Dr. L. Shankar talks

"Madonna is a fan of mine.. the project with her will come through"

Violin virtuoso Dr L Shankar believes he is a musical priest. The Los Angeles-based musician left India in 1969 to venture into world music.

Since then, he has played with some of the greatest musicians of this century, including Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, John McLaughlin, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Yoko Ono, Sting. He has also effortlessly married Eastern and Western influences, assimilating Carnatic music with pop, rock and jazz.

But his single biggest achievement remains a unique instrument he created,the acoustic double violin.

A disciple of his father V Lakshminarayana and younger brother of violinists L Vaidyanathan and L Subramaniam, Shankar's Pancha Nadai Pallavi was a chart-topper, including in the Billboard's Top 10 World Music charts.

Among the other special projects he has been involved with are the Womad double album, Music And Rhythm, which featured tracks by David Byrne and Pete Townsend among others, the Human Rights Now World Tour, The Princess Trust Rock Concerts, the Sun City Album by Artists Against Apartheid.

Returning to Bombay after four long years, Shankar received tremendous applause when he jammed with old buddies, Ustad Zakir Hussain and ghatam guru Vikku Vinayakram. The trio, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, had formed the band called Shakti in the '70s.

Shankar, 49, tells N Satish about the great Carnatic musicians of yore, politics in the Western music world and Madonna, with whom he is likely to perform next year.

The Interview

Was the journey into music easier because you were born in a musical family?

Yes. My parents were both vocalists and my entire family was into music. I started learning vocals at the age of two. My parents were not just Carnatic vocalists, but had a fair bit of exposure to world music. My father was trained in Indian classical music. My mother L Seethalakshmi played the veena while my father sang and played the violin. So, there was always music in my family and my home used to be full of students.

At the age of five, I started learning violin. In my family, everyone is a musician ,my sisters sang and my brothers played violin. By seven, I gave my first public concert at a temple in Ceylon during a festival.

Coming from a traditional Carnatic music gharana, how did you get into playing a Western instrument like the violin?

My father was a violinist as I mentioned. So, playing the violin was natural. But at one time, I also played mridangam professionally,till the age of 12,besides singing and playing violin. I was always thin and used to get tired playing mridangam. I also began developing calluses on my hands, so my father said it is better if I gave it up. That's when I stopped playing mridangam.

What is the origin of the violin?

We had the "ravanastra" and different board instruments 2000 years ago. But the violin came from England. Balaswami, brother of great composer Muthuswami, played it first, I think. They played veena and detuned it and started playing violin. It was initially played as an accompanying instrument and was later developed as a solo instrument.

When you started playing in the early '50s, was it established as a solo instrument?

I think many people contributed to making it a solo instrument. When I played violin as a 13 Yearold, there were four great violinists in South India, Mysore Chowdaya, who had a seven-string violin, Papa Venkatramaiah, K Rajamalikam Pillai and Venkat Swamy Naidu. They were all basically accompanists.

Naidu, however, had started playing solo that time. Before that too there were people like Govind Swami. Each generation contributed to this development. After this generation, T N Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman, M S Gopalakrishnan played a lot more solo. My elder brother L Vaidyanathan is also a great violinist.

When did you develop the double violin and why?

My voice has a range of five octaves. Often, when you are playing very high and you need a low cello, you can play on that. This also allows you to play double bass and the strings can offer accompaniment when you are singing.

Usually, the violin has a triple range and so, most of the times, it is like a soprano voice. But when I get enough time to play a raga at a concert, I often play at a low range for a long time. It's amazing. So, it's like my voice and violin are united together really.

I used to play at outdoor festivals and pop or instrumental concerts where the audiences were as big as 100,000 people. I had a problem carrying different instruments to the concert. I felt that I needed one instrument which could be used for different kinds of music.

I worked for almost two years from 1978. Guitar-maker Ken Parker finally helped me specially create this violin. Who's To Know was the first record I released after the double violin was created in 1980.

