Lakshmi Shankar - Biography
By J Poet
Lakshmi Shankar is one of the most revered singers of Hindustani classical music in India. Her vocal control and emotional range are legendary, and she’s perhaps the most popular classical singer in India. She has done much to bring Indian vocal music to the West and has lent her voice to many Bollywood soundtracks as well as international films like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982 RCA.) Shankar lives in Los Angeles.
Lakshmi Shankar was born in 1926, to a South-Indian Brahmin family. Her family was cultured and at the age of eight she started training in classical Bharata Natyam style dance with Guru Kandappa Pillai in Madras. It was unusual in her youth for a woman of the Brahmin caste to become a dancer, but her mother supported her in her career choice. When she was 13, Uday Shankar brought his dance troupe to Madras and she was enchanted. In 1940, she studied at Uday Shankar’s Almora Center and became part of his ensemble. She married Uday’s brother Rajendra and studied music with her brother-in-law Ravi.
When she contracted pleurisy, she was too weak to dance. After moving to Bombay, and with the encouragement of her husband, she studied Hindustani classical music with Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan. She began singing on the soundtracks of Hindi and Tamil films and acted and directed dance routines in the Tamil film Bhakta Tulsidas, but classical music was her first love. She began giving concerts of classical music in Calcutta in the mid 50s. Her knowledge of Carnatic and Hindustani music allows her to sing bhajans in Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujerati, Kannada and Telegu.
In 1962-63, she toured the US, Canada and Europe with Uday Shankar, as a vocalist and director of the ballet orchestra. In 1968, she was part of the Festival from India tour put on by Ravi Shankar. Shankar composes music for bhajans and even in her 80s, her voice retains its supple grace and ability to convey complex emotion and deliver vocal lines full of unexpected ornamentations.
Shankar has made hundreds of albums for dozens of labels, most of which are out of print. Available titles include: Les Heures et les Saison (1987 Ocora, France), excerpts from two 1983 concerts, Songs of Devotion (1990 Auvidis, France) on which she accompanies herself on zither, Ecstasy (1996 Audiorec UK), Amrut Ras (1996 Audiorec UK), Live in London (2000 Navras, UK), Bhakti Ras (2000 Navras, UK), Divine Love (2006 Navras, UK), Life of Dedication: 80th Birthday Celebration (2006 Navras, UK), and Dancing in the Light (2008 World Village) produced by Michael Brook. Dancing in the Light includes several of her own melodies, and shows her in fine voice at 82, still able to improvise freely and pack emotion into every note she sings. The album was nominated for a Best World Music Grammy