By Rimli Bhattacharya
“I have had a dream to try to combine Western and Indian music into a new form, a music which has no particular name but is melodious and touching, and which combines the most modern electronic devices with the old traditional instrument, the sitar” – Ananda Shankar on the cover of his self-titled 1970 Reprise LP
I was fourteen when my dance tutor said to me, “There is an upcoming recital, but this time it will be different. You have to dance to music.” “But I am used to classical dance and only with Rabindra Sangeet, I cannot do it,” I replied. “You must try, listen to the melody. This genre is onerous, because you have to convey to the audience the story which you want to narrate by dancing to the tunes of east versus west, fusion music by Ananda Shankar,” my teacher replied and turned on the tape recorder. That’s when I first heard “Missing you”.
Born on 11 December, 1942 to legends Uday Shankar and Amla Shankar, the fusion maestro, Ananda Shankar, was also the nephew of the fabled sitar virtuoso, Pandit Ravi Shankar.
He was the first Indian musician and symphonist noted for his successful fusion of Indian classical music with Western rock. He was also the founder of “Ananda Shankar Centre for Performing Arts”, Calcutta (now Kolkata). Despite his family’s cultural legacy, Ananda Shankar never took any sitar lessons from his uncle Pandit Ravi Shankar. Instead, he studied under Guru Lalmani Misra, who was the Dean at the Faulty of Music and Fine Arts, Banaras Hindu University. The world knows about his uncle but he never competed with the success of panditji. His tunes of Sitar, Moog Synthesizer, Drums, Guitar and other staid musical instruments were unique and had euphony to bring you to a state of bliss, serenity, and tranquility.
The metamorphosis of his theme cord to another jingle does not follow the coherent path as they are more of contemporary music analysis. His music has the brew of a heavenly potent, hip-hop, ecclesiastic sequel, elevating the audience to a divine ambience, while retaining an earthly somatic quality. The sitar chord touches your heart with fusion of flutes, bass guitar, synthesizer, and saxophone. By the time the music kicks, in the rumbling goes down to the subconscious psyche of the listener, transposing the eavesdropper to a state of meditation and spirituality.
On his contribution to the fusion music genre, Richie Unterberg writes: “The urge to combine Western and Indian music, or in more general terms East and West, had swept rock music ever since George Harrison played sitar on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” in late 1965. In the ensuing five years, innumerable major and minor rock acts tried to incorporate Indian music into their work, often using the sitar, and often within the framework of psychedelia. Some such efforts were stunning successes, like the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” and much of Donovan’s Sunshine Superman album; others were half-baked turkeys. What set Ananda Shankar aside from most such artists was that he was an Indian musician of distinguished pedigree approaching the East-West fusion from the Eastern direction, rather than the other way around.”
In the late 1960s, he travelled to Los Angeles and caught the footlights of the entertainment industry. He performed with several eminent classic rock musicians including Jimi Hendrix at the zenith of kaleidoscopic movement. At age 27, he signed with Reprise Records, which launched his debut self-titled album, a fusion percussion classic amalgamating music with pneumatic-rock, including sitar-heavy genres of “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Light My Fire”.
He returned to India in 1975 and after repeated experimentation with Eastern Sitar, Western Rock Guitar, drums and moog synthesizers, he launched his own marquee, “Ananda Shankar and His Music”, a frenzied mingling of tizzy beats, keyboards, and clichéd Indian instruments which was appreciated worldwide. From 1978 to 1998, he produced five visionary blends: “India Remembers Elvis” (An Indian version of Elvis Presley benchmark), “A Musical Discovery of India” (This was funded by Indian tourism board), “Missing you” (In remembrance of his parents), “2001” (with a gist of space) and “Sa-Re-Ga Machan” (based on Jungle Safari beats). During the mid-90s, there surfaced a new cohort of Disc Jockeys and musicians, who recognized discography in his music. In 1996, Blue Note released the potpourri album, “Blue Juice Vol 1”, which included two marvelous dance tracks, “Streets of Calcutta” and “Dancing Drums”, paving his way to a broad spectrum audience. His music got noticed in the west in mid 90s. His fusion tracks played on the DJ sets, predominantly in London.
In late 90s, he toured the UK with London DJ sets of Bengal. This association ultimately led to the release of album, “Walking on”, with his insignia Sitar riffs blended with beats and hip-hop.
Although Ananda Shankar was trained in Indian Classical music, he created a niche for himself and blended the East and West which we call fusion music. Commenting on the universal quality of his music, India Netzone writes: “Ananda Shankar was an original musician of the world before the term ‘world music’ was invented […], he mastered a typical sound – vibrant new age music that was capable of breaking barriers flanked by races, cultures and generations. Not cramped by the restraints of the ancient and the conventional music, Ananda Shankar was present decades ahead of its time. Ananda Shankar’s creative efforts retain their freshness and appeal even today. He has given the world a repertoire of music that is still heard regularly over the radio, on television, at plays, on airlines, even at fashion shows and films.”
A few of his soundtracks are: “Dancing Drum”, “Indra Sabha”, “The River”, “Streets of Calcutta”, “Missing You”, “Walking on”, “Snow Flower”, “Night in the forest”. Doordarshan India aired the show, “Byomkesh Bakshi”, where the sound track played his music.
Apart from being a musician and composer, Ananda Shankar was a choreographer as well. At the time of his death on 26 March 1999 (he was just fifty-six), he left behind his equally talented wife, Tanusree Shankar – a dancer, a choreographer and also a lead danseuse of “Ananda Shankar Centre for Performing Arts” – and his daughter, Shreenanda Shankar. His sister Mamta Shankar, a noted dancer, choreographer and an actress, also carries forward the family legacy.
I would like to conclude this essay with my feelings when I danced to his music. As I mentioned earlier, I was fourteen when I was asked to perform to his music. Initially scared about how to narrate a story to the audience through my steps following Shankar’s music – and not the usual taal and gharana – I made frequent mistakes which invited regular reprimands from my teacher. The music sank in gradually as I understood the concept and then performed in front of an audience of two hundred. I started with a chant from a George Biswas track and then performed with the fusion music of Ananda Shankar. It took me to a state of ecstasy. I could no longer see those lights; I could no longer see the audience; I could no longer feel the pain of the beatings on my knees. I achieved a feeling of eternal peace and repose. There were several recitals I performed but each time I looked forward to performing with the music of Ananda Shankar. I was in third year of engineering when I performed in Odisha dance festival, where I choreographed the dance to his music. It was appreciated more because of his music than my dancing ability.
Ananda Shankar will live on through his fusion music, bringing the East and West together.
(The music to which I danced)
Rimli Bhattacharya completed Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology. After obtaining an MBA, she worked in the corporate sector. Rimli is a trained Indian classical dancer, based out of Mumbai, India. She tweets at: @rimli76
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