classical vocalist.  How and when did you begin your dance career and how did your association with Uday Shankarji start?  Please tell us about Uday Shankarji’s Almora Center.
I think I was always a singer.  From the age of 3 I could sing anything I heard even without any formal training.  I was very interested in music; it was my mother who wanted me to learn Bharatanatyam dance at that time because it should be started at a young age.  She had great vision and unbelievable taste though she was a village girl from Palghat and she said to me that I should learn such a beautiful art form even if I never performed on stage.  It was quite unheard of in those days for a South Indian Brahmin family.  I started learning Bharatanatyam from Guru Kandappa Pillai from the age of 8 in Chennai.  I must have been the first South Indian Brahmin girl to do that!.
Uday Shankarji had come to Chennai for a show and had advertised that they were opening the Almora Cultural Center and were looking for a Bharatanatyam Guru and dancer.  I was 13 at that time.  My mother asked for an interview for me and I went to see Dada (that was what we called Uday Shankarji) who asked me to dance a small piece.  He immediately asked me to join him and also asked if my Guruji would be interested in coming to Almora, which he was.  Unfortunately within a year my Guruji fell sick in Almora and had to return to Chennai and he passed away soon afterward. During my time in Almora I met with many other artists like Allauddin Khan Sahab, Ali Akbar Khan Sahab, Ravi Shankarji, Simkie, Zohra Sehgal, Uzra Butt, Amala Di (Amala Shankar who became my sister-in-law when I married Uday Shankarji’s brother Rajendra).  I remember meeting Nrityacharya Prahlad Das, Pandit Chitresh Das’ father when he was also a student there..

The Almora Center was a most wonderful institution and I wish it had lasted longer.  Artists who were there for at least 2-3 years went on to do many positive things in life.  As a South Indian moving to the North I had absolutely no idea about anything, not even about what North Indian musical instruments existed!  I learnt everything after moving there including languages like Hindi and Bengali.  The 4 years I spent there was the most fantastic time in my life, I had the best of everything and I am thankful to God for giving it to me.  We not only learned music and dance but so many other things in life that have guided us through.  Despite family objections my mother insisted that I have the opportunity to go up to the Almora Center.

It is well known that you acted in films and also sang for many well known film composers.  How and when did your journey as a vocalist in Hindustani Classical Music begin?
After the Almora Center closed down my family moved to Mumbai and I got involved in both singing and acting in films.  Shortly after that I developed a bad case of pleurisy and was forbidden to dance by doctors.  I did sing film music for many well known music composers but was not entirely satisfied or stimulated with that.  That was when, in 1954, the noted music director/composer Madan Mohanji introduced me to Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan of the Patiala Gharana who so mesmerized me with his singing that I started under his tutelage the very next day and who became my Guru.  For 3 years after that I had rigorous training under him for 4 hours every single day and in 1957 I performed at my first public performance in a Kolkata music conference and by God’s grace I never looked back after that. 

It has been said that you are a singer with a dancer’s sensibilities.  How would you define that statement and how did your classical as well as contemporary Indian dance background influence you as a vocalist?
I know the meaning of what I am singing which is a very big thing in music.  When I sing I see the expression and the movement of the words and feel them as a dancer would.  People do tell me that when I sing about Krishna they see Lord Krishna in front of them.  So, the bhaava that is present in dance translates into my music and this is felt by the audience.  When I started performing in the West I used to wonder what the Westerners understood in my singing.  I performed once in Paris in a church and it was only bhajans, almost 2 hours of bhajans and the people wouldn’t stop clapping.  When I asked some of the audience what is it that they understood, they said it wasn’t the words, it was the way I expressed the words, the way I looked when I sang that they could feel and relate to. 

You have been a pioneer in introducing Indian Classical music and dance to the West.  When did you start performing in the West and who was instrumental in bringing you here?  Was it difficult to perform a relatively unknown art form here?
I started performing here in 1962 with Uday Shankarji and then came with Ravi Shankarji in 1968 for a festival.  After that I started coming here every year for concerts.  I moved here in 1983 after my husband’s death in 1982, since both my children were here.  Ravi Shankarji had brought me here prior to that many times and had introduced me so beautifully to the audience, advising me on what and how much to sing, how to introduce and present things so as not to bore an audience that has not had much exposure.  This had been taught to me earlier by Uday Shankarji but Ravi Shankarji was also very particular.  So by the time I moved here the audience was ‘in full swing’ and that helped me a lot.  Within a few years, I became more recognized, my albums came out and I started performing full length concerts just like I had done in India.

I taught for a month at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music & Dance which was a great pleasure and it is where I met Pandit Chitresh Das.  I also sang for one of his dance performances.

How do you feel that the audience for classical music and dance has changed in the West since you first started performing here?
Previously we did not have this much of an audience for classical music but things have improved now, those who are truly interested have stayed on as an audience.  Also, those that do come to Classical concerts from the Indian Diaspora are a very good audience.  However even now, for many musicians there is also a need to make a living which is sometimes hard to do just by singing or playing classical music.  So artistes nowadays do other things like pop or film music and Classical music tends to become more of a hobby.  I feel that unless you are amongst  the top of the list, it is hard to make it. 

Lakshmiji, you still enrapture audiences with your mellifluous voice, you still make world class albums.  How important is reyaz (practice) to you and what advice would you give students of Classical music and dance on the importance of reyaz?
Reyaz is the most important thing and should be done right from the beginning.  I tell my students that I can only show them the way to go straight but if they choose to go sideways I cannot help them.  I can only show them the way and teach them, tell them how much to do etc., but they have to do the reyaz themselves.  I have some students who are very good, but unfortunately they are all working, all are busy and they can only give so much time to music which ultimately is not enough.  To really excel, students have to take advice from their Guru about how to do reyaz. 

How do you think the guru-shishya relationship has changed since you trained under your Guru to the present day, when you train your own students?
My Guru started my training the very next day that I met him.  Of course I could very easily sing whatever he sang, but when it came to singing by myself, I couldn’t do it.  He advised me that unless I did proper reyaz, practiced the paltas etc. properly, I wouldn’t be able to do it.  So I took his advice and did whatever he said in right earnest.  Every day he would come home in the morning, we would practice for 4 hours.  I would also like to say that I also consider Uday Shankarji and Ravi Shankarji as my Gurus; I learnt a lot from both of them. 

In those days it was a complete immersion, not a once a week class like it is today which is not enough.  Now my students come for class once a week for an hour and I need to cater to this kind of timing.  There are some students who are definitely very interested and put in the time and do reyaz and you can see that in their singing.  You see, there is no secret music, you do the reyaz and your voice becomes more supple and more beautiful.  To follow the true Guru-Shishya parampara in these days however, you would need complete dedication which is harder to find.

What advice would you give kids of today to help them find their chosen path be it in classical arts or otherwise?
I think kids these days are really smart and talented, they know what they want and they are lucky that there are so many venues for them to show their talent.  In the olden days there was nothing.  Ultimately you should do something only if it makes you happy.  Even now at this age I sometimes sing and teach for 4 hours and I feel no strain, in fact my voice opens up more.  That is because I love it, I love my music.  Also choose a guru wisely because ultimately it is the guru that guides you to your destination.
In celebration of its 30th anniversary, the Chitresh Das Dance Company & Chhandam School of Kathak are honoring Smt. Lakshmi Shankar for her exceptional contributions to the field of classical Indian art in India, in the West and worldwide.  Recognition conferred on October 10, 2010
at the closing night performance of Traditions Engaged, REDCAT, Los Angeles.