The Forgotten Shankar: Sitar Maestro Who Jammed With Hendrix, Pioneered Fusion Music

Jamming with the legendary Jimi Hendrix and influencing the world music with his sitar, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s nephew, Ananda Shankar left behind a legacy that continues to resonate in music even today.

In the late 60s, a young musician from Calcutta (Kolkata) proficient in the sitar, visited San Diego, a city situated on the west coast of the United States, to visit his father who had been taken critically ill. This was a time when the sitar had taken popular Western music by storm following the stellar performance of a certain legend at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival

While his father recovered and returned to Kolkata, this young musician stayed back with his uncle. Travelling with his uncle, he would also perform at various venues and jam with other talented musicians. Jimi Hendrix, the legendary recording artist and guitarist extraordinaire, caught one such performance by this talented young musician and decided to meet him. 

During this encounter, they got along so well that Hendrix asked his new Indian friend whether he would like to jam with him. They proceeded to a Beverly Hills hotel, where Hendrix had taken up an entire floor and proceeded with jam sessions that went on for more than a week. 

As Hendrix’s biographer David Henderson notes in ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child’, “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.” 

Towards the end, Hendrix allegedly asked this young musician whether they could cut an album together. He declined because “he was not sure what he was letting himself in for”. A year later, this young musician released his self-titled album on Reprise Records, a music label started by the legendary Italian-American singer Frank Sinatra that was later bought by Warner Brothers. 

On the cover of this self-titled album, the musician articulated his 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.

Backed by the brilliant Paul Lewins on the Moog synthesiser, the album was a fascinating marriage of western psychedelic rock, funk, folk, electronic and Hindustani classical music. 

In fact, if you read the liner notes on the album, the young musician wrote, “I have used the sitar as an instrument and as a medium of expression and not as a classical musician, except ‘Sagar’ [a song on the album].” The raga-infused covers of songs like Jumpin Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones and Light My Fire by The Doors capture the imagination, but there are other classics on the album like Sagar (The Ocean) and Raghupati.   

Although the album was received reasonably well in the West and garnered some positive reviews, it didn’t take the world by storm. However, in the subsequent decades, the album has garnered a cult-like status with its songs endlessly sampled. Writer Robert Dimery, who specialises in popular music, listed it among the ‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’.   

The young musician’s name was Ananda Shankar, and he was the nephew of legendary sitar player Pandit Ravi Shankar. Here’s his brief, albeit extraordinary, story. 

‘Fusion music’

Born on 11 December 1942 in Almora, Ananda grew up travelling with his parents Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar, as they toured the world with their dance troupe. 

Fearing that this lifestyle would come in the way of her son’s education, Amala decided to send Ananda to Scindia School, a boarding school in Gwalior. 

Following school, he pursued his love for music. 

In a 1987 interview, he recalled, “I naturally turned to my uncle, Ravi Shankarji. He told me to take up the sitar. I did. As he was frequently travelling, 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].”

At the time, Lalmuni Misra was teaching at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). It was during his fifth year at BHU that Ananda rushed off to San Diego to look after his ill father. 

Given his uncle’s monstrous success and fame, it must have been difficult for a young Ananda to make his mark as a sitar player. However, it was his stint in the US, which possibly inspired him to find his way in music. As he said in another interview in the 1980s, “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.”

Although he wasn’t the first person to combine the sitar with Western instruments, music critic Richard Unterberger once argued: 

What set Ananda Shankar aside from most such artists [during the raga-rock era] 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 … Ananda Shankar established a solid reputation among collectors over the next few decades, as well as being hailed as a forerunner of the world music fusions that attained global popularity from the 1980s onward.

Following his over a year-long stay in the US, Ananda returned to Kolkata in the early 1970s full of ideas and began his attempts at putting an orchestra together for his novel style of music. 

His first major break in India came with the launch of the Calcutta edition of ‘Yuv-vani’, a popular programme for the youth on All India Radio. His appearance with an orchestra was a resounding success, and one of the attendees there was filmmaker Mrinal Sen. 

Upon hearing his experimental music, Sen hired Ananda to do the music for his films Calcutta 71 (1972), Padatik (1973) and Chorus (1974), the last of which would result in a National Award. Meanwhile, the success of the Yuv-Vani release got Ananda and his orchestra various invitations to perform live in Kolkata and other Indian cities. 

