India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Verve People
November 20, 2015

Hitting The High Note With Gingger Shankar

Text by Ranjabati Das

Living up to an illustrious family name is a tricky business. Gingger Shankar responded to the challenge by becoming one of the only two musicians to ever master the 10-string double violin. Find out what makes her tick…

Born in Los Angeles, schooled briefly in Chennai, and now a regular visitor to New York and her “second home” Mumbai, Gingger Shankar had a lot of teachers while growing up. Apart from her paternal grandfather and violin virtuoso V. Lakshminarayana who taught her the stringed instrument from when she was a child, she was also trained by her late mother Viji Subramaniam and maternal grandmother Lakshmi Shankar – both exponents of Indian classical music. Opera and piano classes, “a little bit of ukulele and some percussion instruments” staked a claim to her time too. The musician, film-maker, singer, composer and self-confessed “nomad” often feels “like a hybrid of two cultures”.

India versus America…
I’ve always had a need to ‘fit in’. You want to be American enough for your American friends and Indian enough for your Indian friends. Hence, the accent we all break into when we talk to our parents, compared to how we speak at school. I love how in Los Angeles you can experience completely different cultures, languages and food. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also felt more of a pull towards finding out about my family history in India.

How ‘Indian’ are you?
I grew up with so many Indian customs because of my mother and grandmother…I still go to temples and cook a lot of Indian food! I visited Jaisalmer recently.

What does traditionalism mean to you?
I think it resides in my spirituality, what my mother taught me, who I am. No matter where I am, that never changes. I think that keeps me incredibly connected to India on many levels.

You’ve worked with some household names in the music industry.
The Smashing Pumkins’ Billy Corgan is one of the most talented and intelligent people I have ever met and touring with him was extraordinary. The Flaming Lips were a lot of fun! I performed with them at George Fest (a festival to celebrate the legendary Beatle’s music) in LA. Working on Katy Perry’s newest album Prism was definitely a dream come true – I have been a fan of Dr. Luke’s for years. Each musician I work with teaches me something new.

You have been featured in a number of Hollywood soundtracks…
I got into films by accident through Passion Of The Christ. Being inspired by scenes was a brand-new experience. I enjoyed working with Mel Gibson who was so passionate. After that, I was accepted into the Sundance film composer’s programme. That opened up so many doors and I got the chance to work with the brilliant James Newton Howard on the Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts starrer, Charlie Wilson’s War.

What do you enjoy the most — composing an OST for a film, singing, performing live, playing at a festival, writing songs — and why?
Honestly, I love all of it. I love sitting in a studio and writing music for a film, I love being in front of people and playing live, I love sitting on an airplane and writing a song. When I get tired of being on the road after a while, I can be home and in my studio and create. When I get a little nuts being in my studio, I can go play a show. It’s a great balance of things!

Were there a lot of expectations because of your incredible lineage?
You have so many people around you doing so well. You get lost in wanting to be like or sounding like someone. I think at some point, that pressure turned into inspiration and a drive to find my own voice.

What are you busy with at the moment?
My collaborative multimedia project, Nari, just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is the unsung story of the numerous personal and artistic challenges of my grandmother and my mother, two extraordinary artists who helped bring Indian music to the West in the 1970s through their close collaborations with Ravi Shankar (her grand-uncle) and George Harrison. In Sanskrit, ‘nari’ means both ‘woman’ and ‘sacrifice’. As two female artists, they fought to overcome numerous challenges in both their artistic and personal lives as they were catapulted from conservative Indian culture into the stratosphere of American rock and roll. They were the two most important people in my life growing up, and it’s a legacy that I want to celebrate and honour.

I have created a multimedia project in collaboration with Dave Liang (producer of the electronic group Shanghai Restoration Project) and artist and film-maker Sun Yunfan. We have also completed the album which will be released next year. The message of this project is that women are strong, because the problems women face are universal. Sun Yunfan and I had a lot of conversations about that. We come from very different backgrounds, yet we tell the same stories about the women in our families.

I am also currently composing music on a new film called Let Me Make You A Martyr starring Marilyn Manson. Plus, I’m touring with my electro-pop band; my record Beautiful Imperfections will be out early next year.

Quick 5 with Gingger

Race-related challenges…“Breaking out of typecasting.”

Work-wise, India was on your radar last when…“We previewed Nari in Mumbai at InkTalks last month.”

You’ve grown up listening to…“M. S. Subbulakshmi, LataMangeshkar, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bach.”

Favourite venue to perform at…“A bullring in Spain for Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD fest.”

Success is…“Having the platform to remind girls and women that they are strong!”

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