It gave me a lot of variety. For instance, at the Sound of the Millennium concert (held at the Gateway of India in Bombay), someone stepped on Taufique Qureshi's wires and the programme he had loaded on his keyboard was lost. In situations like this, I can adjust my instrument. I can use the bow like a cello, I can play on both the necks and sing at the same time. I can pluck on one and bow on another one.

The traditional classical world must not have taken your innovation in its stride quickly enough. Did you face criticism?

Yes, there was a lot of controversy. Journalist Sridhar wrote a front-page article criticising the double violin. Later, he became a big fan of this instrument and came for all my concerts. Sometimes people said it looked like a spaceship. I was often stopped at airports and they checked whether there was something inside the instrument. But they can see everything inside. There is a transparent part made of plexiglass.

How was it for you to move to the West and into world music?

My father always encouraged me to listen to different kinds of music, apart from Indian. What is important is that you should always remember your roots. Indian music is among the greatest and about thousands of years old.

I am always doing innovative music, but all that's based on the original stuff (Indian classical music). The great masters have done so much. Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Allarakha, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan have paved the way for others to enter the West. Later Hariji (Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia), Shivji (Pt Shivkumar Sharma) arrived on the international scene.

Zakir and I have been there since 1969. It is important for a musician to be open. We should be able to go to different parts of the world and appreciate its music, understand its culture. If people want to be in a small box, you grow smaller like a mouse. You need a lot of room to be like an elephant.

I didn't achieve this because I went to a foreign country. It did help me to understand a lot more, but my thinking developed within India by listening to various kinds of music. I wanted to take Indian music further. I always felt that every musician is like a musical priest.

You have dabbled in Carnatic, in Hindustani classical, pop, rock, jazz. Are there any defining characteristics of Carnatic music?

As Zakir pointed out the other day, in South Indian music there are lot of kritis. They are like hits of South Indian music and people love to listen to these compositions one after the other. In my concerts though, I have only two or three compositions. So I have a lot of room to improvise. I have never had more than five for a three or four-hour concert.

You can effortlessly play the violin and sing at the same time...

If you learn vocals and instruments and get an all-round education in music, it makes you a better performer. I think every Indian music student must learn vocals to know about the ornaments of music.

In 1969, you were studying Ethnomusicology, weren't you?

I wanted a visa and wanted to study world music. I have done my doctorate in world music. I always wanted to be a performing musician. My father wanted me to become an engineer. I could have stayed back and been very comfortable, but I didn't.

You had performed with a lot of other international musicians by the time you met John McLaughlin. So what was it that clicked between the two of you?

John really loves Indian music. He came to the Wesleyan University from England and knew my uncle R Raghavan who played mridangam. Raghavan told John to meet me.

When John came, I wrote a new composition and he went crazy. We started playing together. Next week, John told me that we're doing a new TV show and invited me over. He and Zakir had jammed together and I knew Zakir as well. So, the three of us started playing together.

Later, John went through a personal problem and parted with his wife. That time, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was really big, but he decided to dismantle it and start a new band, Shakti. I tried to dissuade him from doing that for Mahavishnu was a great band. I invited him to India because he was down. We travelled together for a couple of months and then he went to the famous temple of Goddess Mukambika. That's how we came up with the name Shakti.

Shakti did a lot of groundbreaking work, but the band was not together for too long. Why?

Yes. I introduced Vinayakram to the group. He had come to my place and I talked about him to John. John wanted to hear him, so I asked Vinayakram to actually audition. I explained to him that in the West, even big artistes have to audition. Like in spite of winning three Oscars, Catherine Hepburn had to audition and she went on to win the fourth Oscar for that film!

So, among the four of us, we had a great combination of music. Shakti had three albums. But the CBS did not support it very much. They didn't put that kind of money in it. This could partly be because John got a lot of money from the other projects he did. I think the record companies forced him to put up an electric album which featured great guitarists like Santana. I think it is called Johnny Mac or something. I don't mean that was not good. I think it was his decision.

