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Kavita Das

New York, NY, United States

Lakshmi Shankar:
The Inspiring Woman in the Movement that Brought Indian Music to the West

By Kavita Das

Among the most evocative sounds of the late 1960’s are the exotic strains of the sitar woven into songs by legendary rock groups including The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Moody Blues. Yet, few know the winding tale of how Indian music made its way to the West, or the stories of the people behind this musical movement. Lakshmi Shankar, a Grammy-nominated artist and one of the greatest Indian singers of the twentieth century, was the only major Indian female musician in this cultural movement — a movement that both laid the foundation for today’s burgeoning popularity of South Asian artists and entertainers, including Anoushka Shankar, MIA, and Mindy Kaling, and influenced the course of Western popular music.

Shankar was born in a small town in India in 1926 yet, grew up to dance in the nation’s most innovative dance troupe, sing on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film, Gandhi, and garner a Grammy nomination and legions of international fans along the way. And through her travels and performances, she connected with some of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century including, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, George Harrison and The Beatles, Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Richard Attenborough, and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, who was her brother-in-law and frequent collaborator. Her story also holds great significance because it offers a new perspective on the journey of Indian music to the West: that of a female artist who both transformed and was transformed by her art and her role as a cultural ambassador.

Through her music and her personal life, Lakshmi Shankar exemplified being open yet grounded, evidenced both by her willingness to explore new avenues and audiences for Hindustani music and her commitment to staying true to her artistic integrity despite external pressures. In addition to recording several albums in India and in the West, she recorded, “I Am Missing You,” the first Hindustani English pop song, written by Ravi Shankar and produced by George Harrison, and performed it in front of thousands of people during Harrison’s Dark Horse stadium tour in 1974. Although Lakshmi Shankar passed away on December 30, 2013, her story continues to hold great significance and relevance today as Indian music and culture enjoy ever-increasing prominence in the United States.

I was blessed to know Lakshmi Shankar for more than thirty years and was enamored by her soulful music and artistic brilliance, yet equally inspired by her pioneering success as an Indian female artist. In 2013, I decided to step away from my fifteen-year career in social change in order to focus on my writing and specifically to tell Lakshmi Shankar’s life story. It is critical to preserve and document the stories of inspiring women, especially women of color, – many of whose lives are often overshadowed or erased from the history books. Therefore, I’m thrilled that Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar (Harper Collins India) will be published in April 2018.

Photo Credit: Jan Steward