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To The Sitar Born : Shubho Shankar's 2nd Career Turns Out to Be His First Love

September 21, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

Shubho Shankar was the last of the three musicians to walk onto the wooden stage and sit cross-legged on the floor. He picked up his sitar, tightened a string or two and flashed a thousand-watt smile that lit up the dark auditorium.

Shyam Kane tapped on the tabla drums, and Rajeev Taranath strummed the sarod. But it was Shankar, the local musician, now the local boy, whom who many in the Cerritos audience had come to h1700885038 Shubho Shankar these days plays for audiences numbering in the hundreds or even fewer. Some performances have little or no advance publicity and garner no reviews. Yet he is happy to be pla2036952679 Shankar, now 47, clerked in a liquor store for a while and pushed boxes up and down aisles in a warehouse. He painted pictures and drew illustrations for telephone directories. But after turning 40 he heeded destiny's call--and his father's plea--and picked up the sitar again.

And as summer turned to fall this year, he filled his passport with visas, packed his suitcases and his sitar and hit the road for a monthlong concert tour of England, Europe and India.

The trip was filled with both physical and psychological baggage. Though middle-aged, he views himself as an "apprentice" musician. A husband and father of two children, on this trip he has been known primarily not for that but as "the son of . . . " But the problems are also opportunities, in this case the chance to play with his father, Ravi, the world's best-known sitar player and the one who brought the instrument to the attention of the West.

Shubho Shankar has lived for more than a decade in Garden Grove, one of 5,000 "Asian Indians" in Orange County counted by the census of 1980. He gives lessons in sitar playing, singing and flute in the county, San Diego and Los Angeles.

And each year, when his father tours, he joins in for a few concerts, performances that draw not hundreds but thousands, sometimes tens of thousands.

"My very first concert in my life was in Carnegie Hall," he recalled over lunch in a Garden Grove restaurant. It was a 1971 performance entitled "Fathers and Sons," with his father and tabla players Alla Rakha and his son, Zakir Hussein. The quartet journeyed across the country, playing in concert halls for mixed audiences of Indian music aficionados and newcomers lured by Ravi Shankar at Woodstock two years earlier.

For Shubho Shankar, that first journey to the United States was an eye-opener, especially Los Angeles.

"I loved the Sunset Strip," he said of the fabled boulevard that was one of the centers of West Coast music. His father's friends urged him to meet Americans of his own age, and he did, finding people in their 20s forming musical groups, sharing new ideas, wearing tie-dyed jeans and passing around marijuana. He remembered a new acquaintance's shock when he rejected a joint: The man had never met anyone his age who did not smoke marijuana.

His father had a house in Hollywood in those days, and Shubho Shankar accepted the suggestion that he stay there. An art student in India, Shankar continued his studies here and received a degree from the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. He married too, a North Carolina-born woman who stuck it out in Los Angeles even after they emerged from a Westwood movie theater on their first date to find their car had been stolen.

Although he met his wife, Linda, at a concert at Whittier College at which he played, the sitar soon went into the closet, replaced by his other loves; the paintbrush and drawing pen.

As a child attending an upper-class private school in New Delhi, Shankar won prizes for his art, including one presented by India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

"Art was a big thing to me," he said.

If his drawing talent was one reason for not throwing himself wholeheartedly into the sitar, another was a desire to avoid inevitable comparisons to his father. The biggest disadvantage of being the son of a celebrity is constantly being compared to the parent, Shankar said: "You almost lose your (own) identity."

But he quickly added that "the biggest advantage . . . is at least people are ready to give you the first break without any questioning. Whereas a lot of other people have to go to the back" to start.

"The bottom line is if you know your skill, and you have worked on it, and if you can prove it," you can succeed, he said.

"So I think we as the children of celebrities have more advantages than disadvantages."

As he nears 50, Shankar appears at ease with himself, a man who knows who he is and who is willing to gamble on a new career.

He said that after years away from the sitar, four years ago he listened to his father's suggestions and urgings and decided to earn his living from the instrument. At first, he tried to juggle old job and new, hanging on to his work illustrating telephone directories for an Anaheim company while sandwiching in musical practices and performances.

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