Composer and sitarist Anoushka Shankar is among the most recognised Indian classical musicians.
Since she began playing the instrument from a young age under the tutelage of her father, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, Anoushka has become a master in her own right, releasing eight studio albums and garnering six Grammy nominations, as well as a British House of Commons Shield and a Songlines Best Artist award.
She was also named an Asian hero by Time magazine and was one of the first five female composers to be added to the UK A-level music syllabus. Her latest album, Land of Gold, is a bold statement on the refugee crisis.
Anoushka spoke to Eastern Eye from her home in California.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’ve just finished a classical tour and I’m still touring my album Land of Gold on and off throughout the year. The main project I have coming up is that I’ve just been commissioned to write the score for the BFI’s main restoration film this year; it’s a silent film from India called Shiraz from the 1920s. The premiere performance will be at the Barbican in October.
You’ve worked with quite a few different artists in quite a few different genres. What is it like to do that?
It’s always been one of my favourite ways of growing and learning and also making music that represents my worldview. I grew up learning classical Indian music but I also grew up across three continents, living a very multicultural and globalised lifestyle, so it made sense to make music that felt like who I was.
Is there anyone in particular who you’d like to work with in the future?
Björk is always my stock answer because she’s been one of my favourite artists since I was a teenager. If I ever had the opportunity to work with her, I definitely would. I’ve loved her music for 20 years. She’s an incredible role model for female artists.
You’ve worked extensively in both Britain and the US. Has the shifting political landscape in those countries affected your music or your personal life?
Both, yes. My last album was written in response to the refugee crisis and it’s given me an opportunity to tour around the world and talk about something that’s so incredibly urgent and important, while also connecting with people from an artistic viewpoint about it, which sometimes can reach people in a different way.
As you say, I’m from London, I live in Europe – at least for now – and I’m an American and an Indian as well. Everything that’s happened this past year, while it affects us all, I feel that it affects me on a personal level. It still remains to be seen what is going to happen as far as details go with Brexit. I’m a touring musician and I work with people from around the world, so there’s no doubt that it’s going to have a huge impact on the way I work and probably the content as well.
While touring the US, has there been any noticeable change?
It’s been interesting, I almost felt so trepidatious before coming here (to America), but in some ways I was almost surprised that life is kind of continuing on, and of course it would be. I’ve had a successful tour and played some lovely concerts for some lovely people, and that isn’t so different than it was a year ago. It kind of gave me a bit of hope that maybe the world is not ending.
Do you feel that Americans and Europeans react any differently to your music compared to Indian audiences?
I get asked that a lot, and it’s hard to pinpoint the correct answer. Because I do so many different kinds of things – in the past few months alone I’ve come to America to play at the Lincoln Centre and Disney Hall with an orchestra and I’ve come with my own projects as well – as well as playing in many different kinds of venues to different kinds of audiences, I feel like that makes more of a difference than what country you’re in.
An opera house audience in England is similar to an opera house audience in any other country. Playing in a little jazz club in one country is the same as playing in a little jazz club in another country. But playing an opera house and a jazz club in the same city can feel like universes apart, as far as the type of audience and the music they’re looking for.
I feel like one does find an incredibly sophisticated audience for something like Indian classical music whether you’re in New York or Chicago or Paris. It’s a wrong assumption to think that one has to play in India to get an audience that knows that music.
Can you tell us about Sukanya, the opera that you’re working on?
It’s my father’s opera, he wasn’t able to finish it before he passed away. The conductor, David Murphy, has been the one who is mainly working to complete it. I’ve been helping him in an advisory role when it comes to some of the Indian elements and aspects. That’s been really fascinating because opera and Indian music have never really come together before in this way. It kind of makes me laugh that my dad, even at the age of 90, was still coming up with new areas to create bridges. That’s going to have a big premiere this month, so I’m looking forward to that.
Some people have the view that opera is somewhat elitist. Do you feel that Sukanya, as it has your and your father’s names attached to it, is exposing opera to a new or younger audience?