Rudradeep Bhattacharjee, who writes on film and music for Scroll.in, noted in a December 2017 article, “The concerts were not just about 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, the nephew of Pandit Ravi Shankar, was also a sitar maestro who pioneered fusion music.
Ananda Shankar with his uncle Pandit Ravi Shankar (Image courtesy Facebook/Ananda Shankar)

Music and dance

In 1975, he released his follow-up album ‘Ananda Shankar And His Music’. 

Ananda Shankar, the nephew of Ravi Shankar, was not only a pioneer of fusion music but also influenced global music.
Ananda Shankar album cover

According to Alan James, a maverick concert programmer, talent manager and erstwhile collaborator, “He [Ananda] was one of the earliest to combine traditional Indian instrumentation with Western music, blending mridangam with guitar and sitar, and sarod and veena with jazz and rock drums. On the album Ananda Shankar And His Music it all fell into place. Two tracks in particular, ‘Streets Of Calcutta’ (featured live on his album for Real World Walking On) and ‘Dancing Drums’ are absolute classics of their time and still sound totally fresh today. Wild rhythmic patterns from rock and pop collided and colluded with gorgeous Indian melodies.”

However, a year before launching his album, he married Tanushree, a student at his mother’s dance school. This would become a transformative moment in his life, followed by his father’s passing in 1977. Critics argue that these two events inspired Ananda to include more dance elements in his live performances, culminating in the Ananda Shankar Audio-Visual Experience, which according to one reviewer from the Illustrated Weekly of India, resulted in “separate units like the orchestra, dances, light effects, costumes and expressions merge[ing] together”. 

According to Rudradeep, “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…The subsequent albums were essentially the soundtracks to these audio-visual extravaganzas, which were often commissioned projects.” 

Ananda Shankar, the nephew of Pandit Ravi Shankar, was a pioneer of fusion music
Ananda Shankar: Pioneering fusion music (Image courtesy Facebook/Ananda Shankar)

During the 1980s and the early 1990s, Ananda’s music was fairly popular airing on Doordarshan and All India Radio. Doordarshan reportedly “played his music constantly, for news breaks, regular breaks, unscheduled technical breaks”. 

By the 1990s, Ananda’s records had become essential listening for DJs in the United Kingdom. His work also had an indelible influence on the emergence of Indipop in India and the Asian Underground music scene in the United Kingdom, influencing the likes of Hariharan (Colonial Cousins), indie rock acts like Cornershop and more. 

As Alan James wrote, “In the 90s, the Shankar back catalogue became sought after for its rich vein of eclectic breaks and beats. Those wild rhythmic patterns were perfect for hip-hop and drum and bass heads. But in England, a more serious appreciation of his contribution to world music emerged at club nights like Anokha in London’s East End. DJ, musician and producer Sam Zaman, aka State Of Bengal, played a seven-hour vinyl tribute to Ananda at one legendary session. Some long-deleted tracks from the sixties and 70s began appearing on official and not- so-official compilation albums. The original vinyl began to fetch very silly prices.”

Ananda recorded an album with the State of Bengal. Titled ‘Walking On’, it was released in 2000, a year after Ananda passed away following cardiac failure on 26 March 1999 in Kolkata.

Although he died at a relatively young age of 56, it’s hard to question the legacy he left behind. He once said, “My dream is to break barriers, any kind of barrier – through music, love, affection and compassion. I have this dream of musicians from all over the world playing for an audience all over the world. When we are all here we are one, and when we go out I am sure we will all be one.”

Despite the pressure of growing up with famous and gifted personalities in his own family, Ananda forged his own lane which continues to resonate in music even today. 

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

Sources:
‘The Ananda Shankar Experience’ by Alan James courtesy Real World Records
‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child by David Henderson; Published courtesy Atria Books (21 July, 2009)
Ananda Shankar’s enduring genius: ‘A musician of the world before the term world music was invented’ by Rudradeep Bhattacharjee; Published on 11 December 2017 courtesy Scroll.in
‘Calcutta boy’s Jimi jam’ by Kushal Biswas; Published courtesy The Telegraph (online)
‘Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar’ by Oliver Craske; Published by Faber 
‘Obituary: Ananda Shankar’ by Haresh Pandya; Published on 27 April 1999 courtesy The Guardian 
Images courtesy Facebook/Ananda Shankar

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