Sitarist Anoushka Shankar on her relationship with music: ‘I don’t have secrets anymore’


Award-winning sitar player, composer and activist, daughter of late Pandit Ravi Shankar, talks about being a single parent and how being vulnerable made her stronger

Grammy-nominated sitar player, composer and activist Anoushka Shankar performed with the all-women Firdaus Orchestra mentored by music composer A. R. Rahman at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Jubilee Park on February 6. A performance that was widely anticipated quickly took a sombre turn with the news of the passing away of India’s melody queen — Lata Mangeshkar — that very morning. Shankar, who’s the daughter of the late sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, shared photographs of her father with Mangeshkar on her social media later, paying respects “to one of the greatest artists the world has ever known”. Dressed gracefully in a golden salwar kameez, Shankar joined Firdaus Orchestra for the second half of the show, performing some of her celebrated sitar pieces, as a tribute to the late singer’s musical legacy.

In her previous works, Shankar has enjoyed creating music with crews almost exclusively led by women, but this marked the first time she played with an all-female orchestra. “It’s definitely more women than I’ve ever been on stage with before,” she adds. “Song writing and creating in the kind of safe and intimate spaces that we’ve been able to create together is a wonderful feeling. Not that it can’t be done with men, but it’s empowering to see women really encouraging each other and not being in competition with each other, being allies and lifting each other up — contrary to how it’s often portrayed,” says Shankar.

Born with it

Being the daughter of a celebrated sitar player, music had been an intrinsic part of Shankar’s formative years. She began her formal training with the sitar alongside her father at the age of seven, giving her first public performance at the age of 13 in New Delhi.

Growing up with a strong musical influence in her early years, Shankar was aware of the precedence that music would eventually take in her life. “There was an awareness from very early on that people around me, not just my parents but even others, would’ve loved for me to play music,” she recounts. “I was aware of what my father used to do and the kind of stature he had. Picking up the sitar was not taken lightly. It was never as light-hearted and fun as playing the piano. I knew there was a weight around it, I could see the hopes and expectations.”

Shankar with her father late Pandit Ravi Shankar

Shankar with her father late Pandit Ravi Shankar

Takes two to tango

Could having one’s fate decided for them at such a young age also feel limiting? When asked if music chose her or she chose music, the sitar player responded, “It’s a great way to think about it, actually. It makes me think of being in a dance partnership. You might be led in a traditional role, in a dance partnership, where you’re being led but you can walk away or go and dance with someone else at any time. It takes both of those people to stay in the partnership. So, I think it’s the process of choosing back — whether it’s the instrument you want to play or the kind of music you want to create — when it really becomes your calling.”

Music was something that was laid in front of Shankar as an option from an early age but “it’s been a process of affirming that option by choosing it for myself, every time,” she adds. “It started off as me choosing it in the short term, just exploring it as one of the options. I was still learning. I was still going to school. It wasn’t that at the age of seven, when I first picked up a sitar, I signed a contract with myself saying I was going to be a sitar player for the rest of my life. It was just a little bit at a time.”

An intimate connection

Growing up with music, Shankar recognises that her relationship with her craft has evolved over the years. “It’s a relationship. So, it goes through phases and developments,” says Shankar. “Over time, my relationship with music has become increasingly intimate. It gets under my skin more and more. As time passes, my abilities change, the things I want to express change, based on what’s going on in my life. There are times that feel really free-flowing, close and wonderful and there are times that feel disconnected and frustrating. It keeps changing and evolving.”

After her father passed away in 2012, Shankar became the sole performer of some of his concertos for sitar. “Some shows are very creative and improvised and some are fixed repertoires. Sometimes, I’m playing my father’s concertos. Just last week, I played a concerto in Glasgow that I played for the first time around 14 years ago, and then again, around six years ago. It was really fascinating to go back and play a piece of repertoire and see how my relationship with it has changed,” says Shankar, adding that she finds much more nuance and detail that she couldn’t have seen 14 years ago. “At this stage in my musicianship, my interpretation of the music is completely different. It’s a fascinating process because you get to see how you change and evolve with the music.”

Strength in vulnerability

Her album Love Letters, which released in 2020, has often been considered Shankar’s most personal work till date. The album incorporates a compilation of songs that delve into the emotional turmoil Shankar was going through personally. When asked what allows her to be vulnerable in her music, the sitar player added that it is an extension of her personal growth as a human being that feeds back into her music. “I think I’ve been spending years doing that more and more as a person. The more I became fully open about all aspects of my life, about my experiences, the things I’ve talked about, the more it translated into my music. I’ve been in the public space since I was quite young, but previously, there have been some boundaries around how much I’m willing to share. But as I’ve grown up, those barriers have become thinner.

In 2019, the sitar player took to her social media and shared Lady Bits’, where she opened up about her hysterectomy. “There are still things I consider private because they’re precious to me but I don’t have secrets the same way. Whether it’s talking about having a hysterectomy a couple of years ago or speaking about child abuse a decade before, it has shown me that being vulnerable actually allows strength to come in. It makes you stronger. There’s a deeper connection that forms with people. I think experiencing that as a person has made it easier to be that way as a musician, too.”

Writing from a raw space, the musician trusts that it’s going to connect to her listeners too. “It comes from a place of trust. I trust the healing process. I wouldn’t ever recommend that someone goes from having never been vulnerable to standing in front of 300 strangers and sharing their deepest secrets. That doesn’t feel safe. But building a relationship of trust can help you get there,” she adds.

The magic of not knowing

Born in London, England, Shankar spent her early childhood between New Delhi and the British capital, moving to California in her teenage years. Even though her initial training began with accompanying her father on the Indian instrument of tanpura, Shankar’s multicultural upbringing reflects in the kind of music she creates, while also finding a connect with diverse audiences and the Indian diaspora. “There’s a group of people who really support the work I’ve created, or have received something from the work I’ve made,” said Shankar. “I have a relationship now with my audience that feels very real. There’s love and understanding.”

Shankar with her father

Shankar with her father

The sitar player’s audiences vary from core Indian classical audiences, to western classical music, including her crossovers with electronic music and Flamenco India projects. “Sometimes, it can be quite funny because the shows I do are so diverse that it might be exactly what some people want but not necessarily what others came for. But people know that about me by now. Those who have really followed my music know that we’re on a little journey together. There’s a sense of ‘what’s she going to do next’, which is quite freeing for me as a musician,” says Shankar, who also co-composed the score for Mira Nair’s BBC Series A Suitable Boy (2020) based on an adaptation of an English novel by Vikram Seth.

A single-mum supremacy

In 2019, Shankar parted ways with her then-husband Joe Wright, a British film director, ending her marriage of nine years. The musician balances her thriving career alongside her mummy-duties, being a single mother to her two sons. “I’m really lucky on both sides to have had a lot of support. I have a family who help with my kids. I’m at a certain level of my career where I can pick and choose the number of projects I’m part of. If I didn’t have that family support and financial privilege, I wouldn’t be able to make these choices,” says the sitar player.

Being able to create a balance is only possible when you have the right support. “I wouldn’t speak in a thoughtless way that can make a lot of mothers feel really overwhelmed. It is a struggle. There are no jokes about the fact that it is a lot to try and balance. I have tried to have it all but I’ve had to make choices. I do a fraction of the amount of touring I would, if I didn’t have my kids,” she adds. “Being there for my kids comes first. The rest of what I do fits in around the context of me mainly being there for my kids as a mum,” says Shankar, adding how her life has come a full circle now that she’ll soon be teaching her younger son how to play the sitar. “My elder son picked it up, and put it down, so I’m excited to see how this one goes,” the musician signs off.

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