Interview: L. Shankar - Shakti's Music is Shakti's Music

L. Shankar is a violinist trained in the Carnatic mode. In recent years, he has lived in the West and been performing with an instrumental group Shakti which at different times has consisted of John McLaughlin (Guitar), Ramnad Raghavan (mridangam). Zakir Hussain (tabla) and T.H. Vinayakram (ghalam) besides Shankdf himself.' In an interview with Correspondent R. Varadarajan, Shankar was an freewheeling in his answers as he is in his Shakti music, sometimes evasive and often contradictory.

Varadarajan: How do you describe Shakti's music? What kind of music does Shakti offer?

Shankar: It is very hard to describe it as this or that. It is like defining a colour you haven't seen before. Shakti's music is Shakti's music. It has a lot of originality and represents one of the early attempts towards EastWest fusion in music. It is highly improvisatory and very sophisticated with a lot of forms. Th e compositions are our own and cover different raga-s, scales and harmonies. We have, for instance, composed in 6%, 11% and 13 beats which are totally our own original attempts. 

Shakti's music draws a lot from Camatic music, doesn't it? Your pieces often sound like adaptations of our raga-s.

We make use of Indian music all the time adapting from South Indian and also North Indian Music. We also employ Western scales, creating new things as we go along. As far as rhythm is concerned, we use a variety of existing beats and have also employed new tala-s like those with 6 and 13 beats which are not used in any other existing system. Thu s we draw from different traditions, jazz. Indian music and so on, and offer Shakti's music.  

While talking about the raga elements in Shakti's music, very often there are glimpses of a raga and before the raga is developed in its total form, it is changed and there is a cascade of different scales. This is a bit confusing....

As I said earlier, Shakti's music is Shakti's music and is not entirely based on raga alone. Raga-s are there but we switch from one to the other frequently and the chosen raga-s are interrelated. It is something like a ragamalika. There is a lot of freedom with each composition having its own form.

How much of Shakti's music is composition-oriented and what is the extent of improvisation?

We have tunes and compositions in different beats but they are all basically structured. There is a lot of superimposition, giving us scope for improvisation and producing variety in the total effect. I'd say nearly seventy per cent of our music is improvisation.

With such a high content of improvisation, how do members of your group accomodate one another and harmonize your music? Isn't it very difficult?

Music is nothing but communication and we are able to communicate and complement one another in Shakti. A good artist may master his art almost completely and play on his own. But in mv opinion. improvisation and complementing another artist is very important even it diffkult. I have played a lot ol solo concerts but 1 firmly believe that a creative artist. .should plav with others. Otherwise you might as well be playing alone at home. Also I think that, apart from achieving technical virtuosity in playing the instrument, a musician should have a feel for the music and should be original. He should attempt writing, the creative part of it. which is a form of self-expression. This is being done in the West. Speaking for myself. I think about music and different musical forms practicallv all the time. I am constantly looking for ideas and forms.

Was it the need to be individualistic and creative that prompted you 10 move away from playing Carnauc music in the traditional style?

Well, this is a somewhat sensitive question. First of all, I have not moved away from it. Carnatic music is inside me. The term 'traditional' is relative. Nothing is really traditional. When the works of some Western music composers like Beethoven and Tschaikovsky were premiered, the reaction was negative and even hostile. and the audience booed and threw chairs at the performers. [This happened actually when Stravinsky's Firebird Suite was premiered — Editor] but decades later people considered these works as great. Similarly, Palghat Mani Iyer, with whom I had a long and - personal association, was not traditional in his time in the strictest SCUM-. Mani Iyer started using a mridangam which was larger than the conventional drum. What I'm really saving i^ 1 am not moving away from any system. I am open to ideas and I am trying for the most effii ienl system for me. II we have closed minds we'd miss out a lot.

But many of the compositions already available, though traditional, lend themselves to originality in rendering. How did you find them restrictive?

Well. I am giving you images. There are a lot of answers to that. Tyagaraja and the others ol the musical Trinity were no doubt, great composers. People have listened to their compositions for generations. But in India, as far as documentation is concerned, it is very poor. II somebody says his great-grandfather's great-grandfather heard Tyagaraja render Bhairavi in a particular way. how do I believe it? Also how is it that compositions written by the same composer differ so much in terms of structure, musical brilliance and appeal? People change and also the original or traditional version changes according to the schools of different disciples. No one is going to plav or sing an item better than the composer himself because he would know how to interpret it best.

Are you saying that the creator of the composition is the best person to perform it as well?

No, not necessarily, unless he is a composer with a lot of experience and imagination in creating musk forms. I play traditional compositions exclusively in my classical concerts but. as a composer. 1 find it an exciting experience interpreting them and learning from them. It gives me a different dimension from being a mere performer. Is versatility, according to you, mere breadth of coverage rather than interpreting and analysing musk in finer details and in its expansive form? By versatility I mean playing, writing lynes, accompanying others, playing solo and improvising. Each helps very much in adding to your musical experience and knowledge.

There is a view thai adherence to tradition is the way to excellence and great musical accomplishment. Do you agree?

Why. again this seems to suggest that tradition is the thing. Well, it is the way of looking at it. There is a lot of lax in the traditional system and the way it is practised. Anybody v. ill tells you, in India, you cannot ask your guru why! Invariably he will say "Shut up"' and "Don't ask me all that."

Have you had such an experience yourself?

