Interview: Anoushka Shankar

The composer and activist chats to Arusa Qureshi about the joy of collaboration, the beauty of simplicity and reshaping the sitar's legacy

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Anoushka Shankar
Photo by Laura Lewis
Published 23 Aug 2023

There are certain sights and sounds that you naturally become accustomed to growing up in a South Asian household. The crackling and sizzling of spices hitting a hot pan, the image of Shah Rukh Khan’s face constantly on your TV; bright yellow turmeric stains on every surface and the beautiful and otherworldly melodies of Bollywood and Indian classical. If you grew up immersed in any way in the latter, it is likely that the sitar will hold a very special place in your heart.

“I think it's always had a deeply and very overtly emotive quality,” Anoushka Shankar says of the mediaeval instrument over a call from her home in London. “So on a piece of music, when you hear a sitar come in, it can kind of strike those chords in you in a very particular way.”

Many of us first generation South Asian kids that grew up on a steady diet of Ravi Shankar – the virtuosic Indian sitarist, influencer of George Harrison and Anoushka’s father – will be all too familiar with this feeling. Though Anoushka has followed in her father’s musical footsteps as a composer and sitar player, she has done something exceptional with the stringed instrument. Immersing herself in a wide range of genres, she has taken the sitar out of a time period synonymous with the 60s, the Beatles and psychedelia. 

“One of the things I've really tried to do in my career is take it out of those notions in people's subliminal listening experience,” she explains. “So when you put it in different sound worlds, different instrumentation, or when you mic it differently or play it, maybe in a less ornamental way, it changes people's experience of the instrument. Then it's kind of like the sitar that they know with its beautiful emotive sound, but not in that exotified way that they think of it. And I think that makes it really intriguing all over again.”

Having begun her study of the sitar with her father as a child, Shankar made her professional debut at the age of 13 and was touring the world by the time she was an adult. Nine Grammy nominations, 10 studio albums and numerous accolades later, she returns this year with a new mini-album titled Chapter I: Forever, For Now, which charts a development in her relationship to the sitar and to a new way of writing and releasing music. 

“I think I've been on a real journey of trying to find more and more simplicity over the last few years because I genuinely love very different forms of very complex layered music,” she says. “And sometimes I listen back to my own music and think, ‘Oh, that's really busy’, or ‘there's a lot going on’, or ‘I have so many ideas, I tried to cram them in’.”

Photo by Vikram Kushwah

Featuring contributions from Nils Frahm, whose LEITER label is also releasing the record, and produced by previous ‘Udhero Na' collaborator Arooj Aftab, Chapter I: Forever, For Now explores a newfound expression of colour and clarity. “With Arooj, I'm so drawn to her simplicity, and Nils as well. They are two people that I feel like when I listen to them, I drop into something because there's enough space for me as a listener to be in that space with them.”

No stranger to collaboration, Shankar’s work with internationally renowned musicians over the years has taken her into genres like electronica, jazz and pop, where she has always seamlessly found a natural home. “I think the reason I love collaboration is because I love the surprises that come from another human being,” she says. “I can certainly write a piece of music alone in my room. But if I'm coming up with ideas with someone else, their ideas are obviously distinct from mine and so the piece itself can become something greater than what I create on my own. It just lights up something and that excitement is very inspiring.”

Ahead of the arrival of Chapter I: Forever, For Now in October and a tour that will support the release, Shankar will be making her way to the Edinburgh International Festival with a quintet that was formed largely out of this love of and affinity for collaboration. Towards the tail end of last year, the musician returned to India for the first time in a number of years for a mini-tour, taking with her a handpicked group of musicians, for whom she has a huge amount of respect.

“I thought, these are the people I'd love to play with right now and it felt so exciting and wonderful to play with them that it's turned into my whole next year and North American and European tours. They’re soloists in their own right, who release their own music: the incredible Sarathy Korwar, who is on percussion in the band; the great Arun Ghosh who plays and composes on clarinet. My long standing bassist Tom Farmer who toured worldwide with me on [2016 album] Land of Gold and on a few other projects. And then finally Pirashanna Thevarajah, who is playing South Indian Carnatic percussion instruments.” 

Shankar notes that she always likes to twin percussion so that there’s a natural balance between Western and Indian musical styles. Over the course of her career, this pairing and subversion of the sitar has created a fascinating base from which experimentation, creativity and unexpected harmony has occurred. Though she is visibly bashful at the mention of her potential legacy and her pioneering status with the sitar, just like her father, she has undeniably done much to break new ground with the instrument and to bring it to new generations and contemporary audiences. 

“I hope the music has lasting power and moves people,” she says when asked about the future and legacy of the sitar. “I hope music like mine, including mine, that is about connection across boundaries, continues to be proof that that works. And that great things happen when we try to be greater than our parts individually and connect with others who are different from us. That would be incredible.”