My experience is that exposure to an art form creates an understanding and an intimacy with that art form; it’s that simple. If children grow up listening to classical music, then classical music doesn’t feel foreign or elitist to them. I think there’s a lot to be said for countries where schools still teach music and dance, and the kind of things that can normalise the kind of stuff a lot of people don’t have access to.
Do you have a specific audience in mind when you’re writing music or is it a more personal process for you?
I write from a personal viewpoint. My attempts at writing music for a specific audience don’t work as well as when I write from a place of truth. I feel that as an artist, if you write from a place of truth, there will be an audience for that. We don’t necessarily have control over who that audience will be or how big it will be, unfortunately. People respond to truth in art, it has to come from the soul in order to move people, so as much as possible I try to come from an internal place.
“People respond to truth in art, it has to come from the soul in order to move people…”
The things I do to be mindful of connecting to people is more about presentation and communication. When I do a show, especially a classical show, I’m a little different than a lot of the classical artists out there; I’ve always made it a point to be very comfortable on stage and show people that we’re having fun and to laugh if we’re laughing and share jokes, and not create that really sterile and formal atmosphere that can sometimes be a part of that world. I feel that it invites the audience to relax as well. I’ve heard people say I perform as if I’m in my living room, and I try to approach it that way as well. That can make a huge difference with music that some people might be a little afraid of or are not sure how to approach.
Can you share your Riyaz practice routine for us?
It really depends, right now I’ve just finished an intensive tour and performed 14 shows in the past 16 days, so I probably will very happily not play for a week to 10 days. For me, that’s actually an important part of the process.
I have two very different ways of practising. One is very much about warm-ups and scales and strengthening exercises, and there’s something very calming and meditative about that for me because I’ve done that my whole life. Then there’s another more creative way of practising, which is more like playing than practising. It’s just about sitting in a room and playing a melody to immerse myself in music.
What have you been listening to in your free time?
When I’m busy, I listen to very relaxing music. I’ve been going through a big piano phase at the moment, and then I’m really into some of the new wave classical minimalism, especially when it crosses over into electronic a bit. Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, that kind of really vibey, trancey, meta stuff. Other than that a lot of world music, like Imarhan and Tinariwen. It’s pretty eclectic but when I’m very busy it definitely tones down because it helps me relax.
Is that a conscious choice, to keep your tastes eclectic and find new artists?
Occasionally, but I’ve always been drawn to that. I hit a saturation point with each individual sound and style at some point, and having that kind of broad musical taste keeps things fresh. I just love music, so it blows me away the amount of styles and forms of music there are and how incredible they can all be.
Do you think of your legacy?
I grew up around so many masters, my father probably being the greatest example of that, so the concept of legacy has been around my whole life, but certainly not in context of myself. I know that I’m in my 30s now but I tend to think of legacy in terms of the people I grew up around. Maybe in 10 or 20 years I’ll start thinking of what I want to have left in the world, but I’m not quite there yet, I’m still seeking and moving forward, learning and growing.
How important is recognition to you?
It’s a mixed bag because I grew up with so much recognition, almost before I had earned it for myself. That can be an odd feeling, like I started out with something to prove, to prove that I deserve something that I had just been given. That can feel somewhat uncomfortable. When I work I put my sweat, blood and tears into it; when something I have worked really hard on and is really special to me gets a response and resonates.
“a person telling me that my music has meant something to them, that kind of recognition is mind-blowing.”
Recognition is such an intangible concept that it’s so hard to give a single answer. When it’s a person telling me that my music has meant something to them, that kind of recognition is mind-blowing.
Do you pay much attention to critics?
I wish I could say I don’t. I try not to, but I do. If I have a new album I’ll fall into temptation and read my own reviews. There might be eight that make me feel really good and then two that will make me wish that I hadn’t started reading in the first place.
If it is criticism of the constructive variety – there have been a few reviews over the years that have come from very knowledgeable reviewers, I take some of that criticism on board. But that’s very rare in the grand scheme of music criticism these days.
Do you play any instruments in your free time aside from sitar?
