Friday, October 18, 2013

I'm dancing at the feet of my lord, all is bliss all is bliss!

I would still like to believe that this was a typical habit of all the children back in the late 80s, to go through their dad's things when nobody's watching. Today when I look back, those episodes seem quite amusing dipped in sheer innocence. With no intention to come across something dramatic, there used to be this surge of excitement to know more about your father; and it rarely mattered if that something made any sense even. My father was an advertising professional and his study although impeccably tidy was quite a potpourri of sorts; filled with books, fancy magazines, newspaper cuttings, stencil drawings, long calligraphy pens, paper samples, colour bottles, paint brushes, music cassettes, old photographs, post-its, a magnifier lens in a leather pouch and a world of random things. Going through his desk was was like peeping through his thought bubble and wondering the endless possibilities that one can create by mixing any of the three things together. And so I used to sit and wonder, each thought happily spiralling into another, innocent imaginings I would say but like in a children's fairy tale there used to be a villanous thought buster as well - my dad's visiting card!

The designations mentioned on all the other visiting cards lying on the desk always made sense to me but not his. Unlike a Marketing Director or a General Manager or a Chairman his visiting card mentioned his designation as a Creative Director. And I was always puzzled what does this really mean. Like, what does he do at work the whole day that keeps him busy through the week and mostly weekends as well. Now if you ever happen to read the technical definition of creativity, it states creativity as a process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile. What is produced can come in many forms and is not specifically singled out in a subject or area. Obviously a young mind of mine then was in the midst of utter befuddlement. So I started having my own ideas about 'creativity' and about 'creative people'.

Shakti at a live performance
For me, being 'creative' was about doing something your way, starting a new trend and being recognised for it. And with that definition a lot of iconic people started featuring in my list. The list was quite a long one as it included all the names that I had come across while going through my dad's desk - Satyajit Ray, Kahlil Gibran, Ravi Shankar, V S Gaitonde, Kumar Gandharva, Bach, Edward De Bono, P L Deshpande and many more. But to be honest, these were mere names; I didn't know who they were nor did I know what did they really do. But as is the case ever so often, there was an exception. In this list of creative people, there also featured a music cassette and I exactly knew why was it on the list. I used to play this cassette endlessly on the loop and gather such joy every time I heard it. The sound of the bow instrument especially gave me goose bumps as a kid. And I was dead sure these musicians were super super creative. To my luck, I was not proven wrong, the album was a concert recording of an Indo-Western music group and I later found out the four group members were mavericks in the music world. The group was Shakti and the members of course were John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Vikku Vinayakam and the one to whose music I was hypnotically attracted to, the ever-so innovative, the creative mastermind, L Shankar.

L Shankar
Laxminarayana Shankar was born to be a musician; not because he was the youngest of the six children in a family completely devoted to music for generations, but because of the sheer inquisitiveness that he had about music. The unquenched thirst to do something new, breaking the strict barriers of traditional music yet staying true to the discipline that offered him the platform to innovate, compulsively collaborate and daring to create something so unique that by the time you fathom, all you remember is his genius. 

A violinist, singer, composer and producer, L Shankar has worn many hats in his career of over 40 years and has managed to sell over 10 million album copies. An acclaimed master of improvisational music, he is a rare virtuoso who embraced distinct genres making his music a conflux of Indian music and World music with a blend of pop, rock and contemporary jazz. In one of his interviews, he was quoted saying, 'I would like to bring the East and the West together. That, I think is my role'. 

L Shankar's father V Laxminarayana Iyer was one of the most celebrated violinists of his times and his mother was a singer and a Veena player. So it was not a surprise that Shankar's musical training started from the age of two and he gave his first public performance just five years later.  His elder siblings are musicians as well including two world renowned violinists, Dr. L Subramaniam and late L Vaidyanathan. As a child, Shankar's training was not restricted to a specific idiom of music as his father was open to all kinds of music - Carnatic Classical, Hindustani Classical and other western musical styles. This surely laid the foundation stone for Shankar to combine the musical traditions of Southern India with world influences in violin and vocals both. Interestingly, Shankar not only managed to blend various musical styles but also bridge diverse cultures through his extensive collaborations with musical giants across the world.

After completing his BS in Physics in India, he moved to the US in 1969 and earned a Ph.D in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was during this phase when he spent most of his time combining music styles of the East and the West. And it was here where he met John McLaughlin who was then studying the ancient Indian instrument Veena. They both took an instant liking to each other and decided to form a group, Shakti roping in Vikku Vinayakam and Zakir Hussian on Ghtam and Tabla respectively. Their first performance was held at South Hampton College on July 5, 1975. The recording of this concert was later released as their debut album in 1976. And since then, the group went to produce some of the most striking sounds in Indo-Western fusion for audiences world over. Shakti released two other albums in later years, Natural Elements and A Handful of Beauty. But with each member getting busy with their own exhaustive tours and schedules, the group dissolved by 1978. Interestingly though, each of these musicians stayed close to the musical style that had been pioneered during the 'Shakti' days.  According to Shankar, 'such experimentation and experience are more in depth than any college, unless you are studying in guru-shishya paramara, on a one-to-one basis.  

Double Violin
I have been listening to Shankar for years now, and whenever I do, there is this feeling that tells me he must be quite a dreamer. But then someone has said it quite rightly, those who dream, seek! Shankar's ultimate foray into musical innovation and experimentation has been the invention of the ten-string double-necked stereophonic violin. This instrument was conceptualised and designed by Shankar and built by guitar builder Ken Parker. The most distinguishing feature of the double violin is that it gives a single player the five and a half octave range of a full string orchestra, including double-bass, cello, viola and violin. The instrument in more ways gave Shankar greater flexibility as an instrumentalist. He introduced the unique sound of this instrument on his first solo album, Touch Me There in 1980. In the late 70s, Frank Zappa had replaced Jean Luc Ponty with Shankar on the electric violin for a short period but this stint had paid off Shankar quite well. Impressed with his talent, Frank Zappa produced and contributed lyrics for Touch Me There.

After the success of his debut album, Shankar continued to impress audiences and critics alike with his unmistakable sound through various albums and concerts. This also includes the 1996 Grammy nominated album Raga Aberi with his own Indian group featuring Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakam. Over the years, he has literally perfomed alongside the who's who of the music industry - Peter Gabriel, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Phill Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Sting among the wide array of pop stars; Ravi Shankar, Palghat Mani, Jan Garbarek, A R Rahman, Trilok Gurtu and many others from the World and Indian music genre. The list of collaborations and performances by Shankar is quite endless but what really makes his music stand apart from the rest is his philosophical approach to music. In one of his interviews, he said ' We should never be so busy that we cannot pray, dance, write, sing or do whatever we are destined to do.' In recent years, Shankar has been performing and touring extensively with Gingger Shankar and has been receiving rave reviews for the same. 
I just hope we all get to listen to more of his music in coming years as we come across musicians like him quite rarely and far between.