She created a guitar

classical artiste

She created a guitar

Varanasi has fostered scholars of every discipline of Indian knowledge systems, including Indian classical music and dance. Who has not heard of Bismillah Khan, Pt Ravi Shankar, Girija Devi, Siddheshwari Devi, Pt Kishan Maharaj, Pt Anant Lal — just some of the greats who have contributed immensely to Varanasi’s fame as a star in the firmament of Indian classical music? Another classical artiste who belongs here is Kamala Shankar, the innovator and exponent of Shankar Guitar.

She has based her innovation on the Hawaiian guitar. The slide instrument has four main strings, three rhythm strings and 11 strings for sympathetic notes. The main body is scooped out of solid cedar and has thicker sides and base, obviating the need for sound holes. Thus it produces long, sustained notes with a singular resonance that accentuates the basic melodic quality of Indian music.

With her roots in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, Kamala grew up in Varanasi, where her mother (hailing from West Bengal) initiated her into music when she was four years old. When she was six, she came under Guru Amarnath Mishra, from whom she learnt vocal music for eight years and successfully passed the Sangeet Prabhakar examinations of the renowned Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Allahabad. This was the period when she picked up not only the essentials but also the nuances of the Banarasi Gharana — of dwelling on the key notes and the measured pace in rendition without sacrificing the lyrical beauty.
Best of both

When talent is aided by a conducive environment for learning, the outcome is always a pleasurable experience. As Kamala says, “Apart from Kolkata, Varanasi was the only place where both Rabindra Sangeet and classical music were encouraged, with guitar exponents of both streams present.”

Her mind was attracted to the Hawaiian slide guitar, so she began practising on this instrument, and at 12 she began tutelage under Dr Shivnath Bhattacharya. The instrumental technique needed to be mastered, followed by the transposition of vocal aspects to create an aesthetic blend. The guidance of Pt Bhattacharya, and later, maestro Pt Channulal Mishra of Kirana Gharana, and also Pt Bimalendu Mukherjee of Imdadkhani Gharana played crucial roles in shaping Kamala’s music, earning her a Sangeet Praveen degree.

This rigorous training polished her music with its unique ‘fusion’ of the instrumental and the vocal aspects, highlighting the gayaki (vocal) style.

A serene, meditative tempo — shorn of any flamboyance — yet clear, ringing tonal quality with adherence to classicism are the hallmarks of Kamala’s music. Being a doctorate holder in music from Banares Hindu University adds erudition to her art.

Why did she call her instrument ‘Shankar Guitar’? She dedicated her innovation to the Lord of Varanasi, Shankar. As with any new effort, Kamala did encounter skepticism, but the instrument ultimately spoke for itself, silencing dissenting voices. “I wanted a wholesome, resonating sound that could convey the essence of classical music with the continuity of notes to bring out the melody. So I worked on the standard Hawaiian guitar and made some modifications,” says Kamala.

With khyal being her forte and Varanasi her home, Kamala is also adept at playing thumri, dadra, hori and other genres. An artiste who has performed both at home and abroad, Kamala has been conferred with many awards and honours — Surmani and the prestigious Kumar Gandharva Samman are just two among them. Passing on her knowledge to students through her Shankara Arts Foundation in Varanasi, this kamala in the lake of classical music continues to waft its fragrance with the blessings of Lord Shankara.

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