As I said earlier the South Indian classical system is a great system but it is restrictive with respect to teaching as also to peer musician relationship. In Carnatic music, unless you are the son of your guru, he won't teach you everything. Certainly, a student of a music college is not taught everything. All he can get is some basic training. 1 couldn't learn with freedom outside, so I learnt under my father. V. Lakshminarayanan. He has his roots in tradition but he is a guv with an open mind. In the early stages of my musical career itself, I studied Western classical music and my father encouraged me. Subsequently when I went to the West, I studied world music covering Indonesian. Western. Japanese, Portugese music, etc.. which made me appreciate our Indian music much more. Let me tell you when I learnt Western music, it didn't confuse me or come in the way ol my playing Indian classical music even, as my knowing English didn't make me forget my mother tongue Tamil

Even assuming that the system of learning in India is restrictive; it has still produced highly creative and knowledgeable musicians....

I am myself one. I am open to ideas and influences and how I think is how I think. I am trying for an efficient system for me and 1 strongly believe in it. I am a very disciplined musician and have faith in my approach.  

What is your boundary?

Limitless. Because I will be playing and improving all my life. I have not even done a quarter of what I want to do. I will keep trying all the time and do what I find meaning in. I don't know what is there in the unknown. I am ready for the unexpected and f am happy to meet the unexpected. These rigid boundaries are made by people and who knows they won't change. There is nothing standard, nothing traditional.  

So according to you tradition is what stays or what prevails? What is tradition?

You tell me. Every time, every century tradition changes and music is no exception.

What do you think about the relatively poor patronage for classical music in South India?

I think the musicians themselves are responsible for the lack of patronage, apart from the increase in other modes of recreation. The musical approach is very restrictive. If I say that I won't change, I will just play in my own way without being open to ideas and approaches, then I might as well play in my room.

You have mentioned your continuing search for new ideas* your openness. Don't you think there is a danger of your , losing your way?

When I play South Indian classical music, it is tofdly classical and within the definition 'South Indian"T enjoy interpreting traditional kriti-s. When I pa y as part of Shakti, I have more flexibility, range :nd scope for improvisations and new ideas. If an artis'e is completely confined to a particular system then, in my opinion, he is not an original artiste.

But doesn't a promising and up coming a-tiste have to follow one music system to avoid confusion?

Not necessarily. While he could learn and practise as per the requirements of one system and learn it thoroughly, he should be open and listen to all music. He should be receptbe to learning and ideas. If he follows the way of his guru exactly, there won't be any variations in ideas or musical fare. There will be just a different version ot the same thing. In this respect, a large number of disciples under the same guru is also damaging. The strong points and inclination of an individual artiste or student should be closely observed and he should be helped to develop on his strength rather than made to follow a uniform approach of a large group. I would really like to see a guru who himself is a fantastic artiste, who has produced great disciples with individual calibre and originality.   

With your high level of activity and hectic touring, isn't there the danger that your music can become stale and repetitive?

I think if you are open to ideas and if you ponde r over music all the time and keep exploring new musical ideas, you would remain fresh. I am a composer first and then a performer. Even while touring and doing recording, my colleagues and I spend a month or two in studios concentrating on ideas and writing. I think about music and write down notes all the time, even when I am on a flight. If you are alive to music you cannot become stale.  

Your experience has been different and varied but in the ultimate analysis, are vou happy the way you are and where you are?

Yes. I decided to search and it took a long time. I am happy at the end ol the day and I would like to do more and more in the field of music.  

T h e Double Violin  

What is the need for the double violin you have devised? How much work went into its development?

T h e reason for devising the double violin is a combination of different things. You can say that necessity is the mother of invention. During the period 1976 to 1978, I was playing a whole lot of instruments — violin, viola, keyboard instruments and so on, switching from one to another during concerts. While playing with a group, it is difficult to keep one instrument down and pick up another. Also, when I used to play with the normal violin in an open auditorium with about 10,000 people I used faced a lot of problems particularly with the wind blowing across, and 1 didn't achieve the desired volume effect. It was then that I thought about an instrument that would provide the range. cover the requirements of an orchestra. Initially, I spent about one and a half years perfecting the design idea and I made a prototype with cardboard. Though the people I contacted initially thought it wouldn't work I didn't give up the idea. Finally, I got it made by Ken Parker of Stuyvesant Sound in New York. During the period of six weeks, he was working on it. I literally lived with him. Used to go home just for a few hours, come back and check the sound and construction to make sure that both the necks were equally strong. I was very particular that both necks be equally strong, otherwise, there would be a preference to play predominantly on one set of strings which is not what 1 wanted. In its present form, the double violin is a highly versatile instrument, depending on the need. I can produce even the effect of a whole orchestra of forty to fifty violins with it. Also, it can produce the sounds of flute, double bass, cello, viola and violin. I can play classical music in the traditional way with it and use it for pop and jazz music as well.

Your double violin has two sets of five strings each. How does that help? Also, what is the range of your instrument?

While playing on one, the strings of the other serve as sympathetic strings. Also, I can play from very low volume to high volume to suit the occasion and the requirement. It facilitates a phenomenal range of improvisation. The freedom and flexibility it affords are very useful in a group situation. Guitar and tabla primarily produce high-frequency effects and low frequency is equally important and 1 can immediately balance it out using the base range. It is a great instrument and I love it. Since 1980 I have been using the double violin for all my concerts — classical, jazz and even pop music.