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It’s not very healthy for me to pay too much attention to what others think of me: Anoushka Shankar

Sitar player Anoushka Shankar, who begins her India tour next week, on returning to her roots, the lessons learned over the years, and working with maestro Zubin Mehta.

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
Updated: December 6, 2015 1:00:57 am
Sitar player Anoushka Shankar Sitar player Anoushka Shankar

In your upcoming album, Home, you’ve approached the ragas in a “pure” form. After several crossover albums and experimenting with a variety of genres, what led you to return to your Indian classical roots?

After my father passed away in 2012, I played several tribute concerts to him. Those classical concerts were a very emotional experience. It made me want to compose a tribute album, in which I played to my father. Also, I felt conscious that all the non-classical work I’ve done has actually helped me to grow as an artiste, and I felt that I could now make a classical album with more maturity and sensitivity than I could when I was younger.

For many years now, you’ve walked the tightrope between performing the traditional classical music that you know and practise, and that which is performed for the masses. How do you strike that balance and what have you learned from this exercise?

I classify myself as someone who is genuinely attempting to retain and pass on, in the future, a certain level of the old tradition, without it being watered down. And in a black-and-white manner because tradition is never static. So I’m not passing on what the music was like 300 years ago. I don’t have any desire for things to be frozen in time or to be bogged down with thousands of rules and regulations.

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What I do is give people the essence of what it feels like to go to a classical Indian concert. To really hear and feel what a raga is, opened and explored and performed in its own element as opposed to the way it sounds when you hear some bars in a Western song which may sound absolutely stunning, but it’s not the same as hearing it in its own element. I guess what I’m hoping is to continue to be both because I don’t want to live without either.

You’ve said that in the past, when you were younger, renowned musicians who had a more puritan approach had written you off. Did you struggle to please that audience? Has that changed in the last few years?

I’ve found that it’s not very healthy for me to pay too much attention to what others think of me. I can’t speak for other people so I don’t know what they think. But for myself, I feel like I’ve found my stride. I love to make experimental music, and to grow and learn from new musical experiences — but I also treasure and value the classical Indian music that is at the heart of everything I do.

How did you feel growing as a musician alongside your father at some of the most prestigious concert halls? Many may call “presenting” a child that young as nepotistic, but in classical traditions it’s a common practice to make a child learn on stage. Were you frightened?

In hindsight, it was extremely frightening. I was always naturally shy, and learning and presenting myself onstage in front of thousands of people would be quite harrowing. Afterward, though, if it had gone well, I always felt very proud and happy. It’s a confusing issue. As you say, it’s a natural part of our classical training process, and I probably learned as much, or more, onstage with my father, as I did in the practice room. But it’s a tough thing for a young person to be put up for so much examination and scrutiny, and it would have been nice to be protected from that a bit longer.

Looking back, what was your first lesson with Panditji like? He was 68, and was trying to teach a reluctant seven-year-old girl. He taught students who had already trained extensively. Did he have to change the way he taught music?

He often spoke about how tough it was, as he had never taught anyone in quite the same way. But I’m very grateful for the way he adapted to teaching me, as I probably would’ve run away if he’d taught me like he taught his earlier disciples!

Indian classical music hinges on the idea of freedom within discipline. There is the component of improvisation but then it’s also rigid and complex. How, then, do you strive to be a creative composer?

It’s a beautiful contradiction, and one that to me, mirrors life very simply and beautifully. We are all searching for our own freedom within limitations — how to be true to our inner character while also being conscious of society at large, how to balance spirituality in a materialistic world, how to find balance overall. This universal truth is at the heart of our music and can be a great spiritual practice.

People in Maihar, at your father’s gurukul in Madhya Pradesh, have always wanted you to perform at their annual festival.
It would be amazing to visit and play in Maihar. I hope it can happen one day.

In a recent conversation with maestro Zubin Mehta, he welled up speaking about Panditji and you and the fact that you named your son after him.

I have had the privilege of working with Zubin uncle a fair bit, especially in the last few years. We have played my father’s composition, Concerto No. 2, several times together. I’m looking forward to playing it with him in the next two years, alongside the very best orchestras in the world: the New York Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic. He is a consummately beautiful artiste, passionate and uplifting, and each time I’ve worked with him, it has been incredibly inspiring.

Traces of You, your last album and tribute to Pandit Ravi Shankar along with your sister Norah Jones, has been called your most personal so far.

Each album is personal, and becomes the most personal album that can be made at the time. In fact, Land of Gold, the one I’m releasing next year, now feels like the most personal, simply because it’s the one I’m currently most connected to, whereas another, older album almost feels like it was made by a different me.

Panditji was known to be one of the finest teachers besides being an iconic performer. Do you ever think of taking up that role? Would you like to teach your children?

I had one student when I was a teenager, the daughter of an Indian family friend. And I haven’t had one since. Teaching scares me and also feels really important. I’m slowly owning the fact that I want to teach, possibly sooner than I imagined. I’m acutely aware of this being a non-written form of music, and I’ve been handed some really special things. After 20 years, I’ve learned more from my father than any other disciple has. So out of responsibility, and love, I really want to pass on and share these things. As for the kids, I don’t know. It’s hard to say, because they are so young. But if they come to me and say, “I really want to learn your instrument,” I’ll teach it to them. But I’m not sure.

Two years ago, you spoke about sexual violence in the One Billion Rising Campaign — about being sexually abused by a man your parents trusted. It inspired a lot of people to talk about the issue.

That’s exactly why I wanted to speak about it. After Nirbhaya’s gangrape, sexual violence was suddenly being talked about in India in a way I had never remembered in my lifetime. It felt like an opportunity to be a part of lifting the stigma and silence that surrounds it all. It felt important to talk about it, and I’m so grateful that I did. If I had kept quiet, it would have felt like an extension of perpetuation as a whole, because the more we talk about it, the more we enable future victims to talk about it.

What are you working on now?

In 2016, I’ll be busy touring with my new album, Land of Gold, and playing with various classical orchestras.

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