Interview: Anoushka Shankar

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 12.19.13 in Interviews

Traces Of You

Anoushka Shankar

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s death in December 2012, at age 92, didn’t simply quiet Indian classical music’s most internationally renowned musician and composer; it also marked the end of one of its longest-running artistic partnerships. For nearly two decades, Anoushka Shankar, born in 1981, had been performing alongside her father as the sitar master’s favorite and most constant disciple. Beginning as an admittedly terrified teenager, Anoushka evolved into a remarkable player and composer in her own right over the course of seven albums, beginning with Anoushka (1998) and including Live at Carnegie Hall (2001), Rise (2005) and her Indo-flamenco crossover, Traveller (2011).

Ravi Shankar passed away as Anoushka was recording her latest album, Traces of You, with producer-musician Nitin Sawhney. As she explains below, the album changed direction and came to include lyrical meditations concerning Ravi Shankar in particular and fatherhood in general. Anoushka’s half-sister Norah Jones, Ravi’s daughter by another mother, sings three tracks that triangulate a complex tricontinental relationship. And several instrumentals continue Anoushka’s fascination with Indian classical music, Western harmonies, electronics and the infinite ways they can be combined. On Traces of You, Anoushka continues to define herself as both very much her father’s daughter as well as an increasingly compelling artist in her own right.

Richard Gehr talked with Shankar about teenage stardom, ragas and writing with her half-sister.

Tell me about recording “Unsaid” with Norah Jones.

It was weird. People might imagine that Norah wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music, but that’s not how it worked. I had “The Sun Won’t Set” and “Traces of You,” which she sang, and I wanted a third song that was a bit more focused on the two of us collaborating together. I started writing the lyrics to “Unsaid,” which was about my father, on the plane to New York. When I got there, I showed Norah the lyrics and we went into the music room. I had a melody, but I knew it wasn’t working. I played it to her and she said, “Yeah, maybe for your solo.” I started working on it while she was sitting at the piano right beside me. As I’m playing, I hear her trying other things. After 15 minutes, it starts to take a bit more shape from the way she’s singing it, but it sounds oddly familiar. I waited a while, mainly to see if that was the melody that was going to stick. I didn’t want to interrupt the process. But when I realized that she was always landing the song that way, I asked, “Do you know that melody?” She said, “No, I just did it.” And I said, “That’s exactly our dad’s theme from [Satayjit Ray's groundbreaking 1955 film] Pather Panchali.” The beginning is different, but it resolves exactly that way. I played the theme for her that evening, and we just started laughing.

When you compose, do you usually begin with Indian ragas [five-note melodic themes that form a basic melody — Ed.] or with Western harmonies and scales?

It does vary. A lot of the time it starts with my instrument. The melody might come from my hands or my head, but it starts on the sitar, although I may end up giving it to another instrument. If it started on my sitar, it will usually exist in at least a loose raga frame. From there, it can go in one of two directions: Either I start to dress it in more Western harmonies, or I’ll look for ragas that correspond to the melody and try to find ways to fit it in.

Some ragas are obviously more adaptable to Westernization than others.

Definitely. A lot of South Indian Carnatic ragas lend themselves to what you could call “crossover” more easily than others, because Carnatic ragas are often a lot more scale-based, which gives one more freedom. “Indian Summer,” for example, is in a raga called Keeravani, which is one of the more popular Carnatic ragas. It’s a normal scale, and lends itself really easily to harmonic development. Others are a lot more challenging — such as Darbari Kanada, the raga I use in “Metamorphosis.” It’s a really heavy and stately 15th Century North Indian classical raga. A lot of the time, it’s just about arrangement. If the shehnai or sitar is playing, there’s no harmony at that moment. Strings come in during the spaces between, so the ear can navigate through those journeys and not feel the clash.

Your last few albums have been crossover projects. When was the last time you played a classical concert?

I’m still performing classically, and I’m booking classical tours for 2014 and ’15. I really want to get back to it because I love it, and it feels important. I started crossing over with Rise in my mid 20s, and I think it was like my musical teenage years. It’s the space I’ve given myself to experiment. At the same time, Indian music is so much at the root of what I do that coming back to it feels really appropriate. This spring in Germany, I did a series of shows representing different aspects of what I do. It culminated with a classical show, which made me laugh because I put so much more effort into the other shows. I put no effort into the classical show. Not to diminish it, but because we just played and had so much fun, I thought, “This is silly. What am I doing putting so much effort into trying to find what I want to do, when this thing is just kind of staring me in the face?” It reminded me how much I love performing classically.

What was it like growing up in public as a musician alongside your father onstage in places like Carnegie Hall while you were still a work in progress, so to speak?

It’s weird. When I look back, I wonder if I would have put myself onstage at that time. I don’t think I would have. That doesn’t mean I regret having done it. The phrase “work in progress” is a really good one, because the idea of apprenticeship, studying under a guru, is so key to Indian music that having a student perform on stage with a guru is very traditional. It’s not quite the nepotistic presentation of one’s child it could seem without that knowledge. All students go through the process of being on stage, because being on stage is part of learning. The stage is effectively a music room with a public, where you’re learning from your guru. In a way, being on stage with my father was only a much scarier version of being in a lesson with him in our house. It’s part of the process. You’re also groomed in performance, you get used to being on stage, and you gain confidence. It kind of lights a fire under your pants, too, because you have to learn in a pressured situation. In that context, it’s a really beautiful thing.

Even as a teenager in high-pressure rooms like Carnegie Hall?

[Laughs loudly] It was terrifying! [Laughs loudly again] Definitely, utterly terrifying. It was really high-pressure and hard work for somebody really young.

How did the Indian classical-music cognoscenti take your early appearances with your father?

You watch students being groomed onstage more for their potential than for their delivery. It’s normal to have disciples onstage, but they’re not normally paid a lot of attention, and that was something none of us within my family anticipated. We didn’t imagine that people would want to put me in newspapers or interview me at age 13, 14 or 15. It wasn’t internally planned that I was going to have a career from that age. It wasn’t normal in India to have someone become really famous before they’re a full-fledged adult solo performer.

Do you ever think about becoming a teacher yourself?

I had one student when I was a teenager, the daughter of an Indian family friend. And I haven’t had one since. [Laughs] 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.

Would you teach them to your son?

I don’t know. It’s hard to say, because he’s so young. But if he comes to me at 10 and says, “I really want to learn your instrument,” I’ll teach it to him. But I’m not sure.

Any great up-and-coming Indian musicians you’re excited about?

Do you know Kaushiki Chakrabarty? She’s a singer about my age who started performing when she was a teenager. Her father is the singer Ajay Chakrabarty. She’s grown into the most incredible singer, she’s just mind-blowing. She has extreme vocal acrobatics and skills, but they are so incidental to her incredibly mature delivery. She sounds like someone who’s sung for 60 years, but she’s 30.

What is your sitar practice like now?

I’m bad at practicing, but I’m good at playing. I’ve had to change my terminology in order to get myself to play more, because practicing makes me feel like a teenager and playing makes me feel excited. I’m quite a nerd, and I can be really studious about my approach to things. At the moment I’m more curious about going back to my old tapes. I made loads of recordings of my lessons, and there are things I don’t remember. There are so many ragas he taught me one morning in ’96, or 2000, and all that stuff is slowly being digitized. I’m quite excited about having time with my old tapes over the next couple of years.