Stringing the world along | Verve Magazine
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Cover Story
April 18, 2009

Stringing the world along

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photographs by Colston Julian. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani. Make-up and hair by Anu Kaushik. Assisted by Sonali Simon

Anoushka Shankar has several pet names, a big laugh that she tries unsuccessfully to tame and two bouquets of flowers that have arrived suddenly at her door. And the young virtuoso sitar player has the world at her fingertips, discovers Verve

Anoushka Shankar is a musician before she is anything else. After all, she has been born into raga royalty. The daughter of India’s most famous musical export, sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, she grew up with the proverbial silver spoon albeit in the shape of an especially-constructed baby sitar. On her mother Sukanya’s insistence, her father ignored the fact that classical traditions are passed on to boys and decided to bequeath his legacy to his daughter. Today, the lessons have not stopped, wherever in the world the father and daughter may be.

I am at their New Delhi home, a large almost fortress-like structure made of pinkish stone, embellished with carved jalis and spread over with rambling terraces. Birdsong is in the air and we spot a peacock poised on an intricate railing. There are large practice and meeting rooms and a small auditorium, for this serves also as the Ravi Shankar Institute for Music and Performing Arts (RIMPA). The walls of the practice room are encrusted with photographs of Anoushka, half-sister Norah Jones and Ravi Shankar with celebrity friends, including a large portrait with former Beatle, George Harrison. “George Harrison was like an uncle. He was my dad’s best friend,” Anoushka tells me later. Concerts in his memory are held in the inner courtyard, on his birthday, every year. Anoushka occupies one red and orange walled section of this large complex. Her space is cluttered typically with books (Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet to Krishnamurti’s The Book of Life), DVDs (I spot Conrad Rooks’ controversial Siddhartha) and the other paraphernalia of the young and curious. Sitars are strewn with much-travelled ‘Fragile’ stickers.

She inhabits her space with a joyful vivacity, looking today like the proverbial girl next door, with glasses on and in a casual cotton shift as she pads around barefoot. The large curlers in her hair only add to her deceptively vulnerable appeal. She is Quixotic in her moods and appearance. Sometimes, she is 20-something-going-on-12, at others, sounds wiser than her years. She has certainly matured since the last time we spent with her, five years ago. Thinner, her face more angular, she seems to have acquired a sense of destiny not perceived earlier. Her laughter is infectious and loud and she is childlike in her excitement at the summer dresses laid out on the bed. Later, she twirls and spins in Gauri and Nainika, Pankaj and Nidhi, Tarun Tahiliani and Anupama Dayal, bubbly as a flute of sparkling champagne.

In her late 20s, Anoushka is ricocheting through life. She is essentially the modern traveller, shuttling between continents,  experimenting with global music. This is how she has always lived. Training as a child, her first public appearance was at 13, at her father’s 75th birthday performance. She was awarded her first record contract at 16 and was nominated for a Grammy in 2003 and again in 2005 and has five albums – Anoushka (1998), Anourag (2000), Live At Carnegie Hall (2001), Rise (2005) and Breathing Under Water (2007) under her belt. At 17, she became the youngest recipient of the British House of Commons Shield. She has had a National Award nomination for best supporting actress in her only film role in Dance Like A Man. And she has been touring since 1995, with few breaks.

Our chat is interrupted by the appearance of a large bouquet of pink carnations, an homage to her music. She looks at the card puzzled while the flowers are expertly whizzed away, reappearing in a glass vase. In Delhi, in 2006, she had played at a benefit jazz concert with Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.  She has played with classical violinist Joshua Bell as also with composer Philip Glass. At the recent A Billion Hands Concert, a benefit for victims of Mumbai’s terror attacks, Anoushka once again revealed her experimental side, jamming with rock legends Jethro Tull. Rock aficionados were left amazed at her dexterity. “I love situations like this,” she says. “I just added myself into their music.” Do her collaborations, effect her pure classicism? “I would say no,” she is firm. “Would wearing Western clothes make you less Indian? For the most part, rather than leaving Indian classical music, I am drawing from it. I am looking at new ways to play it. It keeps me fresh and learning.”

All her collaborations with western and Indian musicians, could not have prepared fans for her 2007 album with recording artist Karsh Kale. Featuring special guests Ravi Shankar, Sting, Norah Jones, Shankar Mahadevan, Sunidhi Chauhan, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the Midival Punditz and other musicians, Breathing Under Water, blends Indian classical with electronica, folk, rock and dance. Anoushka’s sitar magically loops through a gamut of musical genre. “This came from a very personal space,” she says, recalling that before her album Rise, she was more of an instrumentalist, composing merely on a minor level. “But, with Rise, all this stuff started coming out and I became very fascinated with that. To present Indian classical music so that it does not lose its essence but is offered in a different context.” Electronic sound became inherent: “As a young woman, I went out with friends and listened to that music,” she says. “It became a big part of my life. Karsh and the Midival Punditz form my circle of close friends. The music happened very naturally and organically. ‘Collabs’ do have their benefits. It gave us the confidence to try new things, we had a lot of fun and it was exactly what we wanted to do; very liberating actually.”

Composing, for her, was a matter of “dive, sink or swim” since, “It’s all in my head and just started to flow.” She is expansive of the things that impact her. “I do not subscribe to the pain cliché,” she admits. (How could she?) “I am influenced by things that effect me deeply on an emotional level or on a fiery level. By someone who may touch my emotions. By people creating beautiful things.” And by the fact that she has spent her entire life on the move, travelling from home to home, between concert halls and studios worldwide.

The twang in her voice places her in a context distant from this Delhi room, which while tranquil is steeped with an air of transition. “Travel has been intrinsic to my life,” admits this world musician. “I am very global and that impacts my music hugely. There is a constant searching for roots, which becomes very important. Looking back at your roots can leave you either confused or more individualistic. You become a product of many things and yet you are not any of those things. And there are the wider array of influences to draw from – street musicians from Barcelona, beats from Brazil….”

