As the world becomes more polarised, Shakti and its win are reminders of how distant traditions can live with each other — even appreciate one another — by allowing the other to exist and being a bulwark against powers that seek to keep them apart.
Suanshu Khurana writes:
In the early ’70s, at a time of global churn, British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and Ustad Zakir Hussain began making music with violinist L Shankar and ghatam legend Vikku Vinayakram as Shakti, a transcontinental Indo-jazz band trying to blur musical boundaries.
McLaughlin was 31 and already well known for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a jazz band with an Indian name. Hussain was 22 and a prodigy; not an Ustad yet. The two had met through the owner of a shop for musical instruments in the US and had played together at sarod legend Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s College of Music the year before co-founding Shakti in 1973. They lived on opposite sides of the US and had begun their musical lives amid disparate worlds of thought and artistic sensibilities.
They found common ground in the similarities in the philosophies of jazz and Indian classical music — mainly the concept of improvisation. However, it was largely McLaughlin’s deep interest in Indian music, the spiritual ideology of Sri Chinmoy, whose student he was, and his openness to learning the complexities of Indian music (he learnt the veena under S Ramanathan), besides his strong jazz background, and Hussain’s peerless command over rhythm, that led to Shakti being more than just Western pop’s homage to Indian music. A glimpse of it had been seen only a few years earlier, with George Harrison’s affection for Indian music, his training in sitar under Pt Ravi Shankar and its use in The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. Around the same time, Shankar and America-born British violinist Yehudi Menuhin collaborated with gratifying results, winning a Grammy for Chamber Music Performance for their 1967 recording West Meets East. It was a definite start and immensely popular.
But what Shakti was experimenting with was an amalgamation of not only music from East and West but also the classical forms from north and south India, something rarely attempted in those days. At the heart of this amalgamation were interaction and interplay and improvisations that soared over cultural boundaries.
Shakti disbanded in 1978 but Hussain and McLaughlin kept in touch, collaborating in 1984 for a short UK tour. In 1997, the Arts Council in Britain contacted Hussain to get the band back together, with the revised line-up including, for a while, mandolin giant U Srinivas and flute legend Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia. Vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, ghatam and kanjira player V Selvaraj, and violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan joined later but brought in a robustness to the idea of common ground through varied styles.
While McLaughlin would play with Western harmony and a bluesy sound, the Indian string instruments would work with a larger raga structure, both trying to improvise in parallel spaces. The percussion — tabla, ghatam, kanjira — is what bound them in a mathematical pattern and precision.
It was magic. Listeners fell in love almost instantly, even though sticklers in jazz as well as the Indian classical world took time to warm to the idea. What helped turn staunch critics around were the songs themselves — rich sonic hybrids that were an education in spiritual and musical camaraderie and consonance. This was no mere placement of diverse music on one stage. The music existed because these musicians made room for each other’s worlds to exist along with their individuality. These were creative people who knew when to hold back and allow the other to soar. Even before the crescendo was reached, harmony was attained. Without realising it, these musicians pioneered what would later be called “world music”.
A Grammy for their recent pandemic project titled This Moment, with Shakti’s current lineup of founding members (McLaughlin and Hussain) and newer members including Mahadevan, Rajagopalan and Vinayakram’s son V Selvaganesh, is not only an acknowledgement of their multi-dimensional approach to music but also a recognition of the band’s 50-year-long creative endurance.
As the world becomes more polarised, Shakti and its win are reminders of how distant traditions can live with each other — even appreciate one another — by allowing the other to exist and being a bulwark against powers that seek to keep them apart. There can be harmony — we just need to look for it.
Read the full article in The Indian Express.