JOURNEY TO THE WEST
Kavita Das's Poignant Song chronicles the journey of Indian music to the West through the remarkable life of a great artiste – Lakshmi Shankar. Her music traversed both the East and the West with numerous collaborations. Excerpts:
No longer able to dance, Lakshmi feels adrift. In fact, she, Rajendra and young Kumar are all adrift. Having lost their beloved Bombay bungalow after the commercial failure of the reprisal of The Discovery of India, they are temporarily staying at Ravi's apartment while he is away on tour. But Lakshmi has little time to mourn. Instead, she immerses herself in her second love – music – earning a living as a playback singer for movies, and radio commercials.
In 1952, Lakshmi got a major break on the soundtrack for the film Aandhiyan, directed by Chetan Anand and starring matinee idol Dev Anand and rising starlet Nimmi. Sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, an emerging star in the realm of Hindustani music and the son of Ravi's guruji, Ustad Allauddin Khan, composed the music, and Ravi himself was part of the cadre of Hindustani musicians featured on the film's soundtrack. The primary singers were Hemant Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosle. Although, she could no longer dance, Lakshmi poured her skills into choreographing for the film. In addition, she was the lead singer for 'Ghanshyam ke hai ghanshyam nayan', a bhajan featured in the film.
Despite the fact that the film and recording industry was dominated by those with studio connections, Lakshmi managed to find some footing there. She was also grateful for other happy news – she and Rajendra were expecting their second child. For the final months of her pregnancy, she travelled to Madras to be cared for by her mother, who had also been looking after Kumar while Lakshmi and Rajendra settled themselves in Bombay. On 15 August 1952, twenty-six-year-old Lakshmi gave birth to daughter Vijayashree.
Lakshmi described Viji, as she came to be called by close family and friends, as a 'very happy, jolly baby'. But beyond her demeanour, Viji's arrival brought Lakshmi optimism. 'She was the apple of my eye. After she was born everything improved – my life, finances … name, recognition,' Lakshmi said with the smile of a doting mother. 'After she was born, everything changed.'
A few months later, Lakshmi returned to Bombay with baby Viji, leaving Kumar in Madras with Visalakshi until she and Rajendra could find a permanent residence. In January 1953, Rajendra, Lakshmi and Viji moved into Goodwill Apartments in the Khar neighbourhood of Bombay. Soon after, Visalakshi and eight-year-old Kumar joined them, and the family was finally reunited under one roof.
Decades later, Kumar recalled this period in his family's life and the apartment they called home. 'Our flat was number five. It was a two- or three-storey building and we were on the ground floor. In front of the building was a grocery shop, and next door was Madras Café and Restaurant. It was very close to the Khar railway station, which is on the main Bombay western railway line.' Despite the fact that five of them were sharing two bedrooms, Kumar said that the apartment still felt spacious, especially because of a large balcony where he sometimes slept, relishing the evening breeze.
Kumar's grandmother, Visalakshi, raised him for much of his early childhood, and he talked about her bold personality. 'Oh, she was a really strong person, coming from her period of time. I don't think it would ever have been possible if it hadn't been for her letting my mom go and dance. Being in a Brahmin family, dancing in those days was not done… But my grandmother said, "I want her to learn this and I want her to do it."' Although Kumar had briefly met Baby Viji in Madras when she was born, it was only after he moved back to Bombay that he got to know his little sister. 'I was just fascinated. Like, who is this? Another little person!'
Kumar also has colourful memories of accompanying his father to work at Filmistan, the movie studio Rajendra joined after Bombay Talkies. 'I used to go and visit him in Filmistan. One day, we were just walking around during a break. We had come out and there was a tree with a seating area all around it and there was a person with his head on the seat and his foot up on the tree, relaxing. My father introduced me to him – it was [actor] Shammi Kapoor… He was shooting Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) at that time. That was my earliest recollection of Filmistan.'
Meanwhile, Lakshmi resumed her playback singing. Through this she came to meet and work with well-known music director Madan Mohan. Their first collaboration was on the soundtrack for the 1954 film Mastana which starred lesser-known actors Motilal and Mukri. However, the soundtrack boasted some of the best-known playback singers of the time, including Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhosle. Lakshmi dueted with Mohammed Rafi on the song 'Jhoom jhoom ke do diwane', which is staged in the film by a father-and-son street-performing duo; given the versatility of her voice, Lakshmi sang the part of the young boy.
Madan Mohan has a fascinating background and paved an unconventional path to Bollywood. His father was an investor in the Bombay Talkies movie studio and Mohan mingled with the children of some of Bollywood's biggest stars, such as Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Although he initially joined the army, Mohan soon made his way back to his first love, music, first working for All India Radio in Lucknow and later moving to Bombay to create his own compositions for Bollywood films. He had a passion for Hindustani classical music, especially ghazals, and developed a talent for infusing elements of the classical into the formulaic music of Bollywood films, which drew mostly from folk and pop music styles.
Although Lakshmi and Mohan were brought together through their collaboration on Bollywood soundtracks, Mohan heard the potential for something more in Lakshmi's voice. We'll never know if it was her melodiousness, or her vast vocal range, or her rhythmic precision or her emotive performance, but whatever it was, Mohan discerned in her the voice of a Hindustani classical singer.
Lakshmi recalled the pivotal conversation she and Mohan had had. 'One day Madan Mohan suddenly said, "Lakshmi, why don't you learn Hindustani music?"' She was flattered but caught unawares and was unsure of how to respond. Mohan persisted, 'Lakshmi, your voice is so suitable for thumris.' Finally, she confessed that while she loved Hindustani instrumental music, including that of Ravi and his guruji, Allauddin Khan, when it came to Hindustani vocal music, she just didn't find it very inspiring. 'I haven't heard anybody that I like, that I'm so keen to learn from.'
As she related that decades-old conversation to me, Lakshmi laughed at the gall of her younger self, incredulous at how wrong she had been. She explained that although she'd had some exposure to Hindustani music while at Almora, she had only gleaned a narrow understanding of it. And when it came to Hindustani vocal music, 'I did not hear vocal music much. I heard the sarod, sitar … so I thought that instrumental music was classical music.' The little Hindustani vocal music she had heard, she could not readily identify with, given her acculturation to Carnatic vocal music.
Ultimately, Mohan prevailed. 'He said, "Okay, I'll get you a teacher, let's see."' True to his word, Mohan came to Lakshmi's house with a Hindustani vocalist and potential teacher – Abdul Rehman Khan, who hailed from the Patiala Gharana in Lahore. Lakshmi described the transformative encounter: 'They brought a harmonium, so Madan sat at the harmonium and Khan Sahib took the swarmandal47 … he strummed the strings. He sang just one line or something. I was absolutely gone! I said, "This is what I've been waiting for."' In that very moment, Lakshmi resolved to learn Hindustani music and from none other than Abdul Rehman Khan.
But what was it that made Khan's voice stand out from the other Hindustani vocalists she had heard? What about it struck her so powerfully, sparking in her this newfound yet resolute desire?
(Excerpted with permission from Poignant Song; written by Kavita Das; published by Harper Collins. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Murmurings of a Song'.)