From London to Delhi, Anoushka Shankar has drawn upon her duality to redefine the classicism of the sitar. Now, set to perform at Dubai Opera, she tells Ben East why this is some of her most emotionally charged music to date.
The birth of a child is a defining moment in anyone’s life – but amid the joy, relief and sense of hope, there’s also time for reflection. Sitar player Anoushka Shankar’s brief moment of contemplation on the arrival of her second son early last year, however, was juxtaposed with heartbreaking images of boats adrift on the Mediterranean, full of families fleeing Syria. It became the starting point for a new album that explores the refugee crisis through Shankar’s inimitable music.
“The horrific contrast between the safety of my own baby and the footage of other children fleeing home in the hope of safety was too much to bear,” she says. “So Land Of Gold became an album where I tried to make sense of things I don’t understand in the world.”
The album, which conveys its emotions and stories through the sheer act of Shankar’s virtuoso playing, rather than proselytising listeners, is the latest offering from an artist who has been honing her craft from age 8, when first gifted a sitar.
“It’s my first musical language, really,” she says. “There is obviously so much that is beautiful, spiritual, exciting and evocative about the sitar, but it’s also simply like my best friend and an extension of my voice. The longer I play, the more the gap between myself and the instrument lessens. Experiencing this is very beautiful.”
This was very much the state of grace her late father, sitar legend Ravi Shankar, made his own. Like Anoushka, he constantly pushed boundaries, as comfortable playing a classical raga as working with The Beatles’ George Harrison. Although reticent to discuss her famous musical family (Nora Jones is her step-sister, with whom she’s collaborated before), it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Anoushka has stepped out of her father’s shadow to become the best sitar player in the world at just 35 – a statement she would be quick to dismiss, having previously described herself as “extremely ambitious and also very insecure.”
This mastery has been no mean feat, given the sitar is not only a tremendously difficult instrument to perfect but also traditionally something of a male preserve. It has helped that Anoushka hasn’t settled for pure classical sitar but instead has brought her diverse upbringing to bear on her music. She was born in Willesden Junction, a residential suburb in Northwest London, but has also lived in California and India.
“Moving back to London has opened up a whole world of music, musicians and influential art to me,” she agrees. “I have an amazing circle of friends who make incredible work in film, dance, theatre and music. I’m always going out to see performances. Everything feels accessible. It’s exciting and wonderful and I do feel I’ve made some of my best work since moving here.”
Joe helped me to leave aside technicalities in my sitar playing and to really draw from an emotional well
One important member of this circle is Shankar’s husband, Joe Wright. After meeting at a dinner in Delhi in 2009, the couple fell in love and married the next year. They now have two sons, Zubin and Mohan, and live in East London. Wright, the award-winning director of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice, had more than a passing interest in his wife’s music – he oversaw the album. Armed with the prior knowledge of his input, it’s possible to detect a certain cinematic feel. “Joe brought a real focus to the emotional storytelling of the album, even on the instrumental tracks,” says Shankar. “He helped me to leave aside technicalities in my sitar playing and to really draw from an emotional well during every recording take or composition session. It brought a lot of clarity to the album as a whole.”
Shankar also thinks Wright managed to coax a dynamic energy into the studio album – certainly it has the urgency of her live show, which she brings to Dubai Opera in October. “It’s been several years since I was in Dubai, and I’m very much looking forward to coming back,” she enthuses. “I’m especially looking forward to performing at the beautiful new opera house, it looks amazing and I’m honored to be a part of the first season.”
Cross-cultural collaboration comes naturally to Shankar, who called in hang player Manu Delago and Indian woodwind exponent Sanjeev Shankar to help out on her latest album. “Even though I was using instruments and genres from across the world, I sought to achieve a sense of cohesion,” she confirms. “I really wanted to show how well different cultures can truly work together.”
All of which feeds into Shankar’s ultimate aim: to show tragedy, but underscore it with hope that the planet might be a less divided place.
Though the records in musical history that have genuinely changed perceptions and made a difference can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand – if Land of Gold makes one person stop and think about the refugee crisis then, for Shankar, it will have done its job.
“I can’t and won’t pretend to know what people are going through,” she says. “But as an observer I can express when things feel wrong or unjust, and I can do this through my music, in the hope that it makes a difference. “Expressing my feelings has always been key to my music making.”
Of her final thoughts on Land of Gold, it is hard not to extrapolate them out to her persona – that of a woman that has succeeded in a male-dominated landscape, using only her talent.
“It’s about the injustice I was seeing around me, but expressed through a more personal lens,” she concludes. “It’s about offering a message of hope amid the bafflement.”