Anoushka Shankar interview: I feel a deep gratitude when I perform in India

In a candid conversation, the sitar virtuoso and composer Anoushka Shankar speaks about feeling connected to her musical roots and her latest trilogy

Updated - July 11, 2024 03:08 pm IST

Published - July 06, 2024 02:47 pm IST

Anoushka Shankar’s virtuosic yet emotional playing style appeals to a discerning global audience

Anoushka Shankar’s virtuosic yet emotional playing style appeals to a discerning global audience | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Anoushka Shankar has impacted the music world by creating a unique sound and style of her own. Her ability to blend traditional Indian classical music with genres such as jazz, electronica, and contemporary classical has contributed to her evolution as a musician.

Her latest project — a trilogy album — exemplifies this. The first two instalments of her mini-album comprise Chapter I: Forever, For Now, released in October last year, followed by Chapter II: How Dark It Is Before Dawn in April. 

In an in-depth conversation over a video call from London, Anoushka delves into the intricacies of her creative process, her collaborative experiences, and reflections on her musical legacy.

Excerpts from an edited interview:

What inspired the trilogy and how are ragas, themes and moods represented across its parts?

The chapters depict a musical journey split into distinct parts. Each chapter explores unique themes and moods; Chapter One evokes a sunlit garden with melodies, and the evening raga Madhumati, while Chapter Two delves experimentally into the night and healing through ambient textures. The upcoming Chapter Three promises a culmination with themes of strength and joy.

What inspires your compositions — situations leading to music or the need to create music that defines the situation?

When I’m alone and writing, strong emotions — whether personal or from external events— drive my creativity. It could be anything from anger to heartbreak over the news. These emotions find their way into my music. Additionally, collaborating with others is an inspiration too. The connection between musicians allows ideas to flow, creating something larger than I could have achieved alone, which is one of my favourite experiences.

Is it challenging for instrumentalists that their music is interpretative, unlike vocalists who can communicate specific messages through lyrics?

I choose to work with vocalists when specificity feels important for that piece of music. When I was going through heartbreak not long ago, the songs I was writing felt important to me because those songs were about that time. So, they were songs with vocalists and lyrics, and it felt like that needed to be clear.

How do you view the challenge for instrumentalists in this context?

Sometimes, instrumentalists have a challenge, but that is a different benefit. Someone listening to a song might be listening to another person’s storytelling. They identify (with it) if they’re going through or have gone through the same thing. Otherwise, they’re listening to the song of someone else telling their story. Whereas with melody, it doesn’t matter why I’m sad or you’re sad; if you feel sadness in this music, it will help you. Music transcends emotions and binds us; it can be a source of comfort, sometimes even overcoming obstacles, even without vocals. Sometimes, vocals could even be a hindrance.

As a global musician, how does your mindset or approach change when you visit India to perform or collaborate?

Practically speaking, not much changes, especially when I’m presenting what I would call my music. My band and my compositions remain consistent wherever I perform. I don’t mean we play the same thing every night, but I mean the music is what it is. I don’t change it for India specifically. But emotionally, there’s always a sense of rootedness and musical homecoming whenever I return to India to play. I feel a deeper gratitude when I perform in India because I feel so connected to my musical roots. So, there is a slightly heightened feeling in the music when I’m there.

Given your legendary father’s influence, did you always know you wanted to become a full-time musician?

No, I wasn’t one of those rare people who had total clarity from an early age. I was free to explore various interests, although I was deeply immersed in a vibrant musical environment. This balance allowed me to shape my journey in music in unique ways.

When did you decide to pursue music full-time?

Around the age of 18, I faced the choice between university and music. I had been touring and performing since I was 13, and I decided to follow my passion for music instead of pursuing further academic studies. That was the fork in the road where I knew I was doing something I loved and was lucky to be doing it already.

If you had considered a degree, what would you have graduated in?

I think languages have always been my strong suit outside of music, and I have always loved the written word. I love writing, so maybe English literature. Otherwise, it is something in the humanities or about people. The older I get, perhaps something more in the therapeutic psychological space.

You have dealt with traumatic experiences; how do you source your strength to move on?

On one side, the more we live, the more faith we have that we can go through things because we have evidence. Every time you go through something and survive it, you gain more faith that you can handle the next challenge. Experience is proof of our inner strength. When I don’t have that lived experience, I lean on the people who have gone through things I haven’t. I’m very connected with people, whether they’re family or friends. When we don’t have the strength individually, we carry each other through it. Sometimes, your strength is the product of the strength of the people around you. So it is a mix, but over time, I trust more and more in the human ability to endure and overcome.

Does having a multicultural background provide an advantage to an artiste?

It can, depending on what the artiste wants to achieve. Nowadays, with global accessibility, we’re all influenced by multiple cultures to some extent. However, in the 1990s and early 2000s, my experience of interacting with diverse cultures helped. It taught me to adapt, communicate respectfully, and navigate different environments. This ability was crucial for travelling and sharing my art worldwide. Creatively, too, it’s been enriching because it allows for a more authentic exploration of artistic influences. A multicultural background can be advantageous, especially in how it shapes and informs an artiste’s work and interactions.

What have your major global collaborations taught you, and how do you perceive collaborations in general?

For me, successful collaborations are built on respect and humility. It is important to approach each collaborator with a deep appreciation for their traditions and styles, viewing them as equal contributors to the creative process. This means setting aside any sense of superiority and managing ego. I’ve learned that the best collaborations thrive when personal agendas take a back seat to what serves the collective creation best. This often means supporting the ideas and contributions of others if they enhance the overall piece, even if they differ from my own.

Do you envision your sons performing or being inclined towards the sitar?

Anoushka with her sons and mother at the University of Oxford after receiving her Honorary degree recently

Anoushka with her sons and mother at the University of Oxford after receiving her Honorary degree recently

I would be surprised if that happened. Neither of them is that interested. They’re both musical and artistic, but they’re not into (the) sitar. That’s fine. I decided ages ago if I’d rather be their guru or mom, and I don’t think I can do both effectively. So, I’m their mom.

Are they aware of the family legacy?

Yes, to an extent. I am happy that their lives are not heavily influenced by it every day. Sometimes, when they visit India, they are surprised by the legacy’s visibility there. They know about their grandfather’s (Ravi Shankar) music and contributions, and they are proud of it and supportive of my musical journey, even though it is not a central part of their daily lives.

Is there a parallel between the role you play for your sons now and the role your mother played for you during your upbringing, with or without music?

Yes, very much so. I parent more like my mother than my father because I’m their parent rather than a distant figure. So, there are a lot of parallels, though each generation brings its own differences.

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