Anoushka Shankar’s music is not relaxing at all — at least not for her. “My own music will get me thinking too much, so I can’t relax to that,” she says in an interview with Gulf News tabloid! ahead of her December 20 show in Dubai.
The sitarist, composer and producer will be performing her set from album ‘Reflections’, which borrows from a compilation track that came out earlier this year, at Dubai Opera.
“It’s basically an especially curated show of some of my favourite pieces over the years. Which are kind [of] things that really showcase a really lovely cross-cultural space — between the Indian classical and other forms of music. And we also incorporate for about half the show a specially put together suite of my soundtrack for the 1928 silent film called ‘Shiraz’,” she says.
It’s a show that spans a large bandwidth of musical time. Shankar has been performing since the age of nine; she began under the tutelage of her father, the late Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. There’s a famous story about how she was introduced to her first instrument — an especially made half-sitar.
“They called me in from the garden to have a look at the sitar and I kind of looked at it, said, ‘yeah, great’, and then went running back out. It was kind of exciting, but it was also not. It was a young response, really,” she recalls.
Still, it all worked out. At 13, she made her professional debut. And while this made waves in listening circles, for her, the love of tune creation came slowly.
“I think that [the love of performing] was actually really gradual. It was kind of a process over the years of playing, because I loved the music from the beginning and, uh, had always loved listening to it and being around it,” Shankar says.
But it isn’t a blindly-follow-the-path-laid-before-you kind of fate that led her to her six Grammy nominations. Before immersing herself in playing, Shankar tried out many hats. She stopped making albums in her early 20s, focusing instead on other endeavours. She wrote her father’s biography, ‘Bapi: The Love of My Life’; became a regular columnist for New Delhi’s ‘First City’ magazine and the daily ‘The Hindustan Times’. She acted in Pamela Rooks’ ‘Dance Like a Man’, for which she was nominated for India’s prestigious National Award for Best Debut.
Yet, at the end of all this, in 2005, at age 24, she found herself back at the studio, playing music once more. The result was ‘Rise’, which earned her a second Grammy nomination. (Her first was for her recording Live at Carnegie Hall’.)
The now 38-year-old’s fame is tinged with social activism, with a focus on women’s empowerment. She does not shy away from necessary — if slightly unconventional — conversation. In 2011, when India was reeling from the response to the gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi, Shankar backed the campaign One Billion Rising on Change.org. She has also been known to speak out for refugees, gender equality and against human trafficking.
The most recent discussion she sparked was about identity and how she struggled with hers after a hysterectomy. In an emotional post, she explained: “The news [of the operation due to fibroids and other issues] triggered fears about my womanliness, my possible desire to have more children in the future, the fear of dying in surgery and leaving my kids without a mother, the effect the changes may have on my sex life and more.”
She also spoke about the lack of conversation about the surgery, after realising it wasn’t as uncommon as she first thought.
“I just kind of realised in society we are taught in that way and just the fact that I was finding out how common the surgery is, I should have known about people having it. It didn’t add up. And so I just had kind of a gut feeling that that meant that it’s the kind of thing that people feel embarrassed to talk about. And that doesn’t strike me as right and you know… and I guess my gut feeling was right because it’s got such a good reaction; it touched a nerve. People got back to me with their own experiences, so that’s good,” she explains.
Another conversation she doesn’t shy away from — even though it elicits a huge sigh — is the one about Brexit. Shankar, who has travelled the world extensively and can trace her roots back to India, UK and the US, calls London home. It’s where she lives with her children that she shares with ex-husband Joseph Wright — eight-year-old Zubin and four-year-old Mohan. It’s where she’s lived for over a decade. She calls the leave European Union movement “shambles”. She adds: “It’s a disaster and it’s embarrassing, and it’s depressing.”
“I can’t talk about Brexit from an economic standpoint — I’m not an economist,” Shankar explains. “But what I do see is the approach and the effect it’s had culturally, it’s really scary and it’s not good. I find the whole thing really upsetting.”
Still, she hasn’t given up on human connections — or being inspired by the world.
“You know even when things are terrible the way people can transcend, and find beauty in art and love and relationships and just in the power of nature and the planet. Just kind of the natural and fruitful things really, when everything feels like it’s going down, turning to that is really important to me,” she says.
In 2020, the artist is all set to engage audiences with special performances commemorating the centenary of her father Ravi Shankar’s birth.
Considering her own induction into the music scene, we asked if she was thinking of a similar path for her kids. “I don’t intend to force them into going into music, but if it turns out that they are interested then absolutely I’ll do what I can to help them with that,” says Shankar.
For now though, she’s fine-tuning her own notes for her December run at the Opera.
Don’t miss it!
Tickets to see Anoushka Shankar Live At Dubai Opera start at Dh200 and are available online.