Anoushka Shankar’s return to fusion

Ahead of her India tour, the sitarist and composer talks about the story behind her new album


Anoushka Shankar. Photo: Laura Lewis/DG
Anoushka Shankar. Photo: Laura Lewis/DG

Anoushka Shankar knows the joy, and pain, of living a life split across continents—as Pandit Ravi Shankar’s daughter, her childhood was spent shuttling between London and Delhi, before she went to university in California. The 35-year-old sitarist understands that it’s a privilege not accorded to many, where you’re not a refugee, or an immigrant, but a traveller. It’s a distinction she’s felt all too keenly, brought home particularly with the recent refugee crisis.

“There was an obvious contrast between my own reality at the time and what I was seeing around me, because I had just given birth to my second child,” says Shankar, on phone from London where she lives with her husband, the director Joe Wright. “I was in my home, and I was able to feed my baby. We were safe, we were warm and there I was watching endless streams of children on the news, just trying to have that same thing, trying to be allowed into a country that’s safer for them and being turned away. Watching this again and again, it became overwhelming.” The outrage and helplessness she felt found musical expression in her eighth studio album, Land Of Gold, released earlier this year, which the sitarist will preview on a two-week tour of India this month.

Land Of Gold is a return to Shankar’s fusion form, one that she departed from briefly in her last album Home to go the pure classical route. “It had been 10 years since I’d made a record that was purely classical and I just wanted to touch base again. I knew if I made that album, I would feel fulfilled on the classical side, and that would enable me to immediately spring back and be yet more experimental on this album,” says Shankar. The experiment is not immediately obvious, though.

In Land Of Gold, Shankar teams up with long-time collaborator and hang drum player Manu Delago, whose sonorous percussion punctuates her sitar. Melancholy is the overarching theme here, reinforced with cello, piano and shehnai. The largely instrumental album also features a couple of vocal tracks, with spoken word by actor Vanessa Redgrave and Sri Lankan rapper MIA. “With everyone on the album, it wasn’t just about what they could offer musically but also symbolically, and these are two women who really highlight activism, courage, truth and outspokenness and that held very important for me to bring to the foreground,” says Shankar. The women make an uneven contribution to the record: Redgrave reads Indian-Fijian poet Pavana Reddy’s words over chants and pakhawaj with a cinematic flourish, MIA’s glitchy rap feels flat and one-dimensional. Occasionally, the record slips into the maudlin, where a BBC newscast interrupts a song or where a galloping sitar strives to keep pace with electronica to simulate a desperate chase.

But where the album excels is when Shankar has the chance to let her sitar speak and soar. There’s genuine emotion in the 11-minute Crossing The Rubicon, where her lugubrious sitar roams between joy and sadness and explores several shades in between. Her ability to emote through music, she says, has changed after she became a parent. “I’ve become a lot more comfortable expressing who I am, musically. Earlier, there was a bit more separation between myself and my music, but expressing these kinds of truths, emotional truths, feels so much more important now, now that there’s so much more to care for, so much more that’s precious in my life,” says Shankar.

Over her last three albums, there’s also been a re-emergence of Anoushka Shankar the sitarist, as opposed to Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s daughter, whose long shadow lay over everything she did. Ravi Shankar, though one of the earliest “world music” stars from India, is still celebrated as the country’s greatest classical sitarist. Is there still some resistance in India, where audiences see her as her father’s daughter and expect her to follow in his classical footsteps? The question riles her up. “I don’t think at this point anyone expects that of me. Anyone who comes to an Anoushka Shankar show knows what I’m about. I don’t think there are those expectations, and if there are, I’m not bending myself to them.”

She certainly isn’t. Among her festival appearances in India are a smattering of auditorium shows and one at NH7 Weekender in Pune, where her audience couldn’t be more diverse. “For me the focus is always to be as honest as possible and to play music from that inner space. And I’ve always found an audience to connect with that.”

Anoushka Shankar’s shows will be held on 2 December at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, Chennai; on 3 December at Shanmukhananda Hall, Mumbai; on 4 December at NH7 Weekender, Pune; on 9 December at Sirifort Auditorium, Delhi; on 10 December at Dr Ambedkar Bhavan, Bengaluru; and on 11 December at Shilpakala Vedika, Hyderabad. Tickets available on Bookmyshow.com.

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