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    Books Poignant Song: Tracing Grammy nominated vocalist Lakshmi Shankar's fascinating story

    Poignant Song: Tracing Grammy nominated vocalist Lakshmi Shankar’s fascinating story

    In addition to Lakshmi Shankar's distinct style of singing, there was her unique approach to performance.

    One year later, in 1969 at the age of forty-three, Lakshmi achieved a major milestone by becoming a solo recording artist when Lakshmi Shankar, her self-titled debut album of khayals in Ragas Gunkali, Madhmadh and Janasammodini, was released by HMV India. This was three years after her first album recording. ‘It’s a very difficult thing to get a recording contract,’ Lakshmi said, recalling how contracts were typically only given to musicians who had already made a big name for themselves. ‘Anyway, I got some. I slowly came up through that.’

    After imbibing the traditions and techniques of Hindustani music from her gurus, Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan and B.R. Deodhar, and their gurus before them, Lakshmi built on these approaches to create a style that was her own. Unlike other singers who were trained within the strict constraints of the gharana system, Lakshmi had been exposed to two different approaches: one that emphasized emotion and lyricism and another that emphasized technique. Therefore, she was able to nimbly adapt her style, playing up the emotional or melodic elements that best showcased each raga or composition. Since the emotive style of the Patiala Gharana was what most appealed to her, ultimately, that remained central to her understanding of and approach to Hindustani music. ‘It is the emotion … the emotional content. With that you can tackle the notes.’ And it is within each note that Lakshmi found the emotional expression of a raga. ‘Because every note has something to say. That’s what I feel That every note denotes something. If I sing komal gandhar (E flat), I know it will give a sad feeling. In that way, notes are very emotional.’ So, for Lakshmi, irrespective of whether she sang a khayal, thumri or bhajan, ‘the emotion is the same’.

    Poignant Song; by Kavita Das; HarperCollins India; Rs 399
    Poignant Song; by Kavita Das; HarperCollins India; Rs 399

    Lakshmi explained how these compositional forms differ from each other and their core appeal. ‘Well, I think the khayal is for people with musical knowledge – they enjoy the improvisations. And thumris inspire more of a … romantic feeling or devotional feeling. You can use the thumri as you want. And bhajans, of course, are devotional.’ Each type of Hindustani composition – khayal, thumri or bhajan – seemed to draw upon a different aspect of Lakshmi’s talent as an artist and her personal experience. Thumris were inspired by her training as a dramatic dancer. ‘Thumris were meant for dance – for courtesans in royal courts. That’s why you have to improvise so many times.’ Lakshmi suddenly broke into a demonstration of how to improvise in thumri, infusing each iteration of the lyric with different emotions and intonations. ‘Kaun gali gayo Shyam? Kaun gali gayo Shyam?(Down which path did you go, my beloved Krishna?)… So, you have to improvise … I definitely feel that my (background in) dance has helped in my thumri singing.’

    Thumris are filled with beautiful lyrics expounding on one’s love for God and for one’s beloved, and sometimes these two notions are indistinguishable. Therefore, it’s crucial for a Hindustani singer to be adept at conveying to audiences the breadth and depth of emotions associated with both divine and human love. Ideally the audience’s ears are enraptured by the singer’s musical stylings, while their hearts are seduced by the emotions conveyed by the singer’s interpretation of the lyrics and their eyes feast on the interpretive gestures and facial expressions the singer uses to emphasize the key musical and emotional moments. ‘Thumri is a very erotic form which describes everything,’ Lakshmi explained. ‘You can take Shyam (Lord Krishna) as your lover, or you can take just a lover.’ This obviously makes thumris very emotionally charged and highly relatable for anyone who has loved.

    A young Lakshmi Shankar striking a dance pose
    A young Lakshmi Shankar striking a dance pose

    Meanwhile bhajans, which are purely spiritual compositions, held a special draw for Lakshmi, given her heritage. ‘Being a South Indian, I’m very religious and from childhood we’ve always sung Carnatic music – the lyrics are very religious. So I got interested in bhajans too.’ Bhajans have more in common with emotive, melodic forms of spiritual music, such as Gospel and African American spirituals69 or Sufi Qawwalis, than with more stark forms of religious music. This is because bhajans were popularized by the Bhakti movement, which emphasized the divine love and emotional connection that exists between God and His devotee. This love comes through in the searing melodies and heartfelt lyrics of bhajans written by Bhakti composers, including the poet-saints Kabir and Meerabai.

    As a spiritual person, Lakshmi was able to tap into this deep and profound sentiment of divine love and translate it into her music. ‘Some of the Meera bhajans and Surdas bhajans appeal to me very much because, I suppose, they wrote what they felt.’ Lakshmi added, ‘Even Kabir’s bhajans, some of them are so philosophical … when you understand the meaning, you want to pour your heart out.’ Lakshmi confessed that she was touched when an audience member compared her to Meerabai. ‘Sometimes, I’ve heard people say, “You’re saakshat Meera (Meera incarnate)” and upon hearing this I would be elated.’ There is however, one form of semi-classical Hindustani music that Lakshmi didn’t typically sing. ‘Ghazals I don’t sing because first of all, I don’t know much Urdu. Though I can pronounce the words quite well, I don’t understand very advanced Urdu. And without understanding, you can’t sing ghazals.’

    Lakshmi Shankar and Sachin Shankar dancing in costume in Almora in the 1940s
    Lakshmi Shankar and Sachin Shankar dancing in costume in Almora in the 1940s

    In addition to her distinct style of singing, there was her unique approach to performance. The performative aspect of Hindustani music is as important as the music itself, and the interaction between artist and audience lies at the core of the performance. Hindustani music performances are so emotionally charged that first-time attendees are often surprised by their interactive nature. The call-and-response is not limited to interactions between the singer and their accompanying musicians and percussionists. There is usually a parallel call-and-response between the singer and the audience, with audience members exclaiming ‘shabash’ (bravo) or ‘baesh’ (excellent) to express their exaltation, or to acknowledge an excellent display of technique, melodic dexterity, emotional poignancy or ideally, all three elements.

    As a dramatic dancer, Lakshmi knew how to physically evoke the rasa and bhava, or the emotion and mood, that are at the heart of each musical piece, and this, coupled with her heartfelt approach to singing, made her an expressive and soulful vocalist. Also, her eclectic, non-traditional childhood and youth – travelling from Madras to Almora, becoming a child dancer and joining a professional dance troupe, marrying into a Bengali family and, of course, pursuing Hindustani music – helped her appreciate a range of regional cultural traditions and cull from them. Furthermore, her work as a playback singer taught her to sing in several languages. So, as Lakshmi evolved her own style of singing through her early performances across North India, she also developed a performance style that was accessible to her diverse audiences. She adjusted her repertoire to the locality, singing compositions, especially bhajans, in the regional dialect, which endeared her to audiences. ‘Any language, any music, if you sing it well, it will please people.’

    When it came to her wardrobe, however, Lakshmi stayed true to her South Indian heritage while admiring the aesthetic traditions established by North Indian female singers who came before her. ‘Usually I wore [silk] Kanjeevaram saris … In the north, they were very simple. Hirabai would come wearing a white sari … but I still kept up my South Indian way.’

    (Excerpted with the permission of HarperCollins India)

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