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G2: All you need is love (and sitars): The sitar is her passion but family comes first for Anoushka Shankar. She tells Laura Barnett about losing her father, meeting her film-maker husband, and why she's taking her three-year-old son on tour

May 20, 2014



When Ravi Shankar - the sitar maestro, friend of George Harrison and the world's best-known Indian classical musician - died on 11 December 2012, his daughter Anoushka was halfway through recording an album. A month later, she was back in the studio with her half-sister, Norah Jones, laying down three songs for Traces of You, Shankar's seventh record, and inevitably, given its timing, her most personal so far.

"We'd written some of the material before," Shankar says, curled on a huge armchair in her London living room, "but yes, the recording came quite close [to our father's death]. Making the

music was cathartic, but promoting the album was traumatic. I was talking so much about him, I'd go home and feel raw." She looks pointedly at me. "After a while, it was just like, 'I can't do this for you guys any more.'"

More than a year later, Shankar is ready to talk about her father again. And it is impossible, in discussing her music, not to feel his shadow: it was Raviji, as Shankar Sr was affectionately known, who began teaching his daughter to play the sitar as a child, on a miniature instrument he had specially made for her.

She was a reluctant student at first - the sitar is a fiendishly difficult instrument to master - but she persevered, and so began a relationship that went beyond that of father and daughter to become that of guru and pupil. They performed together regularly from Shankar's early teens until shortly before her father's death.

But Shankar is a good deal more than just a great man's daughter. Now 32, she is one of the best sitar players in the world; if not, now that her father has passed away, the best. Her seven albums - from 1998's Anoushka, made when she was 17, to last year's Traces of You - run the gamut from pure classical sitar to an eclectic, globalised sound, drawing on everything from flamenco to electronica. That reflects Shankar's restless upbringing: she was born in London, and has since lived between California and India.

This month, Shankar is headlining Alchemy, the annual festival of south Asian arts at the Southbank Centre, with a solo concert at the Royal Festival Hall. It is, she says, a great chance to explore her own relationship with her home city. "Alchemy is one of the good quote-unquote south-Asian experiences," she says, "in that it has a wide variety of classical to experimental

music. And it has a strong bent towards London-oriented south Asians. That was something I wanted to be a part of - I suppose because I'd moved back here myself a few years ago."

It was love that prompted Shankar to move back to London. In 2009, she met the film director Joe Wright at a dinner in Delhi, where he was

researching a film called Indian

Summer, about the last days of the British Raj. The film came to nothing, but Wright and Shankar fell in love, married the following year, and had a son, Zubin, now three.

Last September, they bought the house we are now sitting in - a former hay-barn in east London, once the artist Sam Taylor-Johnson's studio. Paintings and photographs now line the exposed-brick walls; Zubin's toys are neatly tucked away (Shankar has balanced my cup of tea on her son's miniature cajon drum); and from a hook dangles a spooky-looking marionette (Wright's parents run the Little Angel puppet theatre in nearby Islington).

"Love is a huge influence," she says of her family's influence on her creativity. "Love and the joy and the pain that come with that. I have a lighter touch with my music now. Music is my passion, it's my fun - but what's really important are the people I build a family with. That comes first."

She is used to fielding a higher degree of interest in her family life than most classical musicians. Shankar's early life was famously unconventional: she was raised in Willesden Green by her mother, Sukanya, and saw little of her father until she was seven, when her parents decided to marry. She didn't meet her half-sister, Norah, until she was 16. But it was all a lot less fraught, Shankar says now with a wry smile, than many have tried to imply. "We've always been very close - it just took a long time for the world to figure that out."

It is a remarkable story: two sisters growing up thousands of miles apart, each developing her own very different musical style. Jones's languid vocals have made her a lounge-jazz star, while Shankar remains firmly rooted in the Indian classical tradition. It is one of the world's most complex musical forms, and one whose purity her father sought fervently to preserve, while also helping her to find her own musical path.

"There was no cutting corners," Shankar says. "But what was amazing about him was that within all that classicism and purity, he found a route to being really creative."

The musician Nitin Sawhney - a close friend of Shankar's, who produced Traces of You and is godfather to Zubin - sees the same duality in Shankar herself. "She has incredible technique and knowledge of classical music," he says. "But at the same time, like her father, she's also very

interested in pushing boundaries,

and experimenting."

Shankar hasn't only pushed boundaries with the music she writes: she has also pretty much singlehandedly originated the idea that a woman can play the sitar, traditionally a male preserve in India, to professional standard. Increasing numbers of women in India are learning sitar, she says - she receives many letters from them - but she is still one of only a handful of professional female players.

She insists, however, that she has never thought of herself as a pioneer. "My parents were very unusual," she says. "They were pro-women and independence and they wanted me to have my own career. And because of my lineage, every door was opened for me. Coming from somewhere else, I'm sure it would have been harder."

Shankar defines herself as a feminist: as a teenager in San Diego, she joined a feminist group, and she's pleased that the term has, in her view, passed back into acceptability. "In the last 10 years, I thought, 'What's happening? Why are all these young girls saying, "I'm not a feminist", as if that's something really scary?'" she says. "I feel like now, we're seeing the light again."

In February 2013, Shankar struck a direct blow for feminism: she recorded a video for the One Billion Rising campaign in which she said she had been sexually abused as a child by a man "my parents trusted". She did it, she tells me, because she felt she had a role to play as an Indian woman in lifting the veil of silence that surrounds sexual violence. "I think it meant a lot to have someone known step out and say it had happened to them, because that's not normal in India. People don't talk about it. My story had never been relevant to my life in music before. But then, I just felt, 'Hang on, no - I really want to step up.'"

Now Shankar is getting to grips with the practical difficulties of combining motherhood with touring: her Festival Hall date is one stop on a European tour, on which Zubin will accompany her as much as possible. "I always had musicians in my band having children," she says drily, "and their wives were the ones at home taking care of the kids. So I never thought much of it. And then suddenly I'm the parent, but I'm the woman, and it's like, 'Ah, what happens now?'"

Then, in September, she's curating a series of concerts at London's Globe theatre in honour of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali polymath and her father's hero. By then, Shankar hopes the recording studio she and Wright are having built in their basement will be finished, so that she can make a start on her next album.

As for what it will sound like - well, we'll just have to wait and see. "I never quite know where I'm going next," Shankar says with a broad smile. "I don't know if that's a bad thing, but that's how it always is for me."

Anoushka Shankar plays the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, on 23 May; and with Soumik Datta and Nitin Sawhney, tonight, as part of the Alchemy festival. Details: southbankcentre.co.uk. Traces of You is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.

Captions:

'Every door was opened for me' . . . (clockwise from left) Anoushka Shankar at home, performing with her father, and playing solo


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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