But in an interview with Downbeat magazine, McLaughlin had said that Indian music laid emphasis on melody while Western music focused more on harmony which apparently caused a problem. Is that true?

I think he has not understood that there is harmony within melody. Harmony is melody. I have played with Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, and everything I play with them is based on ragas. If you don't know what ragas those are, I think it is lack of understanding of Indian music. I know that he is one of the greatest guitarists of all time. But, he likes the technique more.

I had to go further. That's another reason. I think we all went our own ways at that point. I had no problem with Zakir. He can play with anyone. I think his understanding of me is a lot better than John. John is a great guitarist, no doubt, but there's more to music than guitar. There is a raga in every chord. And there are thousands of scales.

Madonna reportedly wants to play with you...

Madonna is a very big fan of mine. She is a great artist herself. It's kind of funny, but when she first came to the US, she lived in the same building as I did later -- at Health Kitchen, an area full of prostitutes, drug dealers etc. But that's where you could get a room to practise and play music, for a lot cheaper than any studio. Madonna was using my room before I shifted there.

The project with her will come through, but I have some projects of mine to finish. Peter (Gabriel) is planning a tour. I have three bands -- Indian classical, world music and pop band -- so it hasn't happened so far.

She's really a marketing genius and a producer with guts. Women performers had a lot of problems earlier when the music scene was entirely male-oriented. Black artistes too had a lot of problems in America. I think good music is good music! During Nixon's time, they tried to ban John Lennon because of the kinds of things he spoke about. Elvis Presley was the drug advisor of the country! :-D

Have things changed now?

Everywhere you need change and there are few people who have to do it. Madonna and Michael Jackson are incredible. I did 30-40 tracks for Michael when he needed Indian ideas. Meanwhile, all these allegations (of child abuse) came. Look at Muhammad Ali before that. They put him in jail. And Mike Tyson. I know it's wrong if he did something wrong. That's a different thing. But, most of the time, things are created to bring them down.

They tried that with Madonna too. She was the first artist to take music further and keep on doing whatever she wants. They gave her a Grammy only now. This is the time for her to get a lifetime achievement award really.

Often, people say, "Oh! she's just so sexed." But she has lots of other things, lots of guts. When producers were afraid to bring out her new album, she approached a European producer, William Aubert. She could have taken the normal course like Babyface or Puff Daddy. The Americans would have liked it very much. But when she makes up her mind, nobody can change it. She goes and gets it done. In that sense, I have been a great fan of Madonna even before she was known.

These people have contributed a lot to world music. It takes more than music. It takes an understanding of life. Otherwise, we go back into the boxes, yeah. There was a time when musicians gave their life and created great music. Dark Side of the Moon is still on the charts.

But nowadays, it's all like a product. The producer of Backstreet Boys sells the idea to a different company. They don't want the artist to be bigger than the company.

Why didn't you get into film music?

I know how to write film music. But I believe I am a performing artist. My tracks have been used in films. If I am not a composer and just a virtuoso player, then you get really stuck. Then it becomes more like Western classical music, you know. There are great violinists, but they can't write music. When I wrote 13 tracks with Peter Gabriel for Last Temptation of Christ, all of them were based on different ragas. Peter studies Indian music with me.

You are now involved in the Millennium Dome celebrations, aren't you?

Yes. The organisers didn't have a large budget for musicians to play live. So, they asked musicians to record it. There are going to be acrobats and theatre and so on. Peter is doing an album to be played at the Dome for the millennium celebration. I have contributed a lot on it.

You played in Bombay after almost four years. How was it playing with your old buddies in India?

There is no politics among Zakir, Vinayakram and I. We are like brothers. If Zakir calls me to play in the subway, I will be happy to do that. We love playing, inventing and regrouping all the time.

I want to tour a lot more in India. They should organise large classical concerts for 50,000 or 100,000 people or so. I hope to perform at such a concert where all kinds of Indian musicians come together and perform.