October 3, 2020 6:40:48 pm
The year 2020 was going to be special for London-based sitar player Anoushka Shankar. It is the centenary year of her father, Pt Ravi Shankar, and she had a plethora of concerts planned around the world. One of the unique ones was going to be with half-sister Norah Jones, which would have put them on a stage together for a performance for the first time. But then the world shut down due to the pandemic, and Anoushka, like many others, was confined inside her home, with her mother, two children and her sitar. Her tribute came in the form of a presentation in raag Sandhya, a musical framework created by her father. For this, she collaborated with Shankar’s students from all over the world.
This and a couple of other projects made the musician in Anoushka grapple with the technical side of music making. Now she needed to figure the cables and wires too besides just playing the sitar. “It was sadistically pleasurable,” says Anoushka, 38, in a Zoom conversation from London. “I have always had a slight sense of intimidation around some of the more technical aspects that come with the creation of music. So there was something gratifying to finally be forced to have to face that – receiving a delivery of a box full of wires and cables and to make sense of it in order to do my work was my worst possible nightmare. This is far away from the dramatic side of music making. But it feels good to have had to learn and figure it out,” says Anoushka, whose recent lockdown project is a music video of her song Those Words from her last year’s EP, Love Letters – her most personal album yet in which she explored and expressed loss, infidelity, separation and sorrow having just gone through divorce, hysterectomy and removal of multiple abdominal tumours.
The song – a collaboration with British cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson – originally began as a cello idea by Witter-Johnson; Anoushka laid her riffs on the cello progressions the cellist had created. The result was a piece that loosely had impressions of raag Bhairavi, a frame of reference which signifies separation. The two musicians wrote the words in English, of memories and the idea of loss. They roped in writer and poet Shirin Anandita, who took the soul of it and turned the piece into a Punjabi poem as Yaad, teri yaad aaundi hai. Playback singer Shilpa Rao gave vocals to it and Anoushka toured with it.
The pandemic hit soon after and it’s then that Anoushka decided to create a video of the song, wherein everyone recorded and sang from their homes, resulting in the latest video of the song. “It was one of those lockdown ideas. Maybe I wouldn’t have even done it if it wasn’t for the lockdown. We all have the technology so it is just a question of sticking your phone somewhere and playing. We made the videos and then I worked with a friend (editor Nicola Cavalazzi) to put it together. The song and music are simple so the video needed to be just as simple,” says Anoushka. The video also features a dance performance by Norewegian dancers Guro Nagelhus Schia and Vebjørn Sundby.
Right before the lockdown, filmmaker Mira Nair approached her to work on the theme and score for her recent series A Suitable Boy. Since her touring dates for the centenary year were in place, Anoushka could not commit completely. “Mira is extremely involved in her projects and very detail-oriented. Initially, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t take part in it and give it the time that it required,” says Anoushka. This is when Nair suggested composer Alex Heffes, a composer she’d worked with before on Queen of Katwe (2016). “So that made my role quite different because he was co-composing and wrote the bulk of the score while I was doing certain character themes, offering suggestions. It was lovely in the sense that it was interesting to do a full TV series and learn what that’s like. The irony was that all the shows didn’t happen,” says Anoushka, who is also riding high on her recent collaboration with famed American singer-songwriter Patti Smith, a musician Anoushka looked up to since she was a young girl. The collaboration is on Smith’s spoken word album titled Peradam, which was released earlier this month. “It’s been lovely to work with her. I have loved Patti Smith since I was very young. Getting to just connect my instrument with her voice feels very fulfilling and gratifying,” says Anoushka, who also believes that there is a stronger understanding of Indian classical music globally.
But while classical music and the way it’s learned is finding many fans and much attention with globetrotting musicians such as her, a recent sexual harassment scandal in Bhopal – at the Dhrupad Sansthan run by Gundecha Brothers – has also brought the concept of skewed power structures in guru-shishya parampara under the limelight. Anoushka, who went through sexual harassment as a young woman, said that she isn’t shocked. “Sexual violence exists in every city, every country, every city, in every field. You don’t need people to come forward in every field to assume that there are men perpetrating violence against women. In every field, sexual harrasment is part of an endemic, a bigger issue that needs to be tackled everywhere,” she says.
As of now, Anoushka is sort of mulling over the beginnings of a new album and is busy homeschooling her two children. “It’s been the most challenging bit. That box of cables was nothing as compared to homeschooling. Suddenly you feel responsible for the totality of your kids’ well-being. I don’t get to spend so much time with them, so I think I would have never seen how they respond to certain things and how their brain works and it was amazing to get that holistic experience with them,” says Anoushka.
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