Some families just have good genes. The Kennedys for instance. Or the Tatas. What about the Brontes? And, of course, the Shankars.

Yes, those Shankars. Of Uday and Ravi and Anoushka fame. And of course, in an oblique sort of way, of Norah Jones fame too. So much artistry has erupted from the Shankar family it is sometimes hard not to feel churlish or resentful.

The exciting story of the Shankars is the very embodiment of the eternal conversation between East and West. Between Indian and European. It is a story of an intellectual and artistic family whose mission it was to bring Western ideas into Indian dance, and then introduce Indian music to the West. In the process the family’s ideas and experiments were neither entirely Eastern nor Western but rather, very much boldly, both. In fact, you could say that the Shankars not only were expert distillers of East for the West, but required the western artistic landscape to fully realise their understanding of the East.

In recent years the name Ananda Shankar has set the hearts of music lovers, clubbers, DJs and record collectors racing. Born in Almora five years before Independence to Uday and Amala Shankar, the father and mother of modern Indian dance, it was no surprise that the lad followed a musical career. Though his uncle was none other than Ravi Shankar, who in the '50s already had a brilliant international reputation, Ananda sought tutelage as a sitarist in Varanasi with Lalmani Mishra.

Like his grandfather, uncle and father before him, Ananda journeyed westward where, in the late ’60s as the sun of Flower Power was at its most ascendant, he found himself jamming with a skinny young blues guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.  Did he ride on the coattails of his uncle (who was then forming a lasting friendship with George Harrison)? Or did he blaze the trail for his older relative? Probably, both. But upon return to India, Ananda's wigged-out, otherworldly renditions of Stones and Doors classics met with short-lived fame, if little fortune.

Fast forward 30 years. East London DJs discovered these old discs which they mined for beats, loops and quirky audio ideas. One, State of Bengal, innocently asked, “Is this man still alive?” Indeed, he was. A fascinating album that mixed the latest electronic Asian Underground beats with Ananda’s sitar soon followed, as did a tour of the UK.  Sadly, in late 1999, just as the amazing musical imagination of Ananda Shankar was finding its second wind, he passed away.

 "Streets of Calcutta"

An early composition that pays tribute to one of the world’s most dynamic cities, and at the time, home of a lively jazz and nascent rock ‘n roll scene. Fast moving, with funky guitar rhythms, dervish-like flutes and squawking synth, Shankar’s sitar pushes all traffic aside along Chowringhee.

 "Jumpin' Jack Flash"

It might cause a lesser musician pause to try to Indian-ify this iconic early '70s smash from the Rolling Stones. But not Ananda. On this one he plays it pretty close to the bone. The opening sequence (barring the electronic gurgle that percolates quickly through the mix for a second) is a pure lift of Keith Richards classic riffing. But then in comes the sitar, dancing in between the power chords and dreamy backup singing and you know he’s done it: paid tribute but made something new at the same time.

 "Throw Down"

This track with State of Bengal has all the hallmarks of the late '90s East London Asian Underground sound. Full doofdoof beats and electro keyboard swirls set the scene for a lovely recital of sitar and bansuri.

 "Light My Fire"

Say no more. Come on baby!


My personal favourite of all his many wonderful compositions, this late '60s track sums up the spirit not just of the times, but of the philosophy that inspired the great family to which he belonged.

Listen to these tracks as a single playlist here on our YouTube channel.

Nate Rabe was born and raised in India. He comments on South Asian culture and music from Kuala Lumpur. He also nurtures two blogs dedicated to music:  The Harmonium Music Blog and Washerman’s Dog.