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Ananda Shankar’s enduring genius: ‘A musician of the world before the term world music was invented’

The music composer was born on this day 75 years ago. His electric fusion compositions, and the music it inspired, lives on.

Named after Fred Zinnemann’s classic 1952 Western, High Noon could well have featured in an ad celebrating Calcutta’s ethnic diversity. The band’s drummer and lead vocalist Razmick Priantz was Armenian, Ninian Robinson was the obligatory Anglo-Indian in the pack, Debendra Mahalonobis ticked the Bong box, while its lead guitarist was a Parsi.

His former bandmates have long moved to Australia, but Cyrus Tata, now 65, has thrown in his lot with the city of his birth, where he teaches at the Calcutta School of Music. It was while he was in his final year at school that High Noon was formed: “I had been in a few bands before but with High Noon I felt we had a good thing going.”

Sometime in early 1970, Tata received a call that would change the course of his life. A friend asked him if he would like to go and meet Ananda Shankar. And play with him. Tata, of course, knew about Shankar. They had read about him in Junior Statesman, which had interviewed Ananda Shankar after his return from the US earlier that year. They knew about his lineage, that he had jammed with Jimi Hendrix in Los Angeles, and that his debut album had been released by an American label.

The band was taken aback by the invitation, Tata said. “We were just a bunch of college kids who played mostly for the fun of it. We felt we were not in the same league.”

At the meeting, Shankar asked them to play something. There were some musicians hanging around, Tata recalls. The band played some of their stuff. The other musicians joined in. “It just clicked,” Tata said about that musical encounter almost five decades ago. The members of High Noon had also become part of Ananda Shankar and his Orchestra.

Ananda Shankar with his father, Uday Shankar. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.
Ananda Shankar with his father, Uday Shankar. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.

It took almost a decade for Uday Shankar to get what was arguably the most ambitious project of his remarkable career off the ground. The Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre opened in 1938 in the pleasant environs of Almora. Offering a five-year programme of study, “the extensively detailed and creatively organized curriculum,” writes ethnomusicologist Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, was designed to provide students with “a rigorous foundation in the traditional arts and a more holistic introduction to Indian culture”.

Despite its founder’s best intentions, the school soon ran into “financial difficulties and administrative conflicts” and was forced to close down, the disappointment finding its artistic sublimation in Uday Shankar’s spectacular 1948 film Kalpana. Born in Almora on December 11, 1942, Ananda spent the early part of his childhood traveling with his parents as they toured the world with their dance troupe, which included Uday Shankar’s sitarist brother Rabindra. Fearing that the peripatetic lifestyle and his father’s indulgence would come in the way of her son’s education, Amala Shankar ensured the boy was sent to boarding school.

Ananda with his parents, Uday and Amala Shankar. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.
Ananda with his parents, Uday and Amala Shankar. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.

After graduating from Scindia School in Gwalior, “I could have become a dentist or a liftman. Or a cobbler,” Ananda said in an extraordinarily candid interview in 1987. “But I was attracted to music…I naturally turned to my uncle, Ravi Shankarji. He told me to take up the sitar. I did. As he was frequently traveling, he told me to go to Ali Akbarji. I went to Ali Akbarji. He said: ‘You have a good sense of rhythm and tune. Why don’t you learn the sarod?’ Overnight my sitar was sold off and I got a sarod. When Ravi Shankarji came back, he was unhappy to see me with a sarod. I was back to the sitar. I was like a shuttlecock. But Ravi Shankarji was so busy that he taught me through cassettes. Ultimately, I bid goodbye to both Ravi Shankarji and Ali Akbarji and went to Pandit Lalmuni Mishra [sic].”

Lalmani Misra was then teaching at the Benaras Hindu University. Among those studying there was Jan Willis, now a distinguished writer and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. In her memoir, Dreaming Me, she writes: “I had enrolled in an extra course in music. Three evenings a week, I met with other students at the circular-shaped music building with its open central courtyard to study sitar and tabla. Our classes were taught individually, as tutorials, but first we came together in the courtyard to sing India’s national anthem as the sun sank down…There were many fine musicians studying at BHU at the time. One such student was famous sitar great Ravi Shankar’s nephew, Ananda. He played passionately but must have been under a lot of pressure given his uncle’s great renown.”

