Anoushka Shankar is a celebrated sitarist who embodies the true spirit of cross-cultural music. Having multiple albums, several awards and six Grammy nominations to her name, she has successfully broken out of her late father and sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s shadow. Today the talented musician has her own legacy in the global music industry. In an interaction with The Sunday Guardian, she talks about her musical training, finding her own voice, and her latest EP Love Letters that brings her back to India.
Q. Tell us about your initiation into music.
A. I began playing the sitar when I was seven years old from my father Pt. Ravi Shankar. It was quite casual in the beginning, though even at that age I knew there was a kind of weight to learning this instrument from someone like him. But over the years it got a bit more serious. By the time I was 13, I was already performing. At 14, I was touring with my father, accompanying him in his shows; and once I was 18, I was touring on my own.
Q. Having a great musical lineage, did you face any difficulty in cultivating your own musical style?
A. I think I was fortunate to have the kind of training I had from my father from that young age and I also had a lot of opportunities as a result of that. But in a way, I also struggled to find my own identity and voice as a sitar player for quite a while. I was trained by my dad in a very incredible way. But his sound and identity are so strong that I think I was also in danger of being just a parrot maybe, and not having my own voice. So I had to go away and look at that in my 20s. I had to find a way to use this incredible learning I’d received from my father and play his music, and play it the way he taught me… but also to find my own character within that, my own sound, my own expression. I feel grateful that over the years I’ve been able to do that more and more. I feel like it’s an ongoing journey that I hope it continues for a long time.
Q. Tell us about your musical training under the tutelage of your father, the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar?
A. Learning from him was quite incredible. He was obviously an incredible player, but he was also an incredible teacher and it was a really big part of our relationship. He was my father, but he was also my guru. A big part of our connection was in the music, whether while learning or on the stage. It was a really beautiful relationship.
Q. Today you have established yourself as one of the most influential global musicians. Along the way, how did you deal with the pressure of upholding your family’s musical legacy?
A. It’s been a process of finding a balance between honouring my father’s teachings and his work, and then committing to my own journey. I think over the years I found that balance. Today for example, across this space of a year, I’d have a few shows around the world that are specifically focused on my father. I might play his concerto or his symphony with orchestras around the world. Or, I might do more classical shows that play his ragas. But then the bulk of what I do is usually writing and touring my own music and being able to get my own voice out. So, it’s about having that balance. One of the things I have known from when I was young is that he is also a part of my voice. I learned from him from the beginning, he shaped me. So even when I am playing my own music, he is within that. I feel very comfortable with that. So, I suppose it feels easy to keep that balance.
Q. What is the vision behind your latest EP, Love Letters?
A. I really just wanted to create a collection of very intimate songs. I was drawn to the female voice in particular on this. So, the songs have sparse instrumentation and very intimate lyrics. There’s vulnerable instrumentation and production. Just to make people feel that they are in the room with us, listening to us sing and play. The songs are generally love songs. It’s about romantic love, which is kind of new for me. I have written romantic songs before, but not in this kind of an overt way, and not with a whole collection.
Q. Is it important for you to utilise your art as a medium to spread some kind of a social message?
A. Yes, for me personally, it is. I don’t have any opinion on what anyone else chooses to do, but I think it’s a personal choice. I do think we can use our art for social change. I feel that often art can connect to issues in a humanitarian, empathetic or spiritual way, instead of in a political way. Therefore, it’s a very powerful way to engage with people.
Q. Your father was at the helm of the sitar’s rise in India and internationally, a movement you’ve taken forward. According to you, how has sitar evolved over the years, in terms of playing and the audiences consuming it?
A. I don’t think many people realise how much my father shaped the sitar that we recognise today. It was very different before he made a lot of changes and developments to the sound of the sitar and the way it’s played. So, most of what we hear in classical music today has really changed a lot in the 20th century. And of course, now in the last few decades people have made a lot of developments in the modern space as well with electric sitars and so on. I have also made some developments with internal microphone system so that even the acoustic systems have mics. I hope more and more people start to use that because it is quite life changing.
Q. Do you think there’s a need to preserve classical forms of music in India, especially in the digital age?
A. I think there’s a need to make classical music accessible, otherwise it risks becoming very elitist. For example, if music is taught in schools, then all children will have access to at least some basic understanding of singing and so on. It’s also good for their spirit. It’s good for their brain, and would make classical music less intimidating. I think a lot of people who don’t listen to classical music don’t always know where to begin. They feel like they don’t understand it. Creating familiarity is beautiful. I also think media channels could do a bit more to promote classical music. But I also feel confident about the strength of classical music. I’m not worried about its future in any way. I think it’s in a beautiful place.
Q. You are known for seamlessly blending ancient ragas with Western music such as electronica, flamenco and blues. How do you approach innovation in cross-cultural projects?
A. It really depends on project to project. First and foremost, if I am working with somebody else, it comes down to chemistry and trusting that process of writing with someone else. I don’t have one tried-and-trusted way of doing this. It comes down to the particular music. Maybe some crossover would be very focused on the sitar—playing ragas within a more modern context. Maybe on another project it’s about completely leaving the ragas behind and just playing the sitar in a different way. Playing a different style on the instrument. And there’s a million other ways of course as well. So, it comes down to really trying to honour what that piece of music is or what I am trying to say and finding the best way to do that. To be open and also have respect for all the styles involved.
Q. Your upcoming tour is being hailed as your homecoming. With everything you’ve achieved on the global stage, what does performing in India mean to you?
A. I come from India, my music comes from India, so to perform in India always feels special. It does feel like a homecoming and an offering. I am really looking forward to being back.
Anoushka Shankar will perform at Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi on 14 February