Not really. I learned piano as a teenager and sometimes in the studio that can come in handy as an aid when composing or writing. But I don’t play anything else to the level of playing in front of anyone. Very occasionally, if there’s something in the studio that needs to get padded out I can do that on a drum, but I would never record myself, I would get someone else in to do it.
Do you have a routine that you like to perform before going on stage?
I can be quite ritualistic about that time before stage. It’s pretty relaxed but also focused. Even the act of putting make-up on is 20 minutes by myself away from the band and just thinking about the show and getting kind of quiet. There are some stretches I do too. Sometimes I’ll listen to music and sometimes I prefer the quiet. I like a mix of having a bit of social time with my band and then going off on my own.
What is your favourite venue to perform at?
There are a few; I love the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Barbican, and although I haven’t done a solo gig there, the Roundhouse. On a classical scale, the Chicago Symphony Hall is one of my favourites. I love Joe’s Pub in New York in terms of more intimate, jazzy venues. There are a lot of amazing venues out there.
What about festivals?
The real magic happens when you’re outdoors. My favourite festival ever was in 2013 when I played Boom Festival in Portugal. I listened to a lot of psytrance growing up, it was a big part of my life and I had been to that festival a few times as a punter. There was something about going back there with my music.
There were 30,000 people there all dancing to my music with the full moon rising in the sky, and it just felt like one of those really magical moments of confluence where all these different threads of my life were coming together.
You’re performing one of your father’s compositions at the Proms. How do you approach playing someone else’s music, particularly your father’s?
Maybe a classical violinist would have grown up playing lots of people’s compositions, whereas for me, in Indian classical music it’s not so common to play other people’s compositions. But I learned from my father, I grew up playing his compositions almost exclusively until I started composing for myself. So playing his music is something that is very natural for me. It’s the music I learnt, it’s music that I feel like I have a relationship with.
“playing his music is very natural for me… it’s music that I feel like I have a relationship with.”
It’s been an interesting journey in the years since he passed away because something has obviously changed about playing his music now. I don’t do it as much as I used to, so now when I go back and play his music there’s something very magical about it. It brings something to life for me, I’m engaging with something that was created by my father. It’s just a very beautiful experience.
Do you have any advice for any younger classical musicians?
Playing a classical music form is hard, there’s no escaping that it takes dedication and focus. But it also takes not losing sight of why you’re doing it in the first place, not to get lost in that seriousness and to keep in contact with that love and the fun of it as well. There’s a piece of magic that comes from that that gets lost otherwise. To have a good teacher is pretty essential in our classical music especially, because it’s not a written down form, you really need to get the best teacher you can find.
What do you see as the future of Indian music, given the dominance today of film music in popular culture?
There’s been such a marriage of the corporate world and the artistic world, nothing seems to be able to happen without sponsorship and corporate involvement. It’s great that it’s helped finance stuff that has no room otherwise, because of the way the media only sort of focuses on film music. But that also doesn’t bode well for artistic creativity and freedom because everything ends up having a commercial angle. I can find that a little disheartening at times. I just hope it all goes well.
Do you feel like you’ve been able to work outside of that system given who your father was?
Yes and no. I’ve had the fortune of being able to create a very strong platform for myself based on that foundation, so I’ve been able to have certain artistic choices throughout my career where I can say no to a lot of things. Because I work on a sort of international scale, I can work elsewhere if one place is too corporate-heavy and I feel like I don’t want to sell myself.
But then again I’m not outside the system when the system is operating in an area I want to work in. India is an important country to me and I like playing in India. When I go there, with each passing year the scene kind of changes and that affects me too.
From your perspective, how has it changed in the past decade or so?
Some of the changes are good. There is the younger group of my peers and people maybe 10 years younger who have grown up in the 1990s and have been exposed to a more international artistic output; they’ve created a really beautiful change on the modern side of India, where they wanted to have access to the music they love.
There’s kind of a whole scene that is a lot more open and a lot more varied, and that’s fantastic.
As told to Drew McLachlan