In Arts + Entertainment

Anoushka Shankar On How Music Trumps Politics

When Ravi Shankar died in 2012, he passed the mantle of the world’s greatest sitar player onto his daughter Anoushka.

When Ravi Shankar died in 2012, he passed the mantle of the world’s greatest sitar player onto his daughter Anoushka. She’s been studying the notoriously difficult to master instrument since she was seven years old, and began playing with him regularly as a teenager.

Her upcoming tour will take in the same three venues the pair played when they visited in 2010, and the sense of retracing their footsteps is one she’s grown used to. “I did begin as part of his band so in many, many places I go I’m revisiting rooms I’ve played with him. That can be quite beautiful – especially when I play the more classical music, I really feel that reminiscence and connection.”

As she forged a solo career, Shankar has learned to blend the classical traditions of North Indian music with new elements. She’s worked alongside a number other musicians combining traditional music with pop and electronic, and at WOMADelaide this March she’ll play alongside past collaborators like Thievery Corporation and Rodrigo y Gabriela.

Shankar Photo: Jamie-James Medina

But despite the elder Shankar’s reputation as a traditionalist, his own place in pop culture is assured through his work with George Harrison, who he referred to as “my disciple”. Between them they brought the sitar into rock music just as the psychedelic era was hitting its peak, and collaborated on a range of projects including the Concert For Bangladesh in 1971.

Organised to raise funds for millions of people displaced by civil war and floods in the newly formed country of Bangladesh, the celebrity-studded benefit concert was a forerunner of later events like Live Aid. Anoushka Shankar was not yet born when the concert took place, but that “cultural moment of music responding to current events” is finding an unexpected echo in her own work.

Shankar gave birth to her second child in February 2015, and he was six months old when she saw images of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The heartbreaking front pages around the world inspired the title track of her latest release, and Land Of Gold as a whole is a meditation on the idea of home and security created in direct response to the European refugee crisis that began in 2015.

Shankar Photo: Jamie-James Medina

Powerlessness and injustice crystalised into a determination to do something. As the political landscape moves further to each extreme, it can be difficult to find common ground to begin a constructive dialogue. But in her music Shankar found the perfect way to start a conversation.

“Music is a very interesting way to connect with people around ideas that can sometimes be challenging to talk about, especially if there are people who have different opinions. Right now we all become so polarised and it’s really hard to have these discussions and yet sometimes art and music can slip through the backdoor in a very particular way which I think is important to encourage.”

Though she’s happy to talk politics over a dinner table, Land Of Gold isn’t her attempt to formulate a plan of action. The message has resonated precisely because she’s not trying to proselytise. Instead, she’s issuing “an invitation towards empathy,” and encouraging people to examine why they feel the way they do.

Shankar Photo: Jamie-James Medina

As for whether it’s working, she admits that “playing the music does leave me with a sense of hope but reading the news the next morning leaves me with a sense of despair. Like a lot of people I alternate quite dramatically between hope and despair. And in my experience, it’s really important to find a way out of the despair because despair just leads to inaction. So it’s important to find the shreds of hope that we can.”

And now that her oldest son is approaching the age she was when she started playing sitar, it’s natural to wonder whether he will join this conversation. But though he has shown sporadic interest, it’s not something Shankar feels the need to push.

“If he does express interest of course I’ll teach him but I don’t feel a vested interest in needing to pass it on. My priority is to have a great relationship with him and raise a happy kid – that’s definitely where my interest lies more than in whether he plays the same instrument as me.”

Anoushka Shankar plays at WOMADelaide on March 9, at the Sydney Opera House on March 11 and at Arts Centre Melbourne on March 13.

(Lead image: Shankar Photo: Jamie-James Medina) 

Published 09 March, 2018