It was the morning of December 30, 2013. I had a brief conversation with editor V. Ramnarayan regarding veteran musician Lakshmi Shankar and her sister Kamala Sastri. It’s it seems surreal to hear that she passed away on the same day in Simi Valley, California.
Few musicians have straddled the Southern and North Indian music traditions with the same grace and ease as Lakshmi has. Her contribution to the arts is immense. The recognition she received was primarily from other musicians and her fans; yet, Lakshmiji had no regrets about the lack of institutional awards. She taught and shared music even till the last years.
Born in a South Indian family in 1926 to Pudukkottai R. Viswanatha Sastri and Visalakshi, Lakshmi Sastri was a native of Mambalam, Madras.
An exponent of the Patiala gharana, Lakshmi came to be known for her soulful renditions of thumris and khyals. A lesser known fact is that she learnt Bharatanatyam as well and had her arangetram at the age of 11 donning a salwar-kurta! The late S. Rajam recalled her prowess and grace as a dancer during a conversation in July 2009.
Her voice was featured in the Oscar winning film Gandhi, whose music was directed by Pandit Ravi Shankar.
Soon after her arangetram, she left for Almorato join Uday Shankar’s Almora Cultural Centre where her horizons widened considerably thanks to Uday Shankar’s global approach to dance and integration of various traditional elements into his formulation of a ‘modern dance paradigm.’ Lakshmi married Uday’s brother, Rajendra Shankar. She referred to her more famous brother-in-law Pt. Ravi Shankar as a ‘guru’ and collaborator. Lakshmi would recall the creative energy that poured when the Shankar brothers and she would sit at dinner and discuss the script for ‘Discovery of India.’
Each performance of ‘The Discovery of India’ was intense. It was after her last performance in this production as a dancer that Lakshmiji fell ill and was advised to give up dancing. For a South Indian, branching off into Carnatic music was a natural choice. However, it was the advice of people such as Pt. Ravi Shankar and noted film composer Madan Mohan that she took up Hindustani music.
Lakshmi trained under Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan and then later under Pandit Deodhar, a disciple and associate of Pandit Vishnu Narain Bhatkhande. Her clear voice lent itself freely to the evolution of a unique style that was at once expressive and exceedingly sweet. Her repertoire spanned thumris, ghazals, bhajans, Rabindra sangeet and songs covering a range of languages. She was fluent in Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Marathi, Gujrati and Bengali and her renditions endeared her to audiences around the country and abroad. Her discography covers several film recordings as well.
Lakshmi’s musical personality was shaped by several experiences. The first was her exposure to Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam in the Madras of the 1930s. The next was her work with Uday Shankar and Ravi Shankar, and particularly the ‘Discovery of India’ project. Her association with Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan and Pandit Deodhar enriched it further. Her spirited participation in ‘the Festival of India,’ an ensemble performance directed by Pandit Ravi Shankar that performed a world tour in 1974 and later on recorded an album by the same name, was yet another energy booster.
Lakshmi’s life has been associated with a galaxy of personalities including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who saw her perform multiple roles in the stage creation of ‘The Discovery of India’. Pandit Ratanjankar had invited her to sing many of his compositions. T.L. Venkatarama Iyer was a close friend of her father. She had worked with S.Balachander for the film ‘Bhakta Tulsidas.’
Lakshmi stands apart as a consummate artist. She spoke both the North Indian and the South Indian idioms. She could translate music to movement and expression. She was a polyglot.
Her home is a relic of her work with Ravi Shankar and other musical greats. She treasured the old programme notes from ‘Discovery of India,’
Lakshmi would visit India every December and spend time with her sister Kamala Sastri. She encouraged and admired young talent and was frequently seen attending concerts; she even gave a few performances in Chennai. The visits ceased once her sister moved away from Indira Nagar. The last known concert of Lakshmi’s was when she performed with Gayatri Venkatraghavan in the United States in 2013.
During my last conversation with her in early December 2013, she made oblique references to her health and even remarked, “I don’t know how much longer I will be around.’ I didn’t realise the end would be upon her so soon.
Lakshmi Shankar may be no more, but her voice lives on and will continue to move countless admirers around the globe.