PROFILE: L. SHANKAR
By Lee Underwood
(Reprinted from Downbeat magazine: November 2, 1978)
Some of the most daring, exuberant, and technically proficient
improvisational music of this decade has cascaded from the fingertips of
Indian violinist L. Shankar.
He is 28 years old, and hails from Madras, South India, where he was born
April 26, 1950. He is most widely known in America for his stunning
contributions to guitarist John McLaughlin's innovative Indian acoustic
group, Shakti, and for his most recent work on electric violin in
McLaughlin's jazz/rock ensemble, The One Truth Band.
Listeners in America are finally beginning to recognize the extraordinary
technical virtuosity, the brilliance of tone, and the fiery radiance of
spirit Shankar brings to his music. Last years db Critics Poll listed him
next-to-last in the TDWR category; this year, however, the Critics Poll
listed him fourth among Established Violinists, and second in the TDWR
In India, Shankar's star has already risen. The most recent of his 13
classical albums, released August of 1978, was entitled L. Shankar. He
performs from 40 to 60 Indian concerts annually. In addition to his work in
India, he tours internationally. In 1977 alone, he played 246 concerts in
England, Scotland, France, Poland, Germany, Denmark and elsewhere. Several
American record companies are expressing serious interest in recording him.
"It is important to me that people understand my classical background,
because I am doing an educational thing, you know? I am not just an
electric rock violinist. I have gone through and absorbed the traditions,
and I am known in India as the number one classical violinist."
"Without that background, I wouldn't have the sensitivity, the control,
the feeling, and the knowledge to play what we play. Once the background is
acquired, it is much easier to step out of the bounds of tradition and
create your own things."
As a boy, Shankar heard music constantly. His five older brothers and
sisters played music, and his father, V. Lakshminarayana Iyer, is an
esteemed Indian violinist himself. By the time he was three, Shankar could
hum many of the complex lines of ancient Indian compositions. For his fifth
birthday, he received his first violin. He played his first solo concert at
"By the time I was 13, I was taking music very seriously, but my parents
and brothers wanted me to study to be an engineer. I always hated school
and I was always a poor student, even though I attended the best school
available. I used to cut classes and borrow my friend's violin and practice
in the dormitories. I am very stubborn."
"By the time I was 15 or 16, I was in demand for concerts, playing all
over India with big-name musicians."
"In India, the violin had always been relegated to a secondary
instrument, an instrument to accompany a vocalist or flutist or whatever. I
wanted to remove it from it's secondary accompanying position and elevate
it to a featured solo instrument."
"So between 7 and 15, I played a lot of solo violin. I got jobs from big
names who couldn't make it to the gig. They asked me to fill in for them,
and I would play a solo concert for two or three hours."
"By the time I was 16 or 17, I was playing many solo concerts and other
people had started doing the same thing."
"The violin is no longer a secondary instrument. Now, today, it is a very
big solo instrument. I was in great demand; I had many records; and I was
regularly on national TV. That's what I had wanted. I now have the respect
of the traditionalists, and I have a whole new audience of my own as well."
Jazz and pop musicians who have been entranced by Indian music include
John and Alice Coltrane, the Beatles, Oregon, John Handy (with Ali Akbar
Khan), Don Cherry, and Sun Ra. In spite of the efforts of these and others,
however, Indian music for years remained alien to Western ears.
"By 1969, when I came to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study
Ethnomusicology and to teach music, I knew I wanted to popularize South
Indian music in the West. Ultimately, I would like to bring the East and
West together. That, I think, is my role."
"If I wanted to, I could simply remain in India and live very, very
comfortably. By coming here, I have assumed difficult responsibilities.
Every year, I go to India, play 50 to 60 classical concerts, and earn a lot
of money. But I can't bring a penny of that money out of India. I can't use
that money to promote my career here."
"If I am to pursue my goal, I must forego the money. I really feel it is
my duty in this life to do this, to really play, and to unite East and West
as much as possible."
In 1972, L. Shankar and John McLaughlin met at Wesleyan, where McLaughlin
was privately studying the vina (an ancient Indian stringed instrument).
"We played together for three or four hours, composed our very first piece
together, and had fantastic rapport. It was as if we had already been
playing together for many years."
"Until that time, I had worked with many jazz musicians, but they were
never able to cross over into my sphere. I had to do all the bending. When
I met John, I was delighted, because he could join me at that point where
East and West meet, where the Western musician can meet the Eastern
musician and learn. We took lessons from each other constantly, and still
do. I work with him learning harmony and jazz; he works with me learning
ragas, rhythms, and ornamentation (slides, bends, shakes)."
"The first Shakti album that was released was recorded at a private
concert on July 5, 1975, at South Hampton College. It was called Shakti,
which means creative intelligence, beauty and power. Then came Handful Of
Beauty and Natural Elements."
"I have taught many orthodox Western classical musicians about Indidan
music, but they all play a concerto exactly the same, and they don't know
how to improvise. They are incredible violinists, of course, but from
childhood they have been taught how to play mechanically. They try to
master their instruments, and then deal with real artistic problems and
"In India, the children are taught how to improvise, how to explore
themselves, and how to appreciate the ancient traditions."
"It is therefore difficult, but not impossible, for a Western musician to
learn Indian music. John, as an example, was born in England and since 1969
has lived mostly in America. He is Western, but he has an amazing command
of his instrument; he is very, very, intelligent; and he was sincere about
learning Indian music."
"Indian music and jazz have improvisation in common. To play Indian
music, you must first have mastery of your instrument, and you must be able
to improvise. In John's case, he had the mastery; he knew how to improvise;
he had the mind, the talent, the sincerity; and he had the desire to work
very, very hard."
"Jazz and Indian music both demand great discipline. In India, I tell
people they should listen more to jazz and learn it. Here, I tell people
about Indian music the same way. The best thing a Western musician can do
is to study his own culture, and then study Indian music. That way, he can
have the best of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others here, and the best
of Indian people like Palghat Mani Iyer (who plays mridangam - a two-headed
drum) and Rajaratnam Pillai (who plays nagaswaram - a double reed
instrument similar to the oboe)."
"In my opinion, Shakti is the first group in which the East/West blend
was properly represented. It is not me writing the Eastern part and John
writing the Western part. We work together."
"John knows the Eastern system, and I know the Western system. To write
better music for Shakti, we had to study each other's systems. So the music
is not artificial."
"I do not use the traditional Western violin tuning, GDAE. Instead, I use
a tonic-dominate tuning EBEB, or DADA, which allows the harmonics to ring,
and enables me to bring my Indian soul out so I don't sound like everybody
else. I have a five-string violin, too, which gives me the viola range."
"My name sometimes confuses people, because in India there isn't a family
'last' name that stays forever. In India, we take the father's name and use
its initial in front, and add a different 'last' name. My father's name is
Lakshminarayana. The 'L' in my name is for Lakshminarayana. My son or
daughter would take my name, Shankar, and use the letter 'S' as their
initial, with a different 'last' name."
"I am not a blood-relative of Ravi Shankar's. Recently, however, my
brother married Ravi's elder brother's daughter, so Ravi and I are
distantly related by marriage."
"Like John, I love doing different things. Shakti was a milestone for me,
a milestone for John, and a milestone for music. Shakti is by no means
over. We will always play concerts and do different things. Meanwhile, I am
thoroughly enjoying the electric music we are making today, some of which
we recorded on Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist.