By Puja Nandi
Perhaps sometimes dwarfed by the meteoric fame of his uncle Ravi Shankar, Ananda Shankar, unarguably among the pioneers of the Indo-Funk genre of music, is not talked about as often as he should be. His unique style was the uninhibited blending of the East and the West; guitars melded with the sounds of the sitar, ragas weaved into funk rhythms, and interludes of jazzy flute with the mellow beats of the tabla.
Ananda Shankar was born in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India in 1942 to the two hugely popular dancers Uday and Amala Shankar, who are often credited as the innovators of the contemporary Indian dance form. Later, Ananda too married dancer and choreographer Tanusree Shankar. The Shankar family tree is indeed one of those rare lineages that clearly have art, music, and dance wrapped around their DNAs. Even today, the artistic flair remains alive through the likes of Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones.
Ananda dedicated his higher education to studying the sitar in depth. He traveled to America to stay with his uncle in the late 60s – a time when the Western world seemed to be all about yoga, flares, tree huggers, and flower power. There, Ananda taught sitar to Jimi Hendrix, inevitably attracting the attention of Reprise Records one year later. The label signed him on leading to the release of his LP named after himself in 1970 which carried the following 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.”
Around this time, the Western world was vaguely familiar with ‘raga rock,’ a commonly used phrase to describe rock that was influenced by Indian music, often through the use of sitar and tabla or imitations of them. Some of the earliest examples of this form are the works of Ravi Shankar himself, and his famous alliance with The Beatles. Thus, perfect for the climate at the time, Ananda immediately appealed to the West with his staggering fusion covers of Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash and The Doors’ Light My Fire in his debut album. Examples of musicians trained in Indian classical trying out widely different forms aren’t too many. Shankar’s renditions took the world by storm, and rightfully so.
On the same debut album, and more aligned to Indian classical compositions, the meditative majesty of the track ‘Sagar’ too remains unforgettable. True to its title, it is an immersive reflection of a dark, deep, and brooding ocean. At approximately 7 minutes in, the faint sounds of the tabla begin, which churns the ocean from its menacing beginnings to a hope-filled vista. The slow strumming of a guitar can be heard in the background to the fast-playing sitar towards the end of the track which brings only elation to the listeners of this 13-minute sonic odyssey.
After attracting some fame in the US, Ananda Shankar returned to India in the ’70s to further his musical vision of Indo-Western jazz-funk. Around this time, notable filmmaker Mrinal Sen approached Shankar to make the music for the second and third films in his Calcutta Trilogy series – Calcutta 71 and Padatik, powerful stories of contemporary Calcutta.
Indeed, some of Ananda Shankar’s most energetic works were produced around the time of his return to Calcutta. His vision was embodied in his 1975 album titled ‘Ananda Shankar and His Music’, which had a re-release in 2005 and is widely considered his magnum opus.
A particularly impressive track on the album is ‘Streets of Calcutta’. The first 20 seconds open with hypnotic drumming and the warbling psychedelic sounds of the 70s. It then goes up-tempo and straight into pure funky-sitar-drumming-bliss. The tabla and sitar solos are highlighted, and so is the Indian flute. The track was more recently covered by Japanese psychedelic rockers Kikagaku Moyo. Listening to ‘Streets of Calcutta’ is one of those rare moments that force you to stop what you are doing and absorb the perfection of it all. Fitting with its title, the piece captures the energy of the sprawling city, the hubbub on the streets and the kaleidoscopic smells, sights and sounds so perfectly in one song that even the rivers would dance to it.
Although Ananda Shankar has been consigned to obscurity at various points in time, especially in the shadow of his uncle, his popularity has seen huge peaks nonetheless. When Blue Note Records in 1996 belted out ‘Dancing Drums’ on their compilation album titled ‘Blue Juice Vol. 1’, British DJs took serious notice. Underground British DJ Sam Zaman who went by the name ‘State of Bengal’, was an ardent admirer of Ananda’s music and played tributes to the maestro at club nights like Anokha in London’s East End. Anokha was the centrifugal force behind the Asian Underground musical movement in 90’s London which opened up the reach of Ananda Shankar’s music to even wider audiences.
Ananda Shankar and State of Bengal soon made a collaborative album titled ‘Walking On’ in 1999. This had 11 primarily high-octane tracks experimenting with breakbeats, dub, and sitar solos. Arguably one of the first albums to unapologetically blend British underground and classical Indian, it was a pure cathartic, creative release for the South Asian diaspora.
Shankar passed away in the same year, shortly after the album’s release. Inside the liner notes of ‘Walking On’, a moving tribute is written by veteran producer, talent manager, curator, and DJ, Alan James:
“He was an original musician of the world before the term ‘world music’ was invented. Open minded and far-sighted, he opened a door onto possibilities that seem even more relevant now than they did in the sixties. Somewhere, somehow (and with this last recording), Ananda walks on.”
Indeed, Ananda Shankar’s genius lives on, and his words continue to ring true to this day:
“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.”
Puja Nandi is a public law lawyer, born in Birmingham and living long-term in London, UK. She is an eclectic music and film lover, and enjoys hiking, spinning, cooking, and slow travel.