Father and Daughter Shankar Bring Raga to the Arlington
by Felicia M. Tomasko
Anoushka Shankar’s lilting voice and accent — with alternating hints of London, SoCal, and the ringing melody of India — reveal her diverse upbringing across three continents as well as her current life as a world-class wandering minstrel. That life began a little more than 10 years ago when, at the tender age of 13, Anoushka Shankar leapt onto the world’s stage as the sitar-playing daughter of famous sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.
But more than merely an accompanying artist, Anoushka is a talented musician, composer, and conductor in her own right, having already been nominated for a Grammy and being the youngest and only female recipient of the British Parliament’s House of Commons Shield. At Arlington Theatre this Sunday, the daughter and father team will play together with an Indian ensemble as part of their Festival of India tour.
Ravi Shankar, now 86, is the embodiment of the Indian sitar. First popularized in the West by the Beatles, he became firmly imprinted on the world’s musical landscape with performances at the Monterey Pop Festival, the Concert for Bangladesh, and Woodstock, thereby introducing most Westerners — who had never seen nor heard of a sitar before — to the classical ragas of India. Since then, he’s been touring, composing, and teaching tirelessly. One such student, who’s studied exclusively with the master himself, is his daughter, 24-year-old Anoushka.
In the Indian community, it is no more foreign for a girl to pick up the sitar than it is for an American schoolgirl to learn the flute. Growing up in London, Anoushka described her community as a “separate universe, where [families] are tying the children to the culture through the arts; where children are encouraged to learn traditional Indian dancing, singing, or playing a musical instrument of some variety.” It was not necessarily inevitable that Anoushka took to her father’s instrument, even though she was a born artist. “I was very artistic,” she explained. “I was in love with dance, in love with theater, in love with music.”
In her home environment, though, Anoushka was surrounded by music. “Among the artistic things, it was the most obvious option.” She began studying with her father at the age of seven. While the lessons started as casual and later grew into something more professional, they were never just about music — the one-on-one sessions created an “intuitive and deep” bond between the two, which was particularly poignant with the 61-year difference in the two musicians’ ages.
Unsurprisingly, this bond means Ravi Shankar is an important influence on Anoushka’s own work. “I’ve collaborated with him for so many years,” she explained. “My own musical identity is shaped by learning and working with him. It is a significant part of who I feel I am as a musician.” As she’s evolved as an artist, Anoushka has found her own voice, particularly with the highly praised 2005 release of Rise, her fourth solo album and one that features a number of original compositions. Tracks like “Naked” possess an almost hypnotic quality in the sound, while the vocalizations of “Red Sun” are dizzying in their rhythm.
Indian music has a spiritual basis, anchored in the Hindu and Vedic temple music, with melody and rhythm having the foremost importance, making the sound sometimes foreign to our Western-trained, harmony-seeking ears. But the music has a resonance that transcends culture. And even though these ragas have spiritual roots, Anoushka said, “Almost everything in the world has a spiritual aspect to it. Music is the most abstract of all the art forms, so it is easiest to tap into that.” She added, “Music is open to interpretation; when I play, it is my own well I am drawing from, in order to give it that spark. The listener does not have to know what that is. It is intensely personal.”
Ravi and Anoushka Shankar play at Arlington Theatre on Sunday, April 30, at 8 p.m. Call 893‑3535 or 963-4408, or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.