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From Hawaii to Hindustan

Kamala Shankar is the latest in the Indian guitar tradition. She hopes to play the dhrupad nom-tom alap on it some day

Kamala Shankar plays Hindustani music on an instrument you wouldn't immediately associate with it -- the Hawaiian guitar.

At an evening concert in Bangalore, Kamala distilled her own brand of magic into ragas Bageshri and Khamaj. Her rapport with her audience and accompanying artiste, her poise and her smile -- everything made the concert very enjoyable for me. Her flourishes on the guitar reminded me of Ravikiran, the Chitravina artiste. The technique of playing the two instruments is similar, consisting mainly of horizontal glides on the fret board with the left hand and plucking with the right.

After the concert we got talking. At a young age, Kamala said, her mother introduced her to vocal music. She picked up the basics of the guitar from Pandit Shivanath Bhattacharya of Varanasi. Pandit Channoo Lal Mishra, her present guru, taught her the gayaki ang, or how to make the instrument sing like the human voice.

Indian classical guitar has at least a five-decade tradition. Nalin Majumdar in the '50s played Hindustani music on the Hawaiian guitar and was instrumental in giving it academic recognition. In the '60s Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra added the chikari and the sympathetic strings (Do you remember the album Call of the Valley he did with Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia?) Carrying on the tradition today are Vishwamohan Bhatt, Debashish Bhattacharya, and Barun Pal.

Kamala is the first woman to get a doctorate in guitar from Banaras Hindu University. She runs a music school, Nadakamal, and trains six students.

I asked her some questions:

Why did you choose a rare instrument like the guitar?

When I was a child I was fascinated by it. The guitar has been a popular instrument in and around Varanasi. The Hawaiian guitar is commonly used in Rabindra Sangeet.

Is your guitar like Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's Mohanaveena?

No. Mohanaveena is his own. I would call mine the Indian classical guitar. It has five strings, two chikari, and 12 sympathetic strings.

Does the guitar in any way help or hinder the playing of Hindustani music?

I don't think it hinders it in anyway. In fact, the Hawaiian guitar is similar to the violin in that both are flexible and allow greater freedom than certain other string instruments. You can evoke up to five swaras with one stroke and there is immense potential to work on gamak and meend. I have developed my own way of blending the gayaki ang and tantrakari ang. The guitar is also very close to the veena, which is a dhrupad instrument. I want to now try out the dhrupad style and bring in the nom-tom alap.

Would you trace your lineage to any gharana?

No, I don't belong to any. I am what I am because of my upbringing, my gurus and my beliefs. Something like a gharana could evolve by the time the next generation of guitarists comes.

Do you think globalization will kill Indian classical music?

Globalization is not a threat. It is a challenge. Being a teacher I am confident that in spite of all the changes the core will remain. Earlier the radio used to be very supportive of classical music. Even today it is better than Doordarshan. Our media and critics do little towards enriching music. Whatever be the popular culture, good music will survive.

Who are the musicians you admire?

M S Subbulakshmi is a person I adore. Bhimsen Joshi, N Rajam, all my gurus ... the list is long. At a concert of mine at MS's house she insisted on sitting on the floor in spite of severe knee pain. Her humility is such that she feels a performing artiste is above everyone else. Similarly once we were running around for a tanpura before my concert. Bhimsen Joshi arranged for his tampura to be brought and tuned it himself.

C S Sarvamangala




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