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the lede

Unsung Heroines
The forgotten women musicians
of the Shankar family / Music

On the night of 11 September, people
attending Toronto’s annual film festival
were complaining about the “unusually warm weather”—it was about 16
degrees Celsius. The musician Gingger
Shankar, however, wasn’t bothered.
She took a stage at 9.30 pm, wielding
a strange instrument that looked like
two violins fused together. Mixing
Indian classical vocals with keyboard
and guitar, she produced a sound as
unique as her instrument. After the
performance, Gingger announced the
release of her first solo record, Nari,
dedicated to her mother, Viji Shankar,
and grandmother, Lakshmi Shankar—
two classical musicians largely written
out of the pages of history. 
Lakshmi and Viji’s music can be
heard on nearly every album of the sitar
legend Ravi Shankar. Lakshmi was
the lead vocalist among the group of
musicians put together by Ravi Shankar
when he toured the United States and
Europe in the 1970s with the Beatles
guitarist George Harrison. Known for
her range and expression, she often
sang alongside Harrison, mesmerising
audiences at many famous venues, such
as Woodstock, London’s Royal Albert
Hall and New York’s Madison Square
Garden. Lakshmi, Viji, and Lakshmi’s
sister, Kamala Chakravarty, who played
the tambura, were the only three
women members of the “Shankar Family & Friends” tours, which transpired
into an album of the same name. The
men included musicians such as Allah
Rakha, Hariprasad Chaurasia, TV
Gopalakrishnan and L Subramaniam,
all of whom went on to have incredibly
successful careers.
Lakshmi, Viji and Kamala could
never achieve the kind of fame their
family members did. The reason,
10

courtesy gingger shankar

/ faizal khan

Gingger told me two days later at the
film festival, was the “male-oriented
nature” of the family.
Lakshmi was Ravi Shankar’s sisterin-law—married to his playwright
brother, Rajendra Shankar. Ravi and
Rajendra’s eldest brother, the choreographer Uday Shankar, is still
considered a pioneer of modern dance
in India. He was awarded the Padma
Vibhushan by the Indian government
in 1971. Kamala was in a relationship
with Ravi Shankar himself, and lived
with him for over 14 years, before
he married Sukanya Rajan, in 1989.
THE CARAVAN

Viji, too, was married into a family of
famous musicians. Her husband, the
violinist L Subramaniam, was the son
of renowned music professor V Lakshminarayana, and the brother of L Shankar and L Vaidyanathan, who were also
distinguished performers. Surrounded
by big names, and marginalised within
their households, Lakshmi, Viji and
Kamala were reduced to mere footnotes in history.
“Lakshmi was part of the core group
of musicians,” TV Gopalakrishnan, the
83-year-old Carnatic musician and mridangam player, told me over the phone

the lede
opposite page: After a brief stint studying
make-up art, Viji (right) returned to music,
often performing alongside her mother,
Lakshmi.

from Chennai. “We did 70 concerts in
68 days between 12 August 1974 and 15
January 1975, and went to all 50 states
in the US.” After a performance in Chicago, in 1974, Ravi Shankar had a heart
attack, which made him sit out the next
nine concerts. Lakshmi conducted his
orchestra in his absence.
“Everybody knew sitar and tabla
were making waves across the world in
the 1970s and 1980s but nobody cared
that the same tours also had Indian
women musicians,” said Gingger, who
claims to be the only woman in the
world who plays the double violin—
an instrument her uncle L Shankar
invented.
Opening up about her family’s history, Gingger told me that the journey
began nearly 80 years ago, when Lakshmi and her sister Kamala, two teenaged
girls from Madras, moved to Almora
with Uday Shankar’s dance troupe,
after its tour of the south Indian city in
1939. It was a bold move by the sisters,
Gingger told me, as they had chosen to
learn dance when they were supposed
to be home studying Carnatic music.
Lakshmi fell in love with Rajendra, and
they married in Madras in 1941. She
soon developed a lung ailment, which
made her give up dancing. This is when
Ravi Shankar told her she had a nice
voice, and that she should learn Hindustani classical music. Ustad Abdul
Rehman Khan, of the Patiala gharana,
took Lakshmi under his tutelage,
transforming the south Indian girl into
a Hindustani vocalist. She moved to
Bombay in 1944, looking for work in the
film industry.
In 1952, she gave birth to Viji, whom
she packed off to London at an early
age to learn make-up art. But Viji soon
returned to India and plunged into
music. In 1972, she won an All India
Radio music contest, earning her the

opportunity to record her first and only
album. Viji soon joined the family business, singing with the chorus on her
mothers’ tours, and featuring on record
covers. During the 1974 tour, she met
L Subramaniam, whom she married
two years later. According to Gingger, while her father toured the world,
her mother took care of four children,
worked in a bank, held a part-time job
at a restaurant, and trained as a realestate agent.
“Everybody in the family was only
concerned about what its men were
doing,” Gingger said. Unlike the men,
Lakshmi and Viji could only pay limited attention to their careers, as they
also tended to their families. “But my
mother and grandmother neither complained about anything, nor bragged.”
Viji sang for the soundtracks of the
director Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!
and Mississippi Masala. In 1995, at
the age of 42, she died of brain cancer.
In 2009, Lakshmi received her first
and only Grammy nomination, in the
Best Traditional World Music Album
category, for Dancing in the Light. She
passed away four years later, at the age
of 87.
“When Lakshmi died, few newspapers in India mentioned her passing
and contribution,” S Gopalakrishnan, a
music archivist, recently told me over
the phone from the United Arab Emirates. “When she learned Hindustani
music from Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan
at the age of 28, it was difficult to adjust
to a new culture, and she wanted to
quit. But the Ustad later famously said
that Lakshmi learnt in one year what
others took ten years to study.”
Gingger, however, started her training at a much younger age. When she
was five, she was sent to Chennai’s
Kalakshetra for eight years to study
music. While there, she told me, her
NOVEMBER 2015

After a performance in
Chicago, in 1974, Ravi
Shankar had a heart attack,
which made him sit out the
next nine concerts. Lakshmi
conducted the orchestra in
his absence.

ww
grandfather, V Lakshminarayana,
taught her the violin. At age 13, she returned home to Los Angeles, where she
learned traditional Indian music from
her grandmother, while her mother
took her to pop concerts.
The Shankar household was the
perfect breeding ground for a musician,
according to Gingger. The best of Hindustani and Carnatic musicians, many
of whom had moved to the United
States in the 1980s, lived within earshot
of each other in Los Angeles. “We had
visitors all the time,” Gingger said.
“There were so many musicians under
one roof. There was MS Subbulakshmi,
Yehudi Menuhin, Stéphane Grappelli,
Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain...”
Her training has served her well, and
Gingger is gradually building a career
unrestrained by family pressures. She
played the double violin on the singer
Katy Perry’s album Prism, and featured
as a performer in the Hollywood movie
The Passion of the Christ. In 2008 and
2009, she played the double violin
alongside the American rock band The
Smashing Pumpkins during their tour
of Canada and the United States. Gingger credits her mother and grandmother not only for her musical education,
but also for her outlook on life. “They
taught me that Indian women are
strong and they can do anything,” she
said. “They taught me everything.”   s
11


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