It was while in his fifth year at BHU that Ananda Shankar had to rush off to San Diego where his father had taken critically ill. Uday Shankar recovered (though he would never be able to dance again) and returned to Calcutta, but Ananda Shankar stayed back with his uncle Ravi Shankar, traveling with him and soaking in the experiences that would shape his subsequent life.

A young Ananda with his uncle, Ravi Shankar. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.
A young Ananda with his uncle, Ravi Shankar. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.

Ravi Shankar (and the sitar) had taken the West by storm. Those in his thrall included Jimi Hendrix who was convinced the sitarist was on drugs. Ananda Shankar, it seems, was dispatched to give Hendrix a primer on Hindustani music. Hendrix’s biographer David Henderson gives us this account of the meeting: “Ananda sat on the floor of the sumptuous room [Hendrix and his entourage had taken up the entire top floor of a luxury hotel] and tuned the sitar. He began to play, sitting Indian fashion, commanding the meditation it takes to play the difficult timings of the age-old ragas. Jimi soon plugged in his Princeton practice amp and began to play along.”The jam sessions went on for more than a week. But when Hendrix suggested they cut an album together, Ananda declined because, he later told an interviewer, “he was not sure what he was letting himself in for”.

But these jam sessionshad stirred his imagination. A year later, he was out with a solo album. Brought out by Reprise Records (a label that was formed by Frank Sinatra but had since been bought by Warner Brothers), the cover of the self-titled album carried Ananda Shankar’s mission statement: “I have had a dream to try to combine Western and Indian music into a new form, a music which has no particular name but is melodious and touching, and which combines the most modern electronic devices with the old traditional instrument, the sitar.”

Brilliantly supported by Paul Lewins on on the Moog synthesizer, the tracks on the album were not just “melodious and touching”, some were positively groovy, not least the cover versions of two rock classics, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Light my Fire.

In the liner notes, Ananda Shankar clarified, “I have used the sitar as an instrument and as a medium of expression and not as a classical musician, with the exception of ‘Sagar.’” This was a significant statement, which not only highlighted the fact that he had embarked on a path different from that taken by his illustrious uncle, but also perhaps was meant to blunt the attacks, if any, of purists. Mindful of his father’s experiences with critics back home, Ananda Shankar always took pains to explain that he was not trying to tinker with tradition. In an interview in the ’80s, echoing his father’s views, he maintained, “We must preserve the classical styles of dance and music in their authentic form. But we can go ahead and create our own styles­. [A]nd that’s what we are doing – creating new styles.”

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Ananda Shankar playing Snow Flowe’ (Ananda Shankar, 1970), at WOMAD, 1998.

Ananda Shankar sold fairly well, fetched positive reviews (“The album is interesting musically, mentally challenging and plain exciting. Four stars.”) but, in the words of music writer Richie Unterberger, the record “did not take the world by storm”.

The album’s reputation, of course, has only grown with time. It is now a bona fide cult classic; its tracks have been endlessly sampled and used on numerous soundtracks. Featured in Robert Dimery’s 1000 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, it has been re-released a number of times, across formats. (Ananda Shankar was brought out on vinyl again in September 2017 by the label Music on Vinyl.)

While his was not the first attempt to combine the sitar with Western instruments, “[w]hat set Ananda Shankar aside from most such artists was that he was an Indian musician of distinguished pedigree approaching the East-West fusion from the Eastern direction, rather than the other way around”, Unterberger wrote. More importantly, while his first effort could be seen as part of the zeitgeist, Ananda Shankar had a larger plan in mind. “My present dream is to have a group consisting of Indian and Western musicians giving concerts all over the world,” he wrote.

The fusion band. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.
The fusion band. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.

