You can take a Tanjorean out of Thanjavur. But you cannot take Thanjavur out of a Tanjorean. Thanjavur was the epicentre of music and dance for centuries. Not surprising, Kamala Shankar, who was born in Thanjavur and brought up in Varanasi turned out to be a popular musician.
Her maternal grandfather Nagaswamy Iyer, worked in Asansol, West Bengal, and upon retirement, he came back to Thanjavur, and it was in his ancestral house that Kamala was born. Actor and singer Serukalatur Sama was a relative on Kamala’s mother’s side. Ramana Maharishi was her maternal grandfather’s cousin. Vocalist Sathur A.G. Subramania Iyer was her father’s maternal uncle. Kamala’s paternal grandfather, Rangaswamy Iyer, from Tiruchi, who studied medicine in Madras, was a devotee of Mahaperiyava. Rangaswamy Iyer, who had studied the Vedas, and could converse in Sanskrit, wanted to live in the city that was the centre of Sanskrit learning, and so he migrated to Varanasi in 1920. He set up practice there and lived in a house rented from the Gwalior royal family. “Mahaperiyava visited us there, and it was he who named my father Shankar. Later, when my father, also a doctor, built a house in Varanasi, Jayendra Saraswati Swami visited us. The previous Sringeri Pontiff also visited grandfather’s house,” says Kamala.
Kamala’s mother Vijaya had learnt Carnatic music in Asansol, and Kamala’s aunt had learnt sitar. “My aunt was 22 years my mother’s senior, and in those days of conservatism, she wasn’t allowed to be seen by the guru. So, a cloth curtain would separate guru and sishya! Rules were relaxed by the time amma learnt music,” laughs Kamala. “Amma also learnt Rabindra Sangeeth.” Vijaya taught her daughters Kamala and Roopa bhajans and simple compositions.
Is Kamala’s father interested in music too? “Yes, he is. Ragas were taught as part of the syllabus in schools in Varanasi. Even in my days, this practice continued. So, father and his two brothers picked up many ragas through the compulsory school music lessons. Father also learnt to play the flute.”
After some years of informal training under her mother, Kamala began to learn vocal music from Pt. Amarnath Misra. She passed the Sangeet Prabhakar exam, of the Prayag Sangeet Samiti, at the age of 12. During a visit to the Shastriya Sangeet Vidyalaya, which was affiliated to the Prayag Sangeet Samiti, she saw students playing the Hawaiian guitar, which is a lapstyle guitar, and decided to learn to play it. “My initial lessons in Hawaiian guitar were from Pt Shivnath Bhattacharya. After six years of guitar training, I went back to learning vocal from Pt. Chhannulal Mishra, from whom I learnt for 10 years. I also learnt from Pt. Bimalendu Mukherjee.”
In sitar-sarod style
How does one use the Hawaiian guitar for Indian classical music? “We follow the sitar and sarod style. A sitar player wears the mizrab on the pointing finger to pluck the sitar. For sitar, the inward pluck is ‘da’, and the outward pluck is ‘ra.’ So, they use the same finger for two bols. But in Hawaiian guitar, picks are worn on two fingers — pointing and middle fingers. So here the adaptation is that you use pointing finger for ‘da’ and middle finger for ‘ra.’ Or it can be the other way round too. The sarod is played with a triangular wooden plectrum called java. The thumb has a major role in sarod playing. Pt Debashish Bhattacharya and his disciples use this technique in playing the Hawaiian guitar.”
Her first public performance on the guitar was when she was 13, in the Krishna Mandir in Varanasi. When she was 20, she played for the first time in a concert hall, for a Sangeet Natak Akademi programme in Lucknow. Although she topped her class, and her father wanted her to pursue medicine, Kamala refused. She had lost her heart to the Hawaiian guitar, and wanted to be a musician. Sadly, academic recognition for Indian guitar came after a long struggle. And Kamala was able to do her doctoral studies — D.Mus — in Benares Hindu University only in 1995. Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra, veena player, was her guide. Kamala can also play the jalatarangam, which learnt while in school. Until 1999, she played the six-string guitar, but this has its limitations, when it comes to Indian music. So, she decided to design one that was more suitable for Indian music.
And thus was born the Shankar slide guitar, the name Shankar being Kamala’s tribute to Lord Siva, the presiding deity of Varanasi. The Shankar guitar has 18 strings — three drone strings (chikari), four melody strings and eleven sympathetic strings (tarab). It has a hollow body, and a thicker sound board and bottom than the conventional guitar. The sides are also made of solid cedar wood. She is a top-grade Indian slide guitarist in All India Radio, Varanasi. She has performed in prestigious music festivals, such as Tansen Samaroh, Sawai Gandharva Samaroh, Kalidas Samaroh, and also in sabhas in Chennai. She has the exceptional ability to play the gayaki ang. Kamala was the first slide guitar artiste to be conferred ‘Rashtriya Kumar Gandharva Samman 2009-10’ by the Government of Madhya Pradesh.
Many are the musicians Kamala’s family counts as friends. “In 1977, father bought a small tanpura for me and my sister Roopa. Pt Bhimsen Joshi was our guest, when the tanpura arrived. He blessed it and tuned it. We still have that tanpura,” says Kamala. During the Spirit of Unity concert in 1995, Bhimsen Joshi heard Kamala play the guitar, and invited her to perform at the Sawai Gandharv festival in Pune the next year. “He tuned the tanpura for me during that concert,” recalls Kamala. “One of the most unforgettable experiences in my career is playing before an audience of two lakhs, during Puttaparthi Sai Baba’s 70th birthday. All top-ranking artistes were there, and I was nervous.”
When Pt Ravi Shankar established the Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts (RIMPA), programmes were organised in Varanasi, because of the sitar maestro’s affinity for the city he grew up in. He used to request Kamala’s father to take care of visiting artistes. Later RIMPA’s programmes moved to Delhi, to Ravi Shankar’s Chanakyapuri house. In 2006, Kamala performed for RIMPA in Delhi.
Kamala’s family were hosts to visiting musicians from the South. M.S. Subbulakshmi became a close friend of the family. Sadasivam’s mother Mangalam wanted to spend her last years in Varanasi, and Kamala’s grandfather gladly offered to look after her. So, she moved into Rangaswamy Iyer’s Varanasi house. She died there some years later. Travel to Varanasi would take close to a week in those days. So Sadasivam suggested that Rangaswamy Iyer perform the last rites.
When Kamala was diagnosed with a heart problem which required surgery, M.S. made arrangements for the operation in CMC hospital, Vellore. The surgeon refused to accept payment, but requested M.S. to give a benefit concert for CMC, which she gladly did.
Is anyone learning the Shankar guitar? “Yes, I have a student from Jaipur, one from Bengaluru and one from Gaya, all of whom come for a few months every year for classes. All my students stay in our house, as in the old days of gurukulam learning,” says Kamala.