Artist Profiles: Anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar was born on June 9, 1981 in London, England. Anoushka is the daughter of the late Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, and she is the first and only sitarist in the world trained completely by him.

Growing up in London, New Delhi and, later, Encinitas, California, Anoushka at first resisted the legacy of the sitar, a complex and ancient instrument with between 17 and 21 strings. Anoushka learned her first Indian songs and dances from her mother, Sukanya, and she became her father’s student at the age of nine. Her initial dislike of the specially built “baby sitar” on which she cut her musical teeth gave way to a love of the instrument and the music. She made her performing debut at age 13.

Ravi Shankar guided his daughter through her emergence as a performer and as a recording artist, writing and producing the five works she plays on Anoushka, her debut album. For Anourag, her second recording, Anoushka once again performed music written and produced by her father. This time, Ravi Shankar also joined Anoushka as performer.

When Ravi Shankar’s friend and protégé George Harrison first worked with Anoushka in 1997 — when she conducted on the Chants of India album — he saw that she had inherited not only her father’s virtuosity but also his musical soul. “Most people are musicians simply because they play a certain instrument when they play that instrument, the music appears,” Harrison said. “But Ravi — to me, he is the music; it just happens to be that he plays the sitar. And it’s like that with Anoushka. She just has that quality. She could play the banjo, and it wouldn’t matter – she is the music.”

The release of Anourag coincided with the extensive “Full Circle” tour of the United States, in which Anoushka and Ravi Shankar performed together in concert in celebration of Ravi’s 80th birthday and the 70th anniversary of the beginning of his career in music. On August 15th, India’s Independence Day, Anoushka performed alone in New York at Summerstage in Central Park. Throughout the tour, she shared the stage with her father, performing his Sitar Concerto No. 1 and conducting master classes.

Anourag continued the Shankar family’s extraordinary presence in the world of Indian classical music. The recording’s six tracks feature traditional ragas that reflect Ravi Shankar’s influence on both the composition and performance of sitar music. In his first new recording as performer in several years, Ravi Shankar joined Anoushka on “Pancham Se Gara,” the final track on Anourag. In addition to her father, Anoushka was joined on the recording by Bikram Gosh on tabla and mridangam, Tanmoy Bose on tabla.

After graduating from high school with high honors in 1999, Anoushka decided to delay her entry to college to tour the world once again with her father. Highlights of their 1999 schedule included performances together at London’s Barbican Theatre and at the Evian Festival in France, where Anoushka joined the world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in playing the world premiere of a new work for cello and sitar by Ravi Shankar.

In 1998, the British Parliament presented Anoushka with a House of Commons Shield in recognition of her artistry and musicianship — at 17, she was the youngest as well as the sole female recipient of this honor. She toured extensively with Ravi throughout her cultural homeland of India, as well as Europe, Asia and the United States. In 1998, Anoushka played at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Festival in Seattle, at Carnegie Hall and in a special concert at New York’s Town Hall. Anoushka also joined her father in London in March 1997 for a historic performance of his Concerto No. 1 for Sitar and with Zubin Mehta conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Rise, Anoushka Shankar’s fourth album for Angel Records, marked a defining moment in the career of the young musician in 2005. Having previously recorded strictly in the classical tradition, Anoushka emerged as a potent creative force. “It’s very much my own music and my journey and who I am right now,” said Anoushka, who turned 24 in June of 2005 “I felt that on a personal level, Rise signifies growth.

Anoushka Shankar – Photo credit Simonyc

On Rise-which was composed, produced and arranged by Anoushka-she collaborated with a select crew of virtuoso Eastern and Western musicians wielding a variety of both acoustic and electronic instruments often engaging in unexpected ways to create tantalizing new sounds.

Having toured almost non-stop since her adolescence, in addition to attending school until her graduation from high school in 1999, Anoushka felt that she needed a break and elected to take 2004 off. But her vacation quickly became a working one as concepts were planted for the album that ultimately became Rise.


Anoushka Shankar – Rise

“I was going to go disappear for a while but wouldn’t you know it, I made an album,” she says “The sabbatical gave me the space to take risks. It was really an organic, natural experience. I was traveling from India to the States and meeting friends and adding people along the way. It was really beautiful.”

From the first notes of “Prayer In Passing,” which opens Rise, it becomes instantly clear that Anoushka is on to something inspiring and uncommon here. The track features Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a renowned Indian slide guitarist alongside the flamenco-style piano of Ricardo Miño, Pedro Eustache’s bansuri flute and duduk (a Middle Eastern wind instrument) and Anoushka’s sitar. “This one’s very languid,” says Anoushka. “It’s just nice and dreamy-it’s set in a morning raga that’s very moody and simple. It was lovely to have so many different things that shouldn’t go together but seemed to flow really nicely.”

“Red Sun,” the second track, features Anoushka on keyboards and is highlighted by the percussive Indian “bol” vocalizing of Bikram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose, her longtime tabla players. “We’ve always incorporated that into my shows when they play with me, and I definitely wanted to feature that-they’re improvising on that,” says Anoushka.

Anoushka performing live with her father, Ravi Shankar

“Mahadeva” is based on a four-line song by Ravi Shankar that was re-composed and arranged by Anoushka. “He never developed it into a piece of music,” Anoushka explains. “It was just something that I sang as a kid and it came into my head while we were in Calcutta recording. It started developing into a really strong rhythmic, dark-feeling track, which I was really excited about. Mahadeva is another name for Shiva, and one aspect of Shiva is that he’s the destroyer. This sort of brings out that feeling of anger and insanity.

