Unsung Heroines

The forgotten women musicians of the Shankar family.

After a brief stint studying make-up art, Viji (right) returned to music, often performing alongside her mother, Lakshmi. courtesy gingger shankar
01 November, 2015

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, Gingger told me two days later at the film festival, was the “male-oriented nature” of the family.

Lakshmi was Ravi Shankar’s sister-in-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. 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 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 mother's 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 real-estate 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 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.”