At this time last year, I had made the extremely difficult decision to leave my position as the marketing and communications director at Race Forward, the publisher of Colorlines. As strongly as I believed in the crucial work Race Forward was doing to promote racial justice, I felt compelled to take a hiatus from social change work in order to tell the story of Lakshmi Shankar, a Grammy-nominated Indian singer, who I’ve known and respected for more than 30 years. Shankar passed away on December 30 in the Los Angeles area at the age of 87. As I push forward with work on a personal biography about her, I’m mourning her loss deeply on a personal level but also revisiting why her life story holds such significance.
On a broader level, Lakshmi Shankar’s evolution as an artist paralleled the journey that Indian music made as it traveled to the West, leaving an indelible stamp on American music and history. While the strains of the sitar are unmistakable on The Beatles’ hit “Norwegian Wood” and other celebrated songs from that era, most people don’t know much about the Indian musicians who helped bring Indian music to the West. As a daughter of Indian immigrants, I believe it’s vitally important to document the role Indians have played in shaping American history. On a more personal level, I’ve long admired how Lakshmi’s life story is one of reinvention and resilience.
Although she is best known as a singer, Lakshmi began her artistic career as a classically trained dancer. As a young girl, she was accepted into the breakthrough dance academy established by innovative choreographer (and future brother-in-law) Uday Shankar and toured India as a member of his troupe. Although Lakshmi was devastated when illness forced her to give up dancing, she continued to pursue her passion for the arts by dedicating herself to the study of North Indian classical (Hindustani) music. Lakshmi successfully reinvented herself as a Hindustani singer gaining recognition and accolades in India.
In the late 1960s she joined her brother-in-law Ravi Shankar and other key artists who sought to take Indian music beyond the borders of India. Her voice can be heard on key recordings from that era including Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival from India and Ravi Shankar and George Harrison’s collaboration, “Shankar and Friends.” Through Lakshmi’s story, I believe there is a rare opportunity to provide an alternate perspective on the movement that brought Indian music and culture to the West: the perspective of a female Indian musician who was part of that movement.
Lakshmi’s contributions, however, stretched well beyond the West’s initial fascination with Indian culture in the 1960s. She toured and recorded extensively throughout the world, gaining her a large and loyal audience, especially in India, England, France and the United States. Her beautiful voice and accessible demeanor drew not only hardcore followers of Hindustani music but also fans of world music and other genres. Lakshmi also lent her voice to significant films in India and abroad, including the 1982 Oscar-winning film “Gandhi.” This is particularly poignant given that as a young girl Lakshmi met Gandhi because her father was a member of his nationalist movement in the lead-up to India’s independence struggle. In his autobiography, “Raga Mala,” the late great Ravi Shankar aptly described Lakshmi Shankar as “a magnificent vocalist (who) has become a favorite of listeners in India as well as in the West, loved for her wonderful voice and the feelings she brings out through it.”
For the last several decades, she made her home in the Los Angeles area, teaching students to ensure that her craft would live on. In 2009, she received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional World Music Album for Dancing in the Light.
Lakshmi Shankar was that rare breed of artist who was both dedicated to preserving Indian music as well as committed to bringing it to a broader audience. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise in prominence of several Indian American artists and entertainers, from comedic actress, Mindy Kaling to Lakshmi’s own niece, sitarist and world music artist, Anoushka Shankar. While this might seem like a new phenomenon, I’m certain these strides were made possible because of the path paved by Ravi Shankar, Lakshmi Shankar, and other cultural ambassadors of that era. So, for me, as an Indian-American, Lakshmi’s story is as much about where we’ve come from as it is about where we’re going.