Shakti at 50: What makes the band still tick?

‘Shakti at 50 is not merely a milestone, it’s an emotion,’ says ghatam exponent Vikku Vinayakram, who was part of the original trailblazing quartet

February 02, 2023 04:52 pm | Updated February 04, 2023 03:19 pm IST

Ghatam exponent Vikku Vinayakram

Ghatam exponent Vikku Vinayakram | Photo Credit: Bhargavii Mani

In 1974, as young musicians eager to change the musical discourse, Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Vikku Vinayakram and L. Shankar launched Shakti, which made the world sit up and take notice. Fifty years later, three of them managed to do the same. In a widely-shared video posted last week at the start of the iconic band’s India tour, 80-year-old ghatam exponent Vikku Vinayakram was seen sitting on a sofa with 81-year-old jazz ace John McLaughlin perched on one of its arms while 71-year-old tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain was seated on the floor reclining on Vikku Vinayakram, who had his hand around the Ustad’s shoulder. The three were having fun conversing through konnakol (reciting Carnatic percussion syllables), in their own unique way showing how boundaries can be blurred to discover a distinct language of expression.

Watch | John McLaughlin, Vikku Vinayakram and Zakir Hussain ahead of Shakti reunion tour

“Shakti at 50 is not merely a milestone, it’s an emotion. It is a band whose music is defined by its members’ easy camaraderie and contrasting personas and musical styles,” says Vikku Vinayakram, relaxing in his house in one of the bustling narrow lanes of Triplicane in Chennai. He looks tired as he had returned late the previous night from Bengaluru after performing for SPIC MACAY and at the Shakti concert.

The original Shakti quartet

The original Shakti quartet | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Rhythm has been our only mode of communication since we first met. Except violinist L. Shankar, the fourth musician of the Shakti quartet, who was a Tamilian, I bonded with John and Zakir only through sign language and sound,” laughs the veteran.

Joining the band as a 33-year-old proved to be a watershed moment both for Vikku Vinayakram and the ghatam. It opened a world of opportunities for the modest clay instrument and the subsequent generation of upapakkavadyam artistes.

“When I set out to perform at the Mumbai edition of the band’s recent tour, my mind travelled back to the day when I left for America with the ghatam in hand and fear in my heart, to be a part of a daunting cross-genre experiment, I had no clue about. I did not want to do something that would damage my art and integrity. As I went up on the stage in Mumbai that evening, I was happy I had made that crucial move.”

John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, Ganesh Rajagopalan, and V Selvaganesh at Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata during Shakti 2023 India Tour.

John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, Ganesh Rajagopalan, and V Selvaganesh at Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata during Shakti 2023 India Tour. | Photo Credit: ANI

Shakti picked up the threads of collaborative music from where Pt. Ravi Shankar and the Beatles had left them. Since Zakir had grown up watching his inimitable tabla virtuoso father and guru Ustad Alla Rakha accompany Panditji on world tours, he knew the way forward. He roped in John, who fronted the wildly popular fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra, which had disbanded by then. Also, John’s inherent love for Indian spirituality and music made him an ideal choice for this East-West project. They brought in Vikku and Shankar for the Carnatic element. It was not a hastily put together gimmick-driven set up. The vivacious four brought to the stage and studio (they recorded successful albums) incredible instrumental skills to create a new improvisatory hybrid with Indian traditional melody and Western jazz and blues. People took time to warm up to Shakti’s sound, but once they did, there was no stopping the band. While the two string players served both evocative and zesty tunes, the tabla and ghatam artistes dressed it up with a palette of beats. What is simply refered to as fusion is actually a challenging exercise — creating an ensemble of not-so-like-minded musicians and compositions involving unrelated streams of music.

After five years and three albums, Shakti disbanded. But in 1997, Zakir and John decided to launch a reunion tour under the name ‘Remember Shakti’. Over the years, the band has had different artistes come in. In this tour, singer Shankar Mahadevan and kanjira exponent and Vikku’s son Selvaganesh, who were a part of ‘Remember Shakti’, along with violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan, joined Zakir and John to form a quintet. “I played a few pieces at some of the concerts. Over the years, Shakti has inspired many multi-cultural groups. It is a delightful outcome. But what I have realised from my many collaborative international outings is that improvisation, imagination and spontaneity are the driving forces of such arrangements. The exchanges are both exciting and terrifying, since you need to hold on firmly to your tradition even while trying to loosen up a bit to engage with new sounds,” says Vikku Vinayakram.

Shakti looked deep into the genres to compose intriguing pieces with an universal appeal. Though the four musicians were initially stuck in their own grooves, they soon managed to create a space for collective interplay. After five decades, Shakti’s approach to music remains the same — to come up with a sound that defies labels.

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