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‘Music is a part of my everyday life'

Whether it's composing music, performing live or song writing, Gingger Shankar has won kudos. Here, she reflects on how her musical inspirations shaped her life and the experience of working in Hollywood.

February 26, 2011 05:38 pm | Updated 05:39 pm IST

Gingger Shankar: Music rules.

Gingger Shankar: Music rules.

On January 29, the Sundance Film Festival Awards recognised the independent film “Circumstance” as the winner of the U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award. On the occasion it was not only the film's Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz who took a bow but also the rising star of Indian origin who composed its musical score: Gingger Shankar.

The kudos heaped upon Gingger at Sundance was only the latest in a string of accolades for the California-based daughter of violin maestro L. Subramaniam. The gifted singer, virtuoso violinist, composer, model and songwriter grew up in Los Angeles, where her accomplishments already include working with top producers and film composers such as Mel Gibson, Mike Nichols, Mike Myers, and James Newton Howard.

While Gingger was the artist and co-composer behind the poignant score of Mel Gibson's blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ,” her music can also be heard in Mike Nichol's film, “Charlie Wilson's War,” starring Tom Hanks, where she had a chance to collaborate with film composer James Newton Howard. Her vocals can also be heard in Jackie Chan's film, “The Forbidden Kingdom,” and she also worked with George Clinton on Eastern arrangements for the Mike Myers picture, “Love Guru”. Further, Ms. Shankar composed music for the Sundance award-winning documentary “Recycle”, directed by Al Massad.

However, it is her instrumental specialism that truly puts her in the category of musician extraordinaire. She is one of the few female artistes in the world to have mastered the 10-string double violin, an instrument that covers the entire range of the orchestra's double bass, cello, viola and violin. There are said to be only two in existence currently.

Gingger has also perfected the art of collaborative ventures with a myriad of artists from East and West. In 2008 she debuted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a soprano and later performed at New York's famous Carnegie Hall. She then went on to partner with such uniquely talented and diverse artists as The Smashing Pumpkins, Trent Reznor, L. Shankar, Zakir Hussain, Phil Collins, Steve Vai, Peter Gabriel, Tony Levin, Cheap Trick and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Her style has been described as an “experiment with elegant and exciting mixtures of sounds” that “weaves an intricate tapestry of musical genres.”

After “Circumstance” received a standing ovation following its screening at Sundance, Keshavarz said, “I requested (the opportunity to work with Gingger) because I wanted someone who not only intimately knew West Asian music but also pop and hip-hop music. Gingger has a great diverse range.”

In this interview, Gingger Shankar talked about the sources of her musical inspiration, her love for the unique double violin and her experience working with Hollywood's A-list celebrities.

Could you explain where your passion for your art comes from, and what role your parents have had in that, especially in your childhood?

I was raised in a family of musicians. I grew up with music around me; it was part of my everyday life. I was learning music and dance from the time I was very young and was always going to concerts. My mother is probably the biggest influence in my life (personally and musically). She would play me everything from M.S. Subbulakshmi to the Beatles. She took me to opera classes, violin classes, and piano classes. She was an incredible singer as well.

My father exposed me to so many incredible musicians and composers as well: Heifitz, Beethoven, and Mozart. I remember meeting M.S. Subbulakshmi, Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grapelli, V.G. Jog and so many other incredible artists as a child. Now I understand what blessings I had! I am definitely inspired by all the musicians in my family as well.

As I became a teenager, music became my life and career. I don't think I ever made a choice. It was very natural and something I always wanted to do. I love it and couldn't imagine doing anything else.

Have you spent much time in India, and if so did that expose you to any particular musical influences there? Did any Indian artists (besides your parents) inspire you?

I went to Kalakshetra as a child. I spent many summers in India growing up and as an adult I try to come out every year (although it has been a few years now). Besides my parents, I have always been inspired by so many Indian artists: Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Alla Rakha, Laskhmi Shankar, Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, V.G. Jog, Zakir Hussain, Vikku Vinayakram, A.R. Rahman and so many more. There are so many inspiring and fantastic artists in India.

You play a unique and special instrument, the double violin. Could you tell us what sets it apart from other instruments and what drew you to it?

It is an instrument that covers the entire orchestra range: violin, viola, bass and cello. There are only two in the world and I love the sound of it. It provides a tone and sound unlike any other instrument. Whether I am performing live or doing soundtracks, it gives me such a wide range of sounds to work with.

Having spent much time in the music scene in Los Angeles, how hard would you say it is for a South Asian-origin artist to rise in prominence as you have?

I have grown up in the music scene in LA. There have definitely been struggles not only as a South Asian artist, but as a woman as well. I have always spent my career going outside of the box; everything from doing classical Indian shows to operas to performing with rock bands to doing soundtracks and solo projects. Whenever I have gone outside the Indian classical box, it has been tough. In the recent years, Indian influences are definitely hitting the mainstream. Slowly we break those doors down one day at a time.

Which moment or event would you describe as your biggest breakthrough?

I don't think there has been one “breakout” moment. I feel that I have had many important moments, but that the best is yet to come!

Can you talk a bit about working on the score for “The Passion of the Christ”? Did you ever interact with Mel Gibson? How was he to work with?

That was my entrance into composing film music. I loved working on the film. Having the opportunity to have that much artistic freedom and being inspired by scenes and creating with them was a brand new learning experience. I met Mel the first day and he was with us in the studio almost every day. I really enjoyed working with a director who was so passionate about his work. He expected everyone to work hard, but he did the same. It is definitely inspiring to work with someone who is so dedicated to their art and vision.

Much of your music so far has been associated with film festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival, the Dubai International Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles... Do you find your musical interest blends well with the context of indie films?

I got into films by accident through “The Passion of the Christ”. After that, I was accepted into the Sundance Film Composer's programme. I have worked on mainstream and indie films since then. I definitely found my voice in film and I enjoy it. I feel that I love the touring and recording side of being an artist, but films definitely give me the opportunity to compose all styles of music. On the film “Circumstance” that we are in Sundance with, I composed everything from traditional western score to Indian to Iranian to punk to hip hop to dance. It was so exciting for me as an artist to be able to play with all those types of music.

Many of us will be watching your career with interest. What path might we expect the blossoming career of the talented Gingger Shankar to follow? Might we hear your vocals in more tracks or see you act in films too?

I am currently wrapping up two more feature films as well as finishing up my solo record which is much more pop and contemporary. There are quite a few vocal songs of mine in “Circumstance” as well as my other films. I would love to get into acting too, since I studied it and love that creative outlet.

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