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A genre-defying sitarist whose music crosses the realms of classical and contemporary, acoustic and electronic, Anoushka Shankar’s career spans a quarter of a century and she has frequently performed with her late father, legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar, since she was 10. We speak to the London-born composer ahead of her performance with OMM for Kalaa Utsavam to find out about her musical influences and ideas.
In some ways it was an extraordinary childhood because I had the fortune of meeting incredible artists (including my father) and many luminaries who were a huge influence on me and my music, right from my childhood.
In other ways, it was also a normal childhood because it was my life, and it was happily chaotic in a lot of ways: travelling around the world, touring, moving a lot, going to lots of different schools—there were lots of pluses and minuses, but I was very, very lucky to be born to the parents I had—obviously I love them very much and am very grateful.
Yes, very much so—I mean, my parents were very much (in a wonderfully but typically South Asian way) saying “oh no, you don’t have to practice, but, PRACTICE” but also managed to make sure I did what I needed to do: so right from an early age I was practicing for quite long hours as a child.
Obviously my father, because I learnt from him; and also my mother, because she took me to see art of all kinds from when I was very young.
And then, in my own music writing there are diverse influences ranging from western classical music to Björk.
I think with music and art there isn’t really one ‘right’ way: a lot of it comes down to my choice and my taste, and someone else may choose differently.
When I sit down to play a purely classical Indian concert, then I’m playing classical music in the way that I was taught, with innovation within the classical framework. However when I step out of classical music, it’s very free and it comes down to taste and choice.
Any time I work with any different style of music I try my best to learn lots about it, and give it the same respect and integrity that I give the music I play. And then I’ll try to find commonalities between different forms of music in order to explore the commonalities or differences very deliberately rather than mindlessly.
This was challenging at the beginning when I first started writing electronic and non-classical music because my audiences would get confused, and I would end up on stage feeling self-conscious or guilty; because maybe there were people who showed up wanting classical music and then weren’t getting it or people who wanted something else and weren’t getting it.
Whereas now, over the years people who know or love my music have come to understand there’s an eclectic range, and maybe there’s some common thread of instrumental strength and open-mindedness within the music: and they come for that in itself.
Someone who comes to mind is Nils Frahm, whose music i deeply love and whose music moved me a lot—I think what he’s done with classical music, technology and recording quality is really extraordinary.
He released an EP during lockdown in the spring of 2020 and it was music that soothed and moved me during those early lockdown days.
I would definitely cite my sister Norah Jones as an important music collaborator, because the music that we wrote was very significant to me personally, and also because of the joy of her being my sister.
We first met over a decade ago and started writing the seeds of some songs back in 2011, which would end up becoming Lasya and Maya on my album Traces of You.
At that point I found that he wasn’t just an incredible hang (handpan) player but is also a great drummer, so I invited him to be the percussionist on my tour, and we spent two years touring Traces of You together.
That closeness led to him co-writing a lot of my album Land of Gold with me, which, again, we built and toured for two further years.
He’s a very close friend and collaborator, and at the centre is the magic that’s created between the resonance of the hang and the resonance of the sitar that is very special. It gives me shivers every time—I hope listeners enjoy it too.
From the beginning, I’ve been in the public eye so my music was a little less personal. As I’ve grown up: as a human, as a woman, as a mother, as an artist—I’ve become more and more trusting of myself, my audience and my art—and felt more and more confident being vulnerable with people.
With each passing album I’ve felt more able to remove a barrier between myself and my listener; each experience becomes a deeper connection and beautiful experience, allowing me to trust it more and more.
A kettle! You’d be surprised how often you don’t have a kettle when you travel to different places. I find an evening cup of herbal tea very soothing, especially on tour where emotions can be spiky, and similarly I enjoy a tea in the morning so... yeah, I carry a kettle everywhere.
Alongside working hard on your craft (for which there is no replacement so that your hands don’t hold you back); tap into and connect to what is unique about you. What do you have to say? Who are you? Because that is unique and valuable, and no one else can put it in their work.
Anoushka Shankar with OMM runs from 19 - 20 Nov 2022. The concert is part of Kalaa Utsavam 2022.
Natalie Ng writes about music, plays three instruments and dances to music.
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