“Naked” turns the mood around completely-Anoushka, all alone, on sitar and keyboards. “It was a very conscious decision to add a little pretty track with sitar being the focus,” she says. “We’d gone very mysterious and heavy and it seemed nice to have something light.”

“Solea” was co-written by Anoushka and pianist Ricardo Miño. The luminous background sounds, Anoushka explains, were all created on the piano. “I’m holding the piano strings muted while he’s playing one of the other background synth sounds. It was really creative and fun for me, and very physical, too, because of the rhythm, the flamenco approach.”

The album’s other sitar-less track, “‘Beloved,'” says Anoushka, “was my first experience writing lyrics from scratch and fitting it to a melody. It was flute-focused and I thought it would be nice to have it be about Krishna because he’s always associated with the flute. The lyrics are from the viewpoint of Radha, who’s his eternal lover. She’s searching for him everywhere and then she understands that the reason she hasn’t been able to find him is because she’s not looking within herself.”

The intriguingly titled “Sinister Grains,” like “Prayer In Passing,” is another instance where Anoushka juxtaposed seemingly incongruous ingredients, here using Indian shehnai and vocals, didjeridoo, South American vocal percussion, bass and electronic elements, including her sitar which was fed through a filter to create some of the track’s ambient effects. “It’s just a funky little mysterious track,” she says. “The song is in a Sufi-sort of mood where he’s talking about the pain of living, and the music is also very moody.”

Anoushka compares “Voice Of The Moon,” which matches the Western cello and violin to the Eastern sitar, tabla and santoor, to her father’s collaborations with the late violinist Yehudi Menuhin. “It’s very much composed within an Indian raga yet the fact that the cello is there gives it a smoothness,” she says. The Indian percussion is amended with an electronic HandSonic drum pad as well, “to give it a little more depth,” Anoushka explains.

Anoushka Shankar

Finally, “Ancient Love,” the longest track on Rise is “my favorite one by far,” says Anoushka. “This is the one closest to my heart. It was also the easiest track because it constantly flowed. Every time someone added to this track, it would get more beautiful. We ended up taking out a lot, too, to retain a bit of simplicity. It’s got a nice mix of the electronics and several flavors.”

The sequencing of the tracks on Rise, adds Anoushka, is hardly random. “Each one is in a certain raga, and it flows from morning to evening through the course of the album, which is a pretty unique feature. It’s not something that happens very often or that can be made to work, but if you do believe that ragas have moods and have significance it does enhance the overall flow.”

In 2007, Anoushka collaborated with world music innovator Karsh Kale, combining Indian classical music with electronica and other influences.

Anoushka Shankar – Home – Anoushka Shankar

After releasing several experimental, fusion and crossover albums, Anoushka released Home in 2015. It’s a pure Indian classical album that showcases the meditative and virtuosic qualities of the Indian raga. Home includes two ragas, one of which is a creation of Ravi Shankar’s.

Anoushka Shankar – Land Of Gold

Land of Gold (2016) is Anoushka Shankar’s whole-hearted response to the trauma and injustice experienced by refugees and victims of war. The music was inspired by recent news images of people fleeing civil war, oppression, poverty and agonizing hardship. “The seeds of Land of Gold originated in the context of the humanitarian plight of refugees,” Anoushka recalls. “It coincided with the time when I had recently given birth to my second child. I was deeply troubled by the intense contrast between my ability to provide for my baby, and others who desperately wanted to provide the same security for their children but were unable to do so.”

Hang virtuoso and co-writer of many of the album’s ten pieces Manu Delago joined Anoushka Shankar. Other guests included Sanjeev Shankar, a master of the spellbinding Indian reed instrument, the shehnai, who studied with Anoushka’s father Ravi Shankar.

Land of Gold also includes guest appearances by singer-songwriter Alev Lenz, jazz bassist Larry Grenadier, dancer Akram Khan, cellist Caroline Dale, rapper and refugee advocate M.I.A., and actress and political activist Vanessa Redgrave. All-girl children’s choir Girls for Equality makes its debut on the album’s closing song, “Reunion.”

Everyone is, in some way or another, searching for their own “Land of Gold”: a journey to a place of security, connectedness and tranquility, which they can call home,” said Anoushka. “This journey also represents the interior quest that we all take to find a sense of inner peace, truth and acceptance – a universal desire that unites humanity.”

“My instrument,” comments Anoushka, “is the terrain in which I explore the gamut of emotional expression – evoking shades of aggression, anger and tenderness, while incorporating elements of classical minimalism, jazz, electronica and Indian classical styles.”

In 2019, Anoushka Shankar released Reflections, a compilation featuring including Anoushka’s favorite tracks, with pieces from Land of Gold, Traces of You, Rise and other albums.

Discography:

Anoushka (Angel Records, 1998)
Anourag (Angel Records, 2000)
Live at Carnegie Hall (Angel Records, 2001)
Rise (Angel Records, 2005)
Breathing Under Water, with Karsh Kale (Manhattan Records, 2007)
Traveller (Deutsche Grammophon, 2011)
Traces of You (Deutsche Grammophon, 2013)
Home (Deutsche Grammophon, 2015)
Ravi & Anoushka Shankar Live In Bangalore, 2 CD + DVD (East Meets West, 2015)
Land of Gold (Deutsche Grammophon, 2016)
Reflections (Deutsche Grammophon, 2019)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.
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