Anoushka Shankar is keeping the sitar's legacy alive

Shankar has taken her dad’s legacy and run with it.

It’s a stretch to even imagine what it’s like in Anoushka Shankar’s super-stylish shoes. In her world it’s been normal to call a Beatle “Uncle George”, get props from Ray Charles (he told her that she touched his heart and had music in her soul), her half sister is Norah Jones (more on that later – her family status is “complicated”), and her (now late) old man, sitar-swami Ravi Shankar, is none other than the “Father of World Music”. To top it off, Shankar’s been in serious sitar training since she was eight under her dad’s formal tutelage (i.e. he was not just her dad, but also her guru), she had her first record deal when she was 16, is now acclaimed as an award-winning virtuoso in her own right with six Grammy nominations under her belt, and she’s only 36. Feeling like a radical underachiever yet?

Today, however, Shankar is as mortal as the rest of us. “I’m going to ask you to stop listening to me for a second, so I can blow my nose in a really obnoxious way,” she says, before giving it a good snotty honk. “I’m so sorry. Urgh. It’s a mix of rotten luck having kids and being my own damn fault, because I’ve had a massive weekend that I didn’t want to give up, even though I knew I was sick. A really good friend of mine was doing a show in Paris, so I went to Paris for a night before racing back for my seven year old’s massive birthday party.” And back we go to the dream life.  

It’s important to make it clear though that Shankar hasn’t hit the big time as a matter of nepotism. Even as a kid, she had an unholy focus on an arcane classical instrument that’s notoriously complicated to master. That said, there were definitely times she bucked against it. “I always had a dual relationship with the sitar in the sense that I loved the music very deeply – it spoke to me, it resonated with me – but I also had a normal, ongoing, young-teenage response to the discipline required in playing a classical music form,” Shankar explains. “Also, it was my father’s instrument and there were very obvious pressures associated with learning from him. So there was always this duality in the fact that I loved it and was a little bit scared of it. So my response would rove, depending where I was with those things. There were periods where I’d be very structured, disciplined and focused, and times where as soon as I could let go, I would, because keep in mind that I lived with my father and he was my teacher. There was a kind of imposed structure as well and a discipline instilled, in that what you do is practice and you play music. It wasn’t like it was my choice to skip playing every day without there being consequences.”

That said, as Shankar progressively nailed the instrument her relationship with it became less equivocal. “The older I got, the longer I played, and to be honest, the better I got – I was able to play more, say more and express more – that in itself became more fulfilling,” Shankar muses. “I grew to love the experience of playing more and more.” All of which makes more sense of the observation that playing the sitar is a lifetime’s work. “I think any instrument or art form is a lifetime’s work though,” Shankar counters. “Ideally, we’re all here continually learning and evolving. But my experience of playing the sitar in particular is that it does keep changing. I keep finding new ways to express myself or there are new things that I want to say. As I grow and change, I have to find new ways to express myself. It’s an ongoing process and my experience of that is what makes it so beautiful.”

Back to Shankar’s aforementioned complex family tree: suffice to say, it was all considered kinda scandalous at the time. Both of Shankar’s folks were married to other people when they hooked up, although Ravi was already separated and shacked up with a dancer, and had 34 years on Shankar’s mum, musician Sukanya Rajan. They divorced their respective spouses and married when Shankar was eight, only later for the news to break that Ravi had another daughter, Nora Jones, who was two years older than Shankar. Even so, Shankar maintains that having two unconventional parents helped.

“I think having two parents who were strong individuals set a really strong example for me finding my own path. They were people who valued tradition but also valued examining tradition, which again was very helpful for me. It wasn’t that I felt that I had to do things exactly their way, it’s that I could also do the same thing and examine and find my own way.”


 Anoushka Shankar will perform as part of WOMADelaide, taking place from Friday March 9 until Monday March 12 at Botanic Park, Adelaide. She’ll also perform at Hamer Hall on Tuesday March 13.