To quote Breathing Under Water colla–borator, Karsh Kale: “Travel is one thing that is very common to the music – Anoushka’s and mine. It’s that feeling of being in-between places, of always moving. That’s how we made the album – going from Delhi to New York to California and Mumbai, back to Delhi…. Travel inspires a lot of songs and a lot of these songs are literally about being a traveller at sea.” While the album has been described as a ‘modern gypsy travalogue through the alluring world of Shankar and Kale’, on its credits, Anoushka thanks her ‘global family: the Delhi swingers and Goan coconuts, the Los Angeles rain stoppers, the London dance floor and garden fairies, the Encinitas coffee-drinkers and New York mishmash….’ Her music proclaiming her a creature of the universe, drawing inspiration from it.

One of the guest artists on the album is half-sister and multiple  Grammy winner, Norah Jones. Their song, Easy, is the first the talented duo have recorded together. Sitar and jazz blend in a soft lilt, neither overpowering the other. “I just asked her straight-off, hey, would you like to do this and she said yes immediately. In one day we flushed out the song. I had the melody in my head but it was a co-write by the end of it.” For fans who hope to hear more of the sisters together, it would seem that there will be a longer wait. At this moment, however, the unconcerned musician is intent on ordering a chocolate nut sundae, “Extra nuts, extra fudge!” And, to my amazed look, “I don’t eat very much but I eat what I like.” Photographer, Colston Julian, a friend and not a Delhi dweller, is lost and late but she remains cheerful. No tantrums, no sulks, this young woman is a lady!

In 2006, the spunky sitar player formed The Anoushka Shankar Project (a band that has been touring with her to Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand), in order to maintain a clear distinction between her experimental work and her classical Indian concerts. “Post the Rise tour, I realised that my career was going in two directions – as a classical musician and as a composer presenting her music. This is to put forward my experimental side. The mix of musical styles has been very well received but we stay sensitive about the various genres not being messed with and yet sounding fresh. The word ‘fusion’ worries her since “any trends are dangerous. On the musical level, you have to know the rules to break them. There is a danger of bracketing all the different people doing different things in the same fusion bracket.”

This may be key to Anoushka’s music and personality – knowing the rules well enough to break them. Musically, this is not new simply because her father was the first to do so. His collaboration with the late George Harrison and violinist Yehudi Menuhin bear witness to this. “My father has become really confident about my music in the last few years. He is not worried that I am leaving my classical tradition. After all, he was always pushing new boundaries himself. The way he has been able to balance the two is really special.”

Her style and presence on stage are her very own. Her earnest–ness comes through even as she moves her shoulders seductively, her fingers flying with her intricate stringwork. You would not guess at her two tattoos, on her back and more recently on her neck. She is experimental in all that she does. Make-up artist, Anu Kaushik discovers her intent on straightening her hair for a different look. However, she agrees pleasantly when we coax her back to her trademark mane of curls. On the stairway, I bump into her darzee, holding a half-stitched outfit. “My concert clothes are for the most part Indian but not overtly Indian. I keep the cut simple, the silhouette inspired by a Vietnamese or Chinese shape, in stunning fabrics and colours.” As for her personal style, “I have a lot of dresses, I should never be allowed to wear a dress again.” Amongst Indian designers, “I like Ritu Kumar and Label, Tarun Tahiliani… and I have recently fallen in love with dresses from Cue.”  You will also see her in high-street brands like Free People, Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie which appeal to her quirky side.

“I am kind of late to come to trends. I like to find ways to make things my own. Fashion is supposed to be fun. It is dictated by my mood on any given day – am I feeling sexy and confident…sweet and playful? It is a game.” Accessories are not a big thing though she loves her collection of Rolex watches, for which she is brand ambassador. Keeping to two endorsements, “I am so music oriented, I find the whole concept strange. There are some faces that you just see everywhere and I land up feeling sick of them even though I may like them.”

Anoushka agreeably signs autographs, writing with her left hand, holding the book almost upside down. With that one film behind her, she would love to act in another. As for Bollywood, “I am semi-desirous of doing it. But, there is so much focus in our country on film: it is a little intimidating since it is not the main thing that I do. I am close to signing something, I want to do it and it makes me nervous as well.” By all accounts, she is considering a film with actor Rahul Bose which will be based on the Internet, a little-explored theme in Hindi cinema. She is excited by the prospect of composing for film but was unable to accept offers from Bollywood and Hollywood for want of dates, being booked two years in advance for music tours. As for A. R. Rahman and his Oscar run:  “He is a total genius, no question about it. But I hate people feeling that now he is in any way better than before.”

Careful about using her celebrity, “There is no end to what we should all be doing,” she ponders. She works with the UN’s World Food Programme as well as PETA especially with anti-zoo campaigns. She recently had a benefit concert for children with hole-in-heart disease.” And as for her personal life, turns out, there is a Mr Right waiting in the wings. Delhi’s Nishant Peralta and she have been together for a while now. “I do want a family life, but, I would never have a normal family life. I would want to navigate and learn how to juggle rather than giving up music.” Does her beau follow her around the globe? “No. I don’t think that I would want a man to follow me around…. Well, maybe, a little bit. Long distance sucks but it’s OK. Nothing beats real face time and real voice time.”

With the year ahead charted out, recording in the summer and touring through the autumn, Anoushka is on a much-needed break. And even as she quick-changes into a black dress with embroidered bodice and tumbles into a waiting white Ambassador, I wonder what her legacy will eventually be. How much longer will we have to wait for ‘vintage Anoushka Shankar’? And what will that entail?

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