Poignant Song: Lakshmi Shankar's biography is affectionate but let down by its ordinary, casual storytelling

Lakshmi Shankar is well known among Hindustani classical music aficionados, especially for her renditions of thumris. The 'Shankar' in her name is derived from her marriage to Rajendra Shankar, brother of Pt Ravi Shankar, whom she met at Uday Shankar’s school at Almora where she was a dancer. Following a health setback, she quit dancing and took to music seriously. While she achieved a reputation as a performer of khayal and thumri, Ravi Shankar too used her voice in many of his projects, including Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, and in cross-cultural experiments with rock musicians led by George Harrison, including a hectic tour of 'Music Festival from India'.

The prospect of a biography of this artist is most intriguing. After all, it cannot be contested that Lakshmi’s life has been quite off the beaten track, nor can her artistry and accomplishment as a Hindustani vocalist be questioned, and nor can anyone argue that her story needs to told if only because she is relatively “uncelebrated” in her own country.

Poignant Song, a biography of Lakshmi Shankar told by Kavita Das and published by HarperCollins, captures the ups and downs, the people and places and events that made her life what it was with affection and warmth. Lakshmi’s parents, born into orthodoxy but rather unconventional themselves, their association with Mahatma Gandhi, Lakshmi training in dance even when it was considered unrespectable, their move to Almora to join Uday Shankar’s troupe, her marriage to Rajendra Shankar, the rise and fall of Uday Shankar, her frequent collaborations with Ravi Shankar, her turning to Hindustani music when she was forbidden from dancing on health grounds, her hard work, her anxieties about making it, her stint as playback singer in Bollywood, her American tours with Ravi Shankar and so on – the book covers her life story drawing from the author's interactions with Lakshmi, her son, Kumar, Ravi Shankar’s book Raga Mala and a few journals and magazines like Sruti and Rolling Stone. By most standards, the book is weak on research.

 Poignant Song: Lakshmi Shankars biography is affectionate but let down by its ordinary, casual storytelling

A biography is, of course, the telling of the life of a person. And to be anecdotal seems to be its obvious fate and right. But one seeks the quirks, the murk of the human condition to waft from it. The strength and the bane of this effort is that it retains the ordinariness of the extraordinary. Lakshmi singing in Attenborough’s Gandhi, Ravi Shankar’s phone call to her, the grueling recording sessions, and the unbelievable moment when she actually heard her voice during the final scenes of Gandhi, Gandhi losing out on the Oscar for the Best Original Score — all are told without hype, like just another lived day, which is what they were. Lakshmi eagerly drags Das to show her the Grammy nomination, another extraordinary event told casually, set in its everyday-ness. It is the job of the biographer to shed light on its extraordinary quality, and that is something Das does not rise to.

The book comes across as one dimensional – layers and texturing that comes off exploring the turbulence below the surface of events, or people’s decisions is quite absent. For example, the events or thoughts leading to the decision to send Lakshmi and her sister to Almora, or her getting married to the considerably older Rajendra Shankar — decisions that are certainly not easy, are simply glossed over. Nor is there any probing into issues like the controversial relationship between Kamala Sastri, her sister, and Ravi Shankar when he was still married to Annapurna Devi.

There are other issues. Expressions like “Lakshmi had an innate sense of the vision of Ravi Shankar”, are puzzling, since 'instinctive' might fit better. Or the even more incomprehensible description of Attenborough’s film Gandhi as a “prolific film”. And one is sent reeling at the spectacularly incorrect claim that Kathakali is a dance form that derives from Bharatanatyam. To Indian music itself she devotes a couple of pages, presumably to give the context for Lakshmi’s career in it, and these lines are almost cavalier: “Aryans arrived in India around 2000 BC… and their sacred scriptures and verses were set to prescribed sequence of notes. Later, the Brahmins came and divided the music into sacred music or Marga Sangeet and secular music or Desi Sangeet.” The mind boggles at this superficial and incorrect description of a celebrated distinction in the history of Indian music.

The book does manage to bring alive Lakshmi Shankar’s physical personality and temperament. But curiosity about and attempting to picture the inner workings of her mind are quite absent, except at a superficial level. The book is easy at other levels too – there is barely any probing into the politics of gender, and other inequities. A remark that women artists of the troupe were expected to work in the kitchen as well as deliver in the rehearsals, a question thrown in about any difficulty in interacting with members of the troupe from other religions, specifically Muslim, barely convey any intensity and at best come across as weak attempts to display some awareness of these issues. Of the latter issue, in the context of Lakshmi’s friendship with Zohra, another troupe member at Almora, Das clarifies that “While conflict between India’s Hindus and Muslims had long been a predominant narrative, it didn’t seem to impact their close friendship”, displaying naivete and unfamiliarity with nuances of this issue.

The world of Hindustani music itself is a shining example of co-existence of the two communities. She did not have to look far: Pt Ravi Shankar’s favoured accompanist was Ustad Alla Rakha. Certainly it is a complex issue demanding more than a couple of lines.

Anoushka Ravishankar offers a rather self-absorbed foreword with no remarks or appetisers about the book. One learns, for example, that she has played the tanpura for only two people – her father, Pt Ravi Shankar and Lakshmi Shankar — which is hardly relevant.

Lakshmi Shankar’s life holds great interest and Poignant Song outlines its broad contours, but the picture that emerges has not the excitement of light and shade, or depth and perspective.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com.

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Updated Date: Jun 22, 2019 09:57:30 IST