Lakshmi Shankar married into a family any association with whose name can be both a boost and a burden in the subcontinent's classical arts. Even though her life and career was bound up with theirs for eight decades, it is a measure of her chameleon artistry that her art stands apart from theirs. While she was Tamil with a background in South Indian arts, she was so associated with Hindustani or northern Indian art music and the work of her Bengali brother-in-law Ravi Shankar that many did not know she was Tamil.
One of the most versatile of the subcontinent's vocalists, she sang with popular artists like Manna Dey and Nirmala Devi, graced the soundtrack to Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi, and contributed to projects such as Shankar Family & Friends, which spawned the near-hit “I Am Missing You”, and the similarly George Harrison-produced Ravi Shankar's Music Festival From India.
She was born Lakshmi Sastri in 1926 into a modern-thinking Brahmin family in India's Sheffield or Pittsburgh, the steel city of Jamshedpur in eastern India in modern-day Jharkhand state. She told Shireen Isal, whose London-based Association Sargam put on both formal recitals and, for lucky invitees, house concerts, that she began training, aged eight, in Bharata Natyam, a classical dance form. In another interview she recalled that by three she had the gift of being able to sing anything she heard.
In 1930 Uday Shankar, the eldest brother, founded the originally Paris-based Compaigne de Danse et Musique Hindou, Raj-era India's most famous worldwide cultural export. In 1939, after encountering the troupe in Madras, Lakshmi believed her destiny was to join the ensemble as a dancer and was accepted to join the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre, technically opened in 1939 but which only properly got under way in March 1940 in Almora in the Garhwal Kingdom.
Situated in the foothills of the southern rim of the Kumaon Hills of the Himalayas, Almora functioned as an arts centre and it was there that she married the second-eldest son Rajendra, nicknamed “Raju” or “Mejda”, in 1941. Her career at Almora as a dancer was cut short by a serious bout of pleurisy in the spring of 1947. It dashed her dancing plans.
Staying on in Bombay, she recovered and began classical vocal training with Abdul Rehman Khan of the Patiala gharana (school and style of music-making). Later she studied under the musicologist-artist Professor BR Deodar and Ravi Shankar.
She was already familiar with the South's related yet discrete Karnatic art music system, but this necessitated switching to the Hindustani art music system. “My background helped me,” she told me. “But there was a time when I found it difficult to get into the north Indian thing because the rhythmic cycle system was totally different and we had to practise with the tabla whereas in Karnatic music you don't have to practise with the mridangam [double-headed barrel drum]. That was a very difficult for me. I had to go through a kind of turmoil to be able to get into it.”
She developed a distinctive classical voice for modern times with a deliciously light and often spry delivery. Like her contemporary Shobha Gurtu, it suited her repertoire of bhajans (Hindu devotional hymns), regional or folk music-derived forms and light classical fare such as khayal and thumri, ideally referenced on Les heures et les saisons (1987) and Dancing In The Light (2008).
At the end of the 1960s, like the Hindustani guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra and South Indian flautist T Viswanathan, she was part of the second-wave Indian artists to record for World Pacific, one of the key labels in breaking Indian music outside of the subcontinent. The first wave had included sarodists Sharan Rani and Rani's guru Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar and the South Indian vocalist of her age, MS Subbulakshmi. The Voice of Lakshmi Shankar (1969) is the precursor to several breakthrough recordings curated by her brother-in-law. Apart from the two already mentioned these included Ravi Shankar's Festival From India (1968) and The Ravi Shankar Project's experimental Tana Mana (1987), while A Life of Dedication (2006) focussed on his devotional compositions.
In 2005 she interpreted “Parameshwari” on ShankaRagamala, a collection of “ragas created, reconstructed and named by Ravi Shankar and performed by his disciples”, among whom were the Grammy-winning Mohan vina (Indianised guitar) player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the cellist Barry Phillips and sitarists Shamim Ahmed Khan, Manju Mehta and Lakshmi Shankar's niece Anoushka Shankar . Her own Dancing In The Light was shortlisted at the 2009 Grammys but lost out to Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
She is survived by her musician sister Kamala, originally Saraswati, who was Ravi Shankar's partner during the critical period of his career breakthrough outside India, as well as her son, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Lakshmi Sastri, musician: born Jamshedpur, British India 16 June 1926; married 1941 Rajendra Shankar (died 1982; one son, and one daughter deceased); died Simi Valley, California 30 December 2013.