Anoushka Shankar on her musical journey and composing for a film for the first time

Neerja Deodhar

Oct,28 2017 13:16 07 IST

Anoushka Shankar has many honours to her credit; she's a celebrated sitar player and singer, she was awarded the British House of Commons Shield, and she was the youngest candidate and the first woman to be nominated for a Grammy in the World Music category. A year after releasing her album Land of Gold and performing shows across the world, Shankar will now be providing the background score for Shiraz, a black-and-white era Indian film, which is being re-released through the BFI National Archive and British Council's joint effort to bring it back to cinemas, as part of the UK/India Year of Culture 2017. In this conversation with Firstpost, she talks about her journey as an artist, her musical style and the experience of creating music for a film for the first time.

Shankar's music career had a rather spectacular start. She was all of 13, and it was her father Pandit Ravi Shankar's 75th birthday concert, and to top all this, she was playing with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. "It was a celebratory event, and we played many special pieces of music. It remains memorable for several reasons," she says. Since then, she has played at several venues, but she finds it tough to label any particular one as being her favourite. "Sometimes the shows are special because of the music itself, sometimes because of the city or venue – because it is a career opportunity to play at an iconic venue or important festival – and sometimes these factors all come together, so it becomes extra special," she says.

Anoushka Shankar. Image by Anushka Menon

Anoushka Shankar. Image by Anushka Menon

Roughly a decade later, she was nominated for her first ever Grammy award; as the years would pass, she'd be in the running for five more. "I was quite young at the time, so it was very exciting. The first nomination is always hugely special," she says, adding, "I was very surprised to have been the first female nominee in this particular category, I thought that was really odd."

Shankar has had her own share of challenges, one of which was learning Indian classical music, which she describes as being tough because of its vastness and depth. "It requires a lot of dedication and practice, especially when you're a child. But I think that’s been good for me, because it taught me to work through challenges," she says.

She says that she has been working in a cross-cultural landscape between Indian and Western classical music for 10 years now, after having studied the latter as a teenager. But she maintains that her style has never remained constant, so it is hard to define. "I seek ways to take our Indian music heritage and bring it into today's world in a way that is still authentic and respectful. I do feel myself constantly growing as an artist; I feel that with each project, I learn new things, which I can carry forward to the next. Each feels richer than the last," she says.

Apart from Zakir Hussain, Shankar has collaborated with a variety of artists over the years, including her half-sister Norah Jones, Karsh Kale and even Sting and Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. She maintains that her father is her greatest collaborator and teacher. When asked if she prefers recording in the studio or performing live, she says that she loves both equally but that she would pick live performances because they show how music is truly a shared experience.

A still from Shiraz

A still from Shiraz

Her latest project has been providing the background for the 1928 release Shiraz, which is based on a play written by Niranjan Pal. The movie was directed Franz Osten and tells the story of the 17th century princess who inspired the building of the Taj Mahal. It was known for its portrayal of two bold kisses at a time when kisses shared by actors on screen were taboo. When Shankar saw the film for the first time, she realised that it had no music whatsoever, and it struck her how much music can do to draw a viewer into a film and give them an emotional response to what’s happening in the plot.

"This was entirely missing in what I saw. However, I was completely shocked by what a wonderful piece of art this film was, both on a technical and storytelling level. It was made 90 years ago, at the beginning of cinema. I was really excited to give music to this film and help bring it to life again in a way that viewers today could experience it," she says. She calls Shiraz is a challenge in itself, because although she has composed before, she has never written music for a film before. "When you’re working on a silent film, a much higher output of music is required. It needs a constant score. Thankfully, what I find about things that are challenging is that they are also very fulfilling," she says.

Screenings of Shiraz with the accompanying live score provided by Anoushka Shankar will be held in Hyderabad, Kolkata, New Delhi and Mumbai between 1 and 5 November.