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Odd woman out

Dr. Kamala Shankar plays Hindustani classical music on the guitar. K. PRADEEP meets the artiste who's in the city for a show.


THE INDIAN tradition of music research has often been the tale of performers, immersing themselves in research and finally ending up as theorists. Unfortunately research is equated to bookish knowledge. There have been a few performers who have researched without ever being conscious about it till the innovation is complete. They have put hypothesis into action, executing corrections based on the results. They are a rare breed. Dr. Kamala Shankar falls into this category.

Ms. Shankar holds the world record of being the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in instrumental guitar.

But her achievements do not end within the pages of a voluminous research presentation. Her mastery in transposing this Western instrument to Hindustani classical music, her melodious solo concerts, the magic of her jugalbandis with sitarist-husband Rajeev Janardan, all leading to the creation of a modified version of the Hawaiian guitar, makes her true-blue musician.

The guitar's new `avatar' called the Shankar Guitar has a compact shape and design. "It is different in its design from the now popular Indian guitar. The Shankar Guitar has a fully hollow body made of one single piece of solid wood, unlike the plywood, which is generally used for the making of other guitars. It does not have a sound hole of the main board, but this does not in any way diminish the tonal quality of the instrument, which is as good as the other Indian string instruments. Another feature of my guitar is that since it has a flat base, playing it in a sitting posture makes it very comfortable. Again it is made of one-piece, the tuning will hold longer and is resistant to minute jerks and mishandling," Ms. Shankar explains. Like most of the string instruments, the original six-string guitar had the problem of being unable to create the meend or the smooth, uninterrupted glide from one note to another. Innovations by masters like Brij Bhushan Kabra and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt helped the guitar tide over this defect. "Yet I found that it still had a metallic sound. This was what prompted me to try out this new design. It was made for us by Rikhi Ram, famous New Delhi-based manufacturers of musical instruments. And the effect of the new creation was stunning," Ms. Shankar says.

Ms.Kamala Shankar, who was born at Thanjavur, was brought up in the rich musical environs of Varanasi. Initiated into music by her mother when she was hardly six, Ms. Shankar began serious training under the renowned vocalist Chanoolal Mishra before she decided to try her hand at playing the guitar. "I was fortunate to have a very understanding guru in Shivnath Bhattacharya, a disciple of the late Nalin Majumdar. The guitar, which was generally used as part of an orchestra, was slowly being recognised, but there were no women in this field. My guru urged me to take up this instrument, also warning me on the risk that I would be taking." To develop the guitar into a singing instrument, to form a gayaki style, Ms. Shankar trained under the sitar maestro Pandit Bimalendu Mukherjee. "Panditji was from the Imdad Khan gharana, made so well-known by Ustad Vilayat Khan. It was this gharana that brought about technical innovations in the sitar. The training helped me to use the `gayaki ang' and the Baj, or the characteristic style of playing a plucked instrument, in my presentations," feels Ms. Shankar, whose only album `Music Melody on the Guitar,' has been well received.

"In one way I was lucky. By the time I decided to choose the guitar, the instrument had already achieved recognition in Indian classical music. Strangely, though there were so many girls who were trained, none of them during my time, turned into performers. In the North, even today, women are still bound by tradition and conservatism. I know of so many talented, trained women who never venture to perform publicly."

Her marriage to Rajeev Janardan, a Malayali and the flag bearer of the Imdad Khan Gharana, was the beginning of a new musical team. The husband-wife duo is settled in New Delhi.

Kamala Shankar has come a long way. From the short, one-hour debut at the Krishna Temple at Varanasi, this musical talent with the thought, idea and imagination of a creative scientist, keeps searching for another new idiom, new dimension to her music.

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