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Lakshmi Shankar and Viji Shankar at a performance in the 1970s


You’ve heard of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. Now hear the little known story of Lakshmi Shankar and her daughter, Viji

By Katie Booth on May 20, 2016

In the mid-1960s, Beatles member George Harrison began lessons in the sitar, a traditional Indian string instrument. His teacher was virtuoso Ravi Shankar, a revered classical musician in India. Through their collaboration, The Beatles went on to release several Indian-inspired songs, among them Love You To, giving rise to a wave of Indian influenced music in the West.

“It was strange to see pop musicians with sitars at first. It had so little to do with our classical music,” Shankar once said. “When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think, but I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion.”

Explode it did. As Western audiences embraced and adopted aspects of Indian music, culture and spirituality, Shankar became a rock star himself, playing at the Monterey pop festival in 1967, Woodstock, and the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. Today, four years after his death at the age of 92, his legacy as the man who successfully expanded the influence of Indian music abroad, endures.

By Shankar’s side though, were two remarkable women, his sister-in-law Lakshmi Shankar and her daughter, Viji Shankar. Though the voices of this mother-daughter duo can be heard in a number of tracks made famous by Shankar and his fellow male musicians, their stories are seldom told.

Months before Lakshmi Shankar passed away in 2014, though, she gave her granddaughter, musician Gingger Shankar, a remarkable gift: a set of scrapbooks that helped unlock her unsung legacy. “There were pictures of them at the White House, and pictures of them with all these musicians on stage, and I started asking her, ‘why didn’t you tell me that you were so involved?’” Gingger told Women in the World. “That led me down the rabbit hole, going to India, starting to interview people about their involvement in these projects, and realizing how instrumental my grandmother and my mother were.”

Gingger Shankar [Courtesy of Nicholas Bruckman]
Gingger Shankar [Courtesy of Nicholas Bruckman]
The resulting project is Nari, a multimedia film that debuted at Sundance in January and will be shown on May 21 at the Living Traditions Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah, and that sheds light on the influential musical careers of Lakshmi and Viji Shankar. The film is a captivating combination of live performance by Gingger, animation by Indian contemporary artist Shilo Siv Suleman, documentary footage and family photos.

Gingger’s grandmother Lakshmi was born in 1926 in India. She began her career as a dancer at the age of 13, and quickly rose to fame. “She was dancing at a time when it was considered taboo for a nice girl to be involved in anything dance related,” said Gingger. “By the time she was 18, she was starring in all these Indian ballets, and she was the star of the first huge Indian Bollywood film.” But at age 18, when Lakshmi was diagnosed with pleurisy, a form of lung disease, her dance career came to a halt. Despite her family’s wishes for her to settle down and have children, she began to train as a singer. Within five years, she had once again established herself as a noteworthy performer, and her career took off.

Lakshmi Shankar Conducting the December 6, 1974, George Harrison Concert [Courtesy of Robert Bonomo]
Lakshmi Shankar Conducting the December 6, 1974, George Harrison Concert [Courtesy of Robert Bonomo]
Gingger said that her mother Viji, who also pursued a career as a singer, exemplified a similar sense of rebellious perseverance. Born in 1952, Viji began accompanying her mother Lakshmi in concert at an early age, and soon became an award-winning singer. “I think my grandmother wanted my mom to have a much more normal childhood and womanhood, and be married and have children,” Gingger said. “And so my mom completely rebelled against that. My mom definitely did not want to be anything but a musician, but they had an amazing relationship. They respected each other a lot.”

In 1974, Lakshmi and Viji joined Ravi Shankar and George Harrison’s revue, A Music Festival In India. Later, they toured internationally with Harrison, and sang on Harrison’s 1976 album, Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival from India. When Ravi Shankar had a heart attack during the tour, Lakshmi conducted the ensemble in his place. Despite these career-defining accomplishments, their names are often left out of the discourse on the Indian cultural explosion in the West.

Lakshmi Shankar Conducting the December 6, 1974, George Harrison Concert [Courtesy of Robert Bonomo]
Lakshmi Shankar Conducting the December 6, 1974, George Harrison Concert [Courtesy of Robert Bonomo]

“All the male musicians on those record covers went on to become some of the most famous Indian musicians of their time. They were completely celebrated, but the women were just not supposed to do that,” Gingger said. “They were supposed to take a background role — they were caretakers — and I think that’s why telling their stories is so important to me. On every record cover, there are these two women in the center or the back, and it’s them. In every recording, the female voices you hear are either my mother or my grandmother. [Nari] became this massive passion project of wanting their voices to be heard.”

Viji Shankar passed away in 1995 after a battle with cancer. Gingger said she’s learned a lot about her mother in her research for Nari. “I think I definitely became a musician because she didn’t get to,” said Gingger.

Record cover for Ravi Shankar's Music Festival Of India
Record cover for Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival Of India

Gingger is certainly carrying on her mother and grandmother’s torch as an innovative musician. She’s a singer, composer, and instrumentalist whose many accomplishments include scoring films such as The Passion of the Christ and Charlie Wilson’s War, and guesting on Katy Perry’s album Prism. She also holds the title as the only woman in the world to play the double violin, which can be heard throughout Nari. “Learning more and more about (my mother), I can see where she fought, and where I’ve fought along the way to have the same kind of life, and I’m lucky to be able to do it.”

,|World Premiere of Nari at the Toronto Film Festival [Courtesy of Joseph Fuda],|Lakshmi Shankar and Viji Shankar at a performance in the 1970s”]