Unsung Heroines

The forgotten women musicians of the Shankar family.

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

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.

Faizal Khan Faizal Khan is a freelance writer based in Delhi. He has written for many national newspapers on sports and cultural events.

Keywords: gender music inequality Shankar