After his productive 14-month stay in the US, Shankar returned to Calcutta in January 1970 “bubbling with ideas” and immediately set about trying to get his orchestra together. Not long after his meeting with Cyrus Tata and his bandmates, Shankar received a shot in the arm when he was approached to be part of a grand show to launch the Calcutta edition of Yuv-vani, a popular youth-centric programme on All India Radio. To get musicians who came from diverse cultural backgrounds to work in unison in such a short span of time was a difficult task, but the orchestra’s public debut was a marked success. “[People] came to me asking all kinds of questions, but the main thing was they wanted to see it again, and this is what an artiste wants to hear,” he told an interviewer in 1989.

Among the attendees at the event was filmmaker Mrinal Sen. Going through an experimental phase of his own, Sen liked what he heard and hired Ananda to do the music for Calcutta 71 (1972), a quartet of stories set in the city but at different periods of the twentieth century. The film’s final segment is set in contemporary Calcutta, a period of great social and political turmoil. Seemingly insulated from the goings-on outside, a party is on at full swing. A band plays in the background as wine and conversation flow. The director uses Ananda Shankar’s music not only as a counterpoint to the banal conversations onscreen but also as a reminder of the turbulence without. (The band, says Tata, is High Noon. Incidentally, around the same time, they also played in Uday Shankar’s final theatrical production Shankar Scope.)

Shankar did a few more films – including two with Mrinal Sen, Padatik (1973) and Chorus (1974), the latter even fetching him a National Award. But the orchestra remained his primary focus. After the success of the Yuv-vani debut, word had spread and the orchestra was getting invitations to perform, both in Calcutta and other Indian cities.

The concerts were not just about the fusion music. Influenced by all he had seen in America, Shankar had his own version of the go-go dancers: a group of sari-clad girls (his mother’s students) swaying to the music. Like his father before him, who had pioneered the use of lights and onstage special effects, Ananda Shankar used psychedelic lights and mirror balls to enliven his shows.

Ananda Shankar and his orchestra. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.
Ananda Shankar and his orchestra. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.

They were also working towards an album. “It was obvious that an album would happen,” Cyrus Tata said. But it evolved slowly, “developing through continuous conversation”. There was a core group of musicians that, apart from Ananda Shankar, included him, Somnath Banerjee (sarod), Ujjal Bhattacharjee (sitar) and Souren Banerjee (tabla). These musicians would meet regularly at Ananda’s place and jam. Later, when they had developed certain ideas, other musicians like Indranil Bhattacharya (sitar), Anto Menezes (vibraphone) and the arranger YS Moolky (who died in August this year) were brought in.

Bookended by the frenetic Streets of Calcutta and Dancing Drums, Ananda’s claim to eternal psychedelic fame, Ananda Shankar And His Music (HMV, 1975) was a worthy follow-up to the first album.

“Every track had a working title, which was usually the name of one of the musicians,” Tata said. Being the only Western musician in the core group, Tata had contributed in a massive way to how the eventual album had shaped up and this was duly acknowledged by Ananda Shankar by retaining the working title of one of the tracks.

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Missing You (1977), Ananda Shankar’s tribute to his father.

While he was getting his orchestra together, Shankar also got acquainted with a 13-year-old student at his mother’s dance school. “I first saw him in 1970 January, when he came down from the States, flower-powered, with long hair and big sideburns,” Tanusree Shankar later told an interviewer. “He had just recorded his first album so he was playing the spool to everybody invited to listen.”

Despite their age difference, Ananda and Tanusree started dating and ended up getting married in January 1974.

Significantly, in Shankar’s early interviews, there is no reference to dance. It was perhaps a combination of his marriage to Tanusree and the death of his father in 1977 that slowly propelled Ananda Shankar towards incorporating more dance elements in the performances, culminating in what he called the Ananda Shankar Audio-Visual Experience, where, to quote an enthusiastic reviewer from the Illustrated Weekly of India, in 1980, “separate units like the orchestra, dances, light effects, costumes and expressions merge[d] together”.

By the early ’80s, as the group began to travel more frequently, it was decided to do away with the orchestra and use recorded music instead. Cyrus Tata then joined Usha Uthup as part of her backing band, The Sound.

Ananda and Tanusree Shankar. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.
Ananda and Tanusree Shankar. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.

