When someone starts a conversation with that, you can either be jealous or in awe. Anoushka Shankar is music royalty, but she actively makes it a point to chisel her own identity, rather than live in her father’s resplendent shadow.
“I’ve never made music that’s conducive to cute little definitions or quick marketing tags, and I’m afraid, or proud, depending on the context, that that’s still the case now.” Anoushka Shankar is a well-spoken, beautiful and talented woman. Born into (arguably) Indian classical music’s first family and having been in the company of the greatest musicians in the world from a very tender age, it is heartening to see Shankar pool all her global influences into her music. “The sitar is always central to my music, and on my latest album, Land of Gold, I’ve tried to really push the boundaries around what we expect of the sitar and the context we are used to hearing it in.” She has been trying to experiment, create new sounds, collaborate with interesting musicians from around the world and is the only sitarist actively working outside India, just like her father was. What inspires her to make music? “I’m inspired by life and by events that make me feel intensely. They could be personal life events or things happening in the world at large. But something that brings me to tears, fills me with outrage, or makes my heart break with beauty will also generally lead me towards writing some music. There is a catharsis and a healing to being able to take pain and make something beautiful out of it.” But many in India feel that she should have remained a purely Hindustani classical performer. As the veterans, especially instrumentalists, are slowly twilighting, the need for the younger generation to keep the art alive is crucial and impending. “Well, I’m not purely Hindustani classical by nature,” says Shankar. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the music I started with, and I am still active as a classical sitar performer, but, look at me. I grew up across three continents, always listened to all forms of music, partied really hard in my teenage years and my twenties – in ways I couldn’t possibly have let the classical world know fully about – and still live a very multicultural life in London. Art, if made from the very deepest part of a person, will be a reflection of their soul, of their essence.”
What personally irritates me is that the Indian classical music space is still dominated by men, more so in the instrumental and percussion space. I can’t help but ask Shankar why that is still the case. She makes some very pertinent arguments. “To make a living as a musician, it’s necessary to either be the rare species that sells enough records to make money off them, or to tour extensively in order to make money from concerts,” she explains. “It’s hard enough for any woman to do that, but in India, imagine the complications. How many families invest in training their daughters in the arts beyond the level adequate to pass a marriage audition? If she’s not from a privileged or influential background, how can she guarantee her safety travelling from one city to another? What husband or mother-in-law will chip in with extra childcare to facilitate her going away on long trips? Society, as a whole, isn’t set up to support women doing the same careers as men in general, let alone in the arts.” All valid points, actually. “I’d love to be a man for a day,” she quietly says. “It’s so funny to me that we are all human beings and yet have such different physical experiences when it comes to certain things. It would be fascinating to find out what it feels like in a male body. However,” she adds, “It’s interesting to note that one finds many more female performers, even on instruments and percussion, in Carnatic music than in Hindustani music. I really don’t know why the South seems more egalitarian in that way. I’ve asked several South Indian musicians, but no one seems to be able to explain it.”
For those who don’t know, Shankar is married to film-maker Joe Wright and does have quite a domesticated set up in London with him and two kids. Wright has of course become quite the toast of film circles, with a commendable filmography like Atonement, Anna Karenina and Pan. How intense a space is that to be in? “On the one hand, it’s very lighthearted. As artists we are creative and silly people, so we have a good laugh together as a couple, and there are lots of goofy family dance parties with the kids rocking out before breakfast,” Shankar laughs, sounding like a typical suburban mom. “On the other hand, it gets very intense. Neither of us work regular hours and we often travel for work, so coordinating diaries and childcare requires actual scheduled meetings between us. Being in two different fields of art, we support and inspire each other, and bring a rich variety of fascinating people home to our intimate dinner parties. We definitely grow as a result of the cross pollination.” Do they get to spend enough time together, just the two of them? “Joe and I try to get away for a weekend alone together two to three times a year. I find this the most romantic thing to do. We go to beautiful places and explore, eat well, sleep well, and find the time to deeply reconnect. It’s a luxury, but one that feels essential, as we have small kids and are also away from each other fairly often.” And is he planning to direct her in a film soon? “We don’t have plans for that,” she squeals. “We got to know each other at a time when Joe was developing a film set in India and had chosen me for a supporting role, however, unfortunately it didn’t end up getting made. I was frankly relieved though, as the prospect of being in a big film terrified me.”
This month, Shankar is performing at NH7 Weekender and is also touring India with her new album, Land of Gold. That’s a double whammy for Indians who rarely get to watch her live. “I love how NH7 has influenced the music culture in India. As someone who enjoys playing for very different audience types from all age and listening demographics, I look forward to playing at NH7 because I get to share my work with a younger and more open-minded crowd than I may be able to in a concert hall.” And what does Anoushka Shankar do when she is not doing anything? “I love going out dancing. It’s a great way to release, and get out of my head and back into my body. Also, it’s always been important to me to listen to a wide range of music. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, but I look for the truth of an artist’s heart in their music, and that is what I relate to. I can hear when something is manufactured as a crowdpleaser versus made with genuine passion. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard or mellow, classical or not, that truth is what I look for.”
We are rounding up the interview and I ask her that is the best piece of advice she’s ever received. “George Harrison, whom I was very close to, told me a story when I was fifteen. It was about two frogs. He said they both fell into a pot of milk, and one of the frogs, a pessimist, gave up straight away and drowned. The other frog kept trying to jump out, even though he failed again and again. He tried for so long that eventually all his jumping and swimming churned the milk to butter, and he was able to jump neatly away. I don’t always believe there’s going to be a happy ending to every event in my life. However, I act as if there might be, as without that shred of hope I wouldn’t keep on trying, and a sad ending would therefore become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”