5 Questions to Anoushka Shankar

The sitar virtuoso about her European-Indian homeland and cross-border music.

As one of today's best sitar players, Anoushka Shankar carries the traditional sound of India out into the world. And with equal commitment the cosmopolitan artist, who has received six Grammy nominations, seeks the exchange with musicians from distant cultures and styles.

From 4 to 8 November 2020 the daughter of the legesutar virtuoso and cultural ambassador Ravi Shankar is appearing in the Elbphilharmonie: Anoushka Shankar will be responsible for the programme at her five-day »Reflektor« festival.

01

Your father Ravi Shankar was one of the world's most important Indian sitar players. He trained you as a sitar virtuoso, and you went on tour with him for years. When did you realise that you wanted to go your own musical way?

It was always clear that the intention was not for me to be a clone of my father. He was teaching me everything he knew but also teaching the process of creating and improvising, so it was more of a gradual process than a sudden realization. 

02

In your own projects, you have always gone beyond the confines of the Indian classical music tradition from a certain point. You have cooperated with a wide variety of different artists – with representatives of the Asian underground scene and flamenco musicians, with the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and with pop singers like Sting and your half-sister Norah Jones. What is it that fascinates you about uniting different styles of music?

As someone who’s grown up and lived across three very different cultures I’ve always identified with that sense of being across borders. I suppose like many artists I make music that represents me and also represents what I hope to see in the world. Whenever I’m working with an artist from a different musical culture, we invariably come up against certain points of friction, and when we are able to find commonalities that help us transcend that friction and create something beautiful, that gives me hope.

03

Do you also enjoy playing alone, or is music-making by definition a group experience for you?

I do enjoy playing alone, however I find greater joy and depth when playing with others who inspire me. There is a particular magic and alchemy when playing with someone else, and the feeling of creating something bigger than myself, which I find very inspiring.

04

Indian classical music is based on completely different rules, harmonies and sequences of notes from European music. What differences do you find yourself confronting when Indian musicians play together with European or Western artists?

It’s about finding a common language, and there are some basics we usually have to get out of the way to enable this. For example, Indian musicians would need to slightly adjust their tuning to the tempered scale Western instruments use so that we are in harmony. Then it depends on the repertoire- sometimes the Western musicians are reading from scores whilst the Indian musicians have learned and memorized by ear, then we agree on what passages might be improvised and how to agree to come back to written passages, if that’s relevant.

My most interesting experience was on my album “Traveller,” for which I toured with flamenco and Indian musicians for a year. Often, we would play music perfectly in sync, and a listener would assume we completely understood each other. Someone who had seen our rehearsals however would see I had taught the music to the musicians two different ways to enable the smooth performance! Flamenco musicians think from the last beat of a rhythmic cycle, usually beat 12, whereas in Indian music we count from the 1st beat.

When we first rehearsed together it sounded clunky as everyone kept annunciating different moments in the songs. Finally I taught the songs as starting from one beat behind to the Spanish musicians so that whenever we were counting “1,” they were counting “12” but from the outside it now sounded perfect!

Anoushka Shankar Anoushka Shankar © Laura Lewis

»Mich inspiriert das Gefühl, etwas zu erschaffen, das größer ist als ich selbst«

Anoushka Shankar

05

What can the public expect at your »Reflektor« in the Elbphilharmonie?

Firstly let me say it’s a huge joy and honour to have the chance to share music and musicians I love with people at the Elbphilharmonie! The thread that loosely connects the artists at my Reflektor is that they hail from the Indian subcontinent or the South Asian diaspora. I wanted to showcase a mix of styles and art forms, from legendary, deeply knowledgeable classical vocalists to cutting edge, Indian music-influenced jazz musicians, from inventive interpretations of Indian dance to love songs rooted by sitar instead of guitar.

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