The Sound of Silence

The Sound of Silence

Musician Anoushka Shankar gives live score for the restored silent film Shiraz, a drama based on Niranjan Pal’s play that tells the story of the making of the Taj Mahal

anoushka shankar, anoushka shankar sitar player, anoushka shankar performance, anoushka shankar albums, pandit ravi shankar, British Film Institute, Shiraz
Anoushka Shankar. (Photo: Anushka Menon)

IN 1928, when German filmmaker Franz Osten premiered his magnum opus, Shiraz — a historical romance written by playwright Niranjan Pal and set during the Mughal rule — the screening hall in Bombay had an orchestra led by the peti-master (harmonium player) in the musicians pit to lend music to the silent film. A love story between princess Selima and prince Khurram that also recounted the making of the Taj Mahal, the Indo-German production shot with a moving camera attracted attention for a number of reasons — the way the mountains and palaces are visualised and presented by art director Promode Nath, brilliant use of natural light by cinematographers Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann, and two kissing scenes, among others.

Now, almost 90 years after it premiered, Osten’s classic has been restored by the British Film Institute (BFI), which also holds the original negative material of Shiraz in its archive. Meticulously restored by the conservation team at the BFI National Archive, Shiraz – The Romance of India was screened at the Barbican Centre in London on October 14. Later this week, the film will be projected on giant screens in four Indian cities, accompanied by a live musical score written and performed by sitar player Anoushka Shankar and an eight-piece band. The concerts are being presented by British Council. “I have learnt a lot. It has been really fulfilling to be a part of bringing something from that period back to life. I had never heard of it. It was also really moving to see cinema that was made so long ago in India, and which was at that level of cinematic excellence. As a musician, I really got to flex a lot of different muscles, try new and different things in order to bring the story back to life,” said the five-time Grammy-nominated Shankar during a phone conversation.

Not used to composing music for a film, she adds that this is a first of its kind project for her, and was quite challenging. “There were moments when I regretted it. It’s a different thought process — leading a team to write music that would help a story and bring out the nuances that would heighten the film. There is the idea of serving the film, which is first and foremost. Sometimes, I would be at odds with other musicians. I realised that I might write a beautiful piece of music and there might be a logical process for it; if it were an album, I’d go in that direction, but the film isn’t moving in that direction. You have to connect with the film and for a musician like me, that’s an interesting yet challenging thing to do. I had to constantly restrain myself. And that was really good,” says Shankar.

anoushka shankar, anoushka shankar sitar player, anoushka shankar performance, anoushka shankar albums, pandit ravi shankar, British Film Institute, Shiraz
A still from Shiraz

Having worked on the score for about a year, her research involved watching the film a few times and connecting with the story before sitting down to do a score for it. “It was interesting how I had to maintain a balance, where I wasn’t competing for attention with the film and yet was creating music that was satisfying. You have to make sure, you play it the same way everytime. It’s a film score and cannot sound different from the first time you played it,” says Shankar, adding that the music is a balance between modern and traditional sounds. Her band to create the score of the film will include violin, the cello, clarinet, flute, midangam, tabla and hang drums. Shankar will touch upon a variety of ragas from her arsenal to deliver a diverse sound for the various moods in the film.


At 36, Shankar, who divides her time between London, California and Delhi, has surfaced as her own musician, and is not constantly compared with her father Pt Ravi Shankar, which was the case till a few years ago. The purists who wrote her off initially are not just giving positive reception but also appreciating her western affiliations and collaborations. “For any positive reception to my work, I’m grateful. I am glad when people like my music. It makes me think I’m doing something worthwhile. I hear people who write me off but I try not to think in terms of proving myself. I don’t think that is a very productive way of making art. Art needs to be responded to emotionally,” says Shankar. Her last two albums – Home and Land of Gold — have been very focussed. While the former was a tribute to her father, the latter was about the refugee crisis — where seeing millions of people fleeing the most horrific scenes of war and destruction with their children led her to compose music.

Still formulating details of her upcoming projects, she says, “I have, in the past, fallen into the trap of trying to show everything. That way you run the risk of not telling one story well enough. I have learnt from experience and anything next, like a couple of previous projects, will be carefully drawn out.”

Shiraz will be screened along with Anoushka Shankar’s performance on November 1 at Hyderabad Convention Centre, Hyderabad, on November 3 at Sangit Kala Mandir, Kolkata, on November 4 at Siri Fort in Delhi, and November 5 at Shanmukhananda auditorium in Mumbai. Tickets are available on bookmyshow.