Pandit Ravi Shankar would have turned 100 years old this year. Born in Varanasi on April 7, 1920, the sitarist-composer meandered ferociously through a dizzying life; from early 1930s studying ballet in Paris, consuming classical music in rural Madhya Pradesh, banding with the progressive communists of theater in then-Bombay, a stable government job at the radio in Delhi, to his later years rummaging through continents performing and touring with his sitar, his four bypass surgeries and several angioplasties. He passed away at the age of 92.
His daughter, Anoushka Shankar, a 6 time Grammy nominated-sitarist (She became the first Indian woman to be nominated for the Grammys at the age of 20), is now touring India with her latest EP, ‘Love Letters’ She is also curating a year of releases and events in her father’s memory to mark his centenary. I spoke to her to discuss both- her art, and her father’s legacy.
Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Centenary Celebrations
How does one celebrate not just the craft but also the spirit of Ravi Shankar’s unfenced persona? Anoushka Shankar tells me about a biography on his life that is going to be published, along with buzzing talks on documentaries and films; indeed his life is the stuff of literature and cinema. This is in addition to various concerts. In April, on her father’s birthday, she and her half-sister Norah Jones will perform on stage together in London for the first time. Anoushka will also be recreating the title track of Pather Panchali (whose original background was scored by Ravi Shankar himself) for a Bengali film Avijatrik, based on the concluding portion of the famous Apu Trilogy.
Shankar made it clear that what she is doing is an interpretation, not a recreation. “Bickram Ghosh has done the score. I have just played a prominent guest appearance on the soundtrack. I played an interpretation of the most iconic theme that is so recognizable. I have slightly modified it, so it is not purely a replication of what my father played. It is a theme I have grown up with and known and to record it was very sweet.”
Why Indian Classical Music Is Simultaneously Modern?
Shankar is returning to India after 2 years. To be Indian for her, born and raised between London, California, and Delhi, is complex. It is beyond being aware that her parents’ lineage comes from here. It is central to her music, attempting to bridge the gap between the West and the East, (the vistas of Calcutta in the video of ‘Traces of You’, her collaboration with Norah Jones, is telling) and even within India to bridge the classical with the modern.
“It is about being open to a process of evolution. Unlike Western classical music, Indian classical music is highly improvised and passed on in an oral tradition and that means from generation to generation it has been evolving. If someone is improvising on an ancient raga they are very much being modern. So even within its core classical context Indian music is very interestingly young and old at the same time.
We can also bring in new elements. Using my father as an example; people never gave the tabla player a solo in the middle of a show before. My father started doing that. Now, that is just absolutely standard at this point; if you didn’t have that, it would seem strange. Today, of course, people are doing different things, updating instruments, and changing microphones systems so technicalities are upto 21st century standards.
“You’ll have phrases like ‘Indian Classical Fusion Music’ and when you analyze it, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
My entire answer has been about classical music. Outside of that you move into crossover which is a whole other way to bring in new musical elements, new styles from other styles. All of that is what you can call modernism as well.”
But she is quick to caution her discomfort at these binaries of modern-classical, and this need to label complex things in three phrases. “You’ll have phrases like ‘Indian Classical Fusion Music’ and when you analyze it, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
Female Collaborations And Solidarity In Male Dominated Sitar-sphere
‘Love Letters’ is also the first time Shankar will be performing the vocals for a song.
“In the context of this high percentage of female collaborators and voices, and these intimate love songs, it felt like a very natural connect, like an organic fit for me to sing one of them. I did enjoy the process so it might happen again but there is no massive plan.”
“I really got to experience the way women show up for each other when crisis strikes.”
The song in question is ‘Lovable’, and the main lyric of the song reads ‘Am I still loveable if you stopped loving me?’
That this album comes from personal tumult is apparent. Shankar divorced her husband in May 2018. During the months that followed, it was the female companionship that buoyed her, a rotating cast of musicians and vocalists rehearsing or sitting on the floor of her apartment.
“I really got to experience the way women show up for each other when crisis strikes. There was this sweetness; I felt very held throughout this process, and that’s really where this music came from – the shared experience of women, holding my hand and helping me find a safe place to put some of my feelings.”
For the album too she has collaborated almost exclusively with female peers. This is something she actively pursued having seen the disproportionate number of female sitar players growing up.
“It is still male dominated but I also see an increase, whereas it was hard to think of more than a couple of female sitar players when I was starting out, now there are many but it isn’t half the number of sitar players I can think of.
It isn’t just about playing but also sustaining the career which is where women tend to drop off. If you have a man and woman playing music and they get married, which one is easily more likely to tour or when a child comes along which one of them would more easily continue touring. I don’t think society is set up to be equally supportive to men and women having the same job.”
On Divorce and Being Open To Love
I wondered if it was easy to be so intimate in your art, to whisper to the whole world your personal doubts of being loveable, or not having space in one’s heart for oneself. I asked Shankar if this confidence is innate or acquired?
“As the years have gone by I have become increasingly comfortable in sharing myself in my work. It is confidence that comes with making music. I feel more safe and trusting of the process. Over the years I have found that when I share my truth or vulnerability that can be a beautiful experience for not just me but also that resonates with other people so it can be beautiful for other people as well. That is art; it is about speaking something, so if I speak the truth someone will feel that.
“If I am open to love and joy and those deep profound experiences, I will also be open to pain and heartbreak. I am not going to close myself off.”
My experience is that if I close off to pain I close off to beauty as well. So if I am open to love and joy and those deep profound experiences, I will also be open to pain and heartbreak. I am not going to close myself off.”
There’s an endearing certainty in her voice that reminds me of the 18 year old romantic ideologue sitting with her parents opposite Simi Garewal for her first interview. Garewal asks her about boyfriends, and she blushes, “I am always in love.”
It’s been 20 years and though love in one form might have eluded her, it didn’t seem to have dimmed the spirit to love again. And she’s back to her roots for more.
Anoushka Shankar will be performing on 13 February in Mumbai and on 14 February in Delhi.