Imagine a Tambrahm Bharatanatyam artiste — trained by Thanjavur traditionalist Kandappa Pillai — joining contemporary dance pioneer Uday Shankar’s repertory, learning Rabindra Sangeet, starring in Tamil film Bhakta Tulsidas, singing in films from KA Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal to Attenborough’s Gandhi, turning Hindustani classical musician, rendering Ravi Shankar’s exquisite compositions, and touring with Beatle George Harrison’s ensemble! Lakshmi Shankar (1926- 2013) wore many hats without fanfare, never made much of her achievements in amazingly different genres, indeed never drawing attention to herself.
Lakshmi’s father RV Sastri was affectionately named Harijan Sastri by the Mahatma as he was the first editor of Gandhiji’s journal Harijan. Her strongminded writer/singer mother Visalakshi emphasised the fascinating diversities — as also the organic unity — of the Indian ethos. For Lakshmi and sister Kamala, learning Bharatanatyam was to be part of India’s cultural renaissance. Moving to Uday Shankar’s cultural centre in Almora and dancing in his innovative productions was to extend horizons. Lakshmi also learnt songs from visiting musicians BR Deodhar, Dilip Kumar Roy, Vinayakrao Patwardhan and KS Bodas. Romance led to marriage with Uday Shankar’s reticent brother Rajendra, 20 years her senior, and a shift to Bombay where her husband became script writer/scenarist at the Bombay Talkies.
The newlyweds nursed a very sick brother-in-law Ravi Shankar back to health. When Rajendra and Ravi produced their fabulous ballet version of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, Lakshmi played the lead before the beaming author-Prime Minister, and ecstatic audiences. Soon, she suffered an attack of pleurisy. She recovered — but never to dance again.
That was when music director Madan Mohan introduced the despairing Lakshmi to Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan of the Patiala gharana. At age 28, she reinvented herself through a regimen of classes with Khansaheb (later Professor Deodhar), winning a medal for outstanding performance at her debut in Kolkata. Her early training in Carnatic music proved an advantage, though she had to train in a wholly different idiom to establish herself as a Hindustani musician. She specialised in thumris, and set music to bhajans which moved listeners everywhere.
The increasingly busy Ravi Shankar found time to coach and compose special pieces for his boudi. She became part of his experiments in orchestrating Indian music (Melody and Rhythm), and the Shankar Family Album presented by George Harrison. She notated as he composed, and trained musicians to render his score, particularly on foreign tours.
Lakshmi was unaffected by recognition and high society. She loved reading, and exchanging anecdotes with old friends. When as a shy 15-year-old I told her I loved her Man re paras, she started teaching it to me there and then as if it was the most natural thing to do.
Lakshmi knew shattering sorrow. She was unable to prevent sister Kamala becoming Ravi Shankar’s partner even while the maestro remained married to his guru’s daughter Annapurna. After happy years together in hometown Chennai, her husband died, leaving a vacuum. She saw her lovely daughter Vijayasri (wife of violinist L Subramaniam) die at age 40, after painful, protracted suffering, leaving four young children behind, and her own musical talent unfulfilled. Yet, all her life, Lakshmi retained a youthful outlook and impish humour. When one of her wedding concerts could not start because of mike failure, she looked at my disappointed face, smiled naughtily and said, “Great! Everyone is drowning in bhang. Let’s go. I’ll sing for you at home.”
When Lakshmi Shankar passed away on December 30, she left behind family and friends to recall her endearing simplicity, unfailing grace, and welcoming smile. Her own lilting music must have been her strength and solace.
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature.