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L Shankar and his double violin’s journey through pop, jazz and classical music

Jun 16, 2024 07:52 AM IST

The violin maestro has collaborated or performed with a whole host of musical greats from East and West, including Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, Trilok Gurtu, Eric Clapton, and Sting. Even at 74, he’s indefatigable, always looking ahead to the next studio session or performance

Violinist and composer L Shankar’s musical partnership with ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram dates back to the early 1960s, when they were still just two talented prodigies on the Carnatic music circuit. The connection was instant. “I’ve loved his playing since the first time I saw him perform, and vice versa,” says Shankar, speaking via Zoom from his home in Goa.

L Shankar and his double violin’s journey through pop, jazz and classical music

The two have been collaborating and performing together ever since. In the early 1970s, Vinayakram joined Shankar, English guitarist John McLaughlin and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain to form the path-breaking jazz-classical fusion band Shakti, laying the foundations for what we now call ‘world music’. When the band broke up after three critically acclaimed albums, Shankar and Vinayakram kept working together, collaborating on records like the improvisational, talam-bending 1989 album Pancha Nadai Pallavi and 1995’s Grammy-nominated Raga Aberi (both of which also featured Zakir Hussain).

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Now, the violin maestro and the god of ghatam are reunited once again, this time as part of a new Indian classical quartet that seems part-supergroup, part-family affair. Also on the lineup: Vinayakram’s son Selvaganesh on the kanjira, and his grandson Swaminathan Selvaganesh on assorted percussion. The collective’s final member is Fazal Qureshi—Ustad Allah Rakha’s son and Zakir Hussain’s brother—who is also an old Shankar collaborator. The five virtuosos will take the stage at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on June 16 at the Aditya Birla Masters of Music concert.

“Every time we play together, it’s always such a joy, like a celebration,” says Shankar. “We’re going to be playing some really complex pallavis and classical music, as well as some of the hit songs from Shakti’s first three albums. Expect lots of improvisation and extended percussion solos.”

Early starter

The son of noted violinist V Lakshminarayana, Shankar was an early initiate into the world of music. He started vocal training at the age of two, picked up the violin at five, and had his first public performance by the time he was seven. He supplemented this formal musical education with the records in his father and eldest brother’s collections—everything from Elvis Presley and Miles Davis to Western Classical music.

“My father had many professional musicians as students, different people coming from different parts of the world,” says Shankar. “It was like a musical temple. I grew up with this multi-genre training, so I could really adapt myself to any kind of situation.”

His first taste of success came with the Violin Trio, a band that he and his two brothers—L Vaidyanathan and L Subramaniam, both incredibly talented and successful musicians as well—started soon after they moved from their home in Jaffna to Chennai, taking refuge from the ethnic riots that engulfed Sri Lanka in 1958.

At the time, Carnatic violin was either a solo instrument or an accompanying instrument for a vocalist. The trio—under their father’s guidance—upended that convention. This approach met with commercial success, but also plenty of opprobrium from Carnatic music purists. Shankar would hear plenty more similar complaints over the years, as his iconoclastic musical cosmopolitanism led him to experiments with rock, western classical, pop and jazz.

“I wouldn’t even call it experimenting,” says Shankar. “It’s just being open-minded so I could get more information on how to make my music better, to express myself.”

In 1969, aged just 19, Shankar was offered a teaching position at Wesleyan University and moved to the United States. Among the many musicians he befriended there was English guitarist John McLaughlin, who was learning the veena. The two hit it off and started working on music almost immediately, under the banner of Turiyananda Sangeet. “It was a collaboration between me and John,” says Shankar. “I learned jazz music from him, his way of improvisation. He learned Indian music from me.”

Turiyananda Sangeet evolved into Shakti, with Vikku Vinayakram and Zakir Hussain also joining the band. Together, Shankar and McLaughlin crafted innovative, freewheeling compositions that blended ideas and sounds from Hindustani classical, Carnatic and jazz. Founded in 1973, Shakti released three trailblazing albums and toured all over the world before breaking up in 1978.

By then, Shankar had become friends with Frank Zappa, who signed him on as violinist for his label Zappa Records. Apart from 1979 album Touch Me There—largely composed by Shankar, with Zappa handling the arrangements—Shankar also overdubbed on many other records, playing double bass, cello and viola apart from the violin. Sick of carrying so many instruments every time he had to travel, Shankar set out to invent one instrument that could do it all.

Shankar’s LSD

It took him four years, but by 1982, Shankar had a prototype for what would become the stereophonic double violin, often called the L Shankar Double Violin (or LSD). Hand-crafted by luthier Ken Parker, the two-necked violin quickly became Shankar’s signature instrument.

“The bass neck has double bass and cello, while the top neck has viola and violin,” says Shankar. “I can also play on both the necks together at the same time, which gives it a massive sound. I had [luthier] John Jordan make the fourth version of the instrument in 2023, and I’ll be playing that one in Mumbai.”

Since Shakti broke up, Shankar and his double violin have weaved a broad path through pop, jazz and classical music. He’s collaborated or performed with a whole host of musical greats from East and West, including Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, Trilok Gurtu, Eric Clapton, Steve Vai, Jonathan Davies and Sting. He’s also kept releasing records at a steady clip, with his latest being 2021’s Christmas From India, a record of Christmas classics with an Indian classical twist. Even at 74, the maestro is indefatigable, always looking ahead to the next studio session or performance.

“Each time you play music, it’s a different experience,” he says. “If you have the concentration and the teamwork, then you can always get to a higher level. At the Mumbai show, we’ll take it to the highest place we can. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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