The subsequent albums were essentially the soundtracks to these audio-visual extravaganzas, which were often commissioned projects. A Musical Discovery of India (1978) grew out of their act at the Pacific Asia Travel Association conference held in Delhi, an important milestone for the group. The quirky Sa-Re-Ga Machan (1981) emerged from their performance at the high-profile launch of the Taj Mansingh (and its safari-themed restaurant Machan) in Delhi. The most curious album of the lot, 2001 (1984) was commissioned by the tyre manufacturing company Dunlop “who wanted something futuristic”, Tanusree said. Temptations (1992) was their contribution to an anti-drugs campaign.

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A Doordarshan interview with Ananda and Tanusree Shankar.

If you were growing up in India during the ’80s and early ’90s, when the state broadcasters ruled the airwaves, there was no way you could escape Ananda Shankar’s music. The Shankars and their troupe were there at almost every important event, whether it was the closing ceremony of the Festival of the USSR in India (1988), the commemoration of Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth centenary (1989), or the opening ceremony of the cricket World Cup (1996). To top it all, Doordarshan “played his music constantly, for news breaks, regular breaks, unscheduled technical breaks”.

But, unknown to Shankar, in the ’90s, his early records also became much sought-after internationally. “Those wild rhythmic patterns were perfect for hip-hop and drum and bass heads,” writes Alan James, a veteran producer, talent manager, curator and DJ, who first heard Streets of Calcutta in the mid-’90s and was blown away. “Ananda’s albums were selling for 400-500 quid by then in England,” James said in a telephone conversation. “They were, what we call rare grooves.”

The decade also saw the emergence of Indipop in India and the Asian Underground in Britain, and Ananda Shankar’s trailblazing work had a huge impact on influential artists such as Hariharan (Colonial Cousins) and Sam Zaman aka State of Bengal.

Ananda and Tanusree with their daughter Sreenanda. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.
Ananda and Tanusree with their daughter Sreenanda. Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.

Some years after he discovered Ananda Shankar’s music, Alan James fortuitously met an old associate of the Shankars in Birmingham. Through her, James got in touch with Shankar and invited him over to London for a concert tour. He also roped in Sam Zaman as a musical collaborator. As word spread, James, who had worked with Peter Gabriel, was approached by Real World to bring out an album. It took a while to convince Ananda to do a fresh album, says James. But once he had agreed to the idea, he threw himself into it: “Those three-four weeks [of rehearsals] were intense.”

The rehearsals were followed by a week-long concert tour. To Ananda Shankar’s surprise, wherever they went, he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds. “People would come up to Ananda with copies of the Reprise record for him to sign,” James recalled. “And then someone came with Ananda Shankar and his Music and everyone was like, hey, where did you find that?”

When they played in Bristol, the local heavyweights Massive Attack turned up and ended up inviting the musicians to play on a remix of one of their tracks.

Ananda Shankar, Sam Zaman and other musicians during the recording of Walking On (1999). Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.
Ananda Shankar, Sam Zaman and other musicians during the recording of Walking On (1999). Courtesy Tanusree Shankar.

“The studio was the easiest part of it actually,” James said, adding that it took them only a week to record the nine tracks (the final album also has two live tracks.). Recording at Real World’s facilities was a pleasant experience for Ananda Shankar, a far cry from what he was used to back home. James says he was surprised to learn how tracks like Streets of Calcutta were recorded with very basic equipment. “Ananda was working in rudimentary studios, but the sound he created was revolutionary.”

When Shankar left for Kolkata in 1999, there were plans for a second album and an international concert tour. He seemed to be entering a new creative phase. But a few weeks later, Ananda Shankar was dead. He was only 56.

Walking On, the album with Sam Zaman and friends, released shortly afterwards. It carried a moving tribute by Alan James. Ananda Shankar, “was an original musician of the world before the term ‘world music’ was invented,” James wrote. “Open minded and far-sighted, he opened a door onto possibilities that seem even more relevant now than they did in the sixties.”

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Streets of Calcutta (Ananda Shankar And His Music, 1975).
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