Her guitar is a Shankar

Kamala Shankar  

Dr. Kamala Shankar merits special acclaim for being India’s first female classical guitarist. Born in Thanjavur, Shankar later moved to Varanasi, where she currently resides and trains students in the guru-shishya parampara at her Shankara Arts Foundation. She was awarded a Doctorate by the Benaras Hindu University for her work on the Hawaiian guitar, first of its kind in her domain. Founder of the Shankar Guitar, Dr. Shankar’s recitals are featured regularly on All India Radio and Doordarshan. She has also represented India abroad at various noted music festivals and conferences.

Excerpts from an interview -

How did you choose the classical guitar?

I started learning vocal music from my mother when I was about four years old and followed it with extensive training under the able guidance of Pt. Amarnath Mishra of the Benaras Gharana. When I was 12, I started learning the Hawaiian guitar from Shivnath Bhattacharya of Varanasi. That proved to be the turning point of my life. Besides Kolkata, Varanasi was the only place where Rabindra Sangeet and classical music were practised and rendered with great dexterity on the Hawaiian guitar. So, it was a popular instrument and I used to watch people carrying it all over and playing music. I think that created a significant impression and interest to explore the musical possibilities of this instrument.

You were born in Thanjavur and came to Varanasi later. What were the reasons to choose Hindustani music over Carnatic?

My grandfather came to Varanasi and settled here in 1920. My father and his siblings were born and brought up here. My mother hails from Asansol in West Bengal. Though we are South Indian Aiyyars Thanjavur, we are temperamentally more North Indian. After retirement my grandfather shifted to Thanjavur and that is how I was born there. My mother learnt Carnatic music but I grew up in Varanasi. How can you escape Hindustani music here? Thus, I was always more inclined towards Hindustani owing to my location and the immediate musical environment that enveloped me.

Do you think your location is a disadvantage?

No. On the contrary, this city has contributed tremendously to my musical growth. I never felt disadvantaged by staying in Varanasi. I lived in Delhi for 12 years and then shifted to Varanasi again. I think the city is most conducive to my music. Varanasi actively encourages the assimilation of cultures, classes and religion. There is music everywhere – vocal, instrumental or dance. And above all, it is the people who constitute a city. People here are essentially simple, warm and extremely giving and this quality has a direct bearing on my music. Talent and fame are indifferent to location.

We know of several classical guitarists such as Pt. Brijbhushan Kabra and Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhat. What have you done to create an independent identity?

I play the ‘gayaki ang’ (vocal technique) on the Hawaiian guitar owing to my extensive training in vocal music. I have also innovated the standard Hawaiian guitar and named it as Shankar Guitar, the name derived from the reigning deity of Varanasi, Lord Shankar. This was made by the (late) Bishan Das Sharma of Rikhiram & Sons in New Delhi in 2001. The Shankar guitar has four main strings, three ‘chikari’ strings, eleven ‘sympathetic’ strings and no sound hole. This instrument has a hollow body with thicker sound board and bottom, including side walls of solid wood, compared to plywood in regular guitar. With this type of setting, the necessity of the hole on sound board is ruled out. Setting the instrument with a new system of brasing and sound post, has made it completely different in sound quality, giving even and long sustained sound on all strings.Also the sitting posture is more comfortable because of its flat base throughout. It’s strong, one piece structure, holds the tuning and is crack resistant to little jerks or mis-handling. Most important, I have been able to achieve the quintessential Indian touch in its tone, which our ears are so attuned to.

Does gender still matter in Indian classical music?

No. Not at all. I have never encountered any instance of gender bias.

Do you collaborate with other Indian artists?

I have played many jugalbandi concerts with artists such as Pt. Ronu Majumdar (flute), Jayanthi Kumaresh (veena) and Nandini Muthuswami (violin). I would definitely like to collaborate with different artists but without disturbing the essence of our traditional music. I think Coke Studio is a very good attempt at popularising classical music especially amongst the youth.


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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 11:19:48 AM |

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