Anoushka Shankar on seeking authenticity, vulnerability and imperfection as an artist, and being inspired by #MeToo

  • Anoushka Shankar says she has come a long way from when she started 25 years ago, at the age of 13.

  • The musician says she has embraced vulnerability and imperfection as an artist in her latest EP Love Letters.

  • She is also excited to collaborate with sister Norah Jones for their first live performance together.

Twenty-five years ago, Anoushka Shankar stepped on a stage for the first time at Siri Fort in New Delhi when she was just 13. It was part of her father Pandit Ravi Shankar's 75th birthday celebration. Now, in the year she will celebrate the late sitar legend's 100th birth anniversary, she is gearing up to return with a concert at the same venue, on 14 February 2020.

Looking back at the 25 years she has spent in studios and on stage, Anoushka has achieved several milestones, including multiple Grammy Award nominations. As she observes her father's centenary birth anniversary this year, she has surely done him proud. "I hope so," pat comes the reply in an interaction with the sitarist on the sidelines of her concerts in Mumbai and Delhi on 13 and 14 February respectively.

Her response is accompanied by a jugalbandi between sarcasm and modesty. While she is unsure of how she has carried his legacy forward, she is certain of discovering her own creative voice over the years. "In the last few years before his death, he [Pt. Ravi Shankar] saw me discovering my own voice. It's a very internal discovery so it's difficult to articulate how different it is from his. I was his student for sure but even he wanted me to discover my own voice after a point of time," says Anoushka.

While her artistic voice could be the fusion of Indian classical music with definite Western genres, she believes she still borrows a lot from her father. "I still think of him a lot. Even in his 90s, he was still a student. He never lost that. He always thought he had a power above him. That's how spiritual his art was. The kind of reverence he had for the music was incredible. That undoubtedly has been my biggest takeaway from being his student."

 Anoushka Shankar on seeking authenticity, vulnerability and imperfection as an artist, and being inspired by #MeToo

Anoushka Shankar says, 'Historically, I used to be quite frightened of singing as an instrumentalist. But as an artist, I've grown towards authenticity, vulnerability, and imperfection.' | Photo by Laura Lewis, via Facebook/@AnoushkaShankar

Anoushka toured the length and breadth of the globe with her father for over 15 years. But she has never yet performed live with her half-sister, popular jazz singer Norah Jones. While they have recorded a few songs before, they will be seen performing live together for the first time on 7 April in London. "It's my father's 100th birth anniversary that day. As you can imagine, Norah and I have got countless offers to perform live together. But we didn't want to do it just for the sake of getting together. We wanted it to be special. We've recorded together in the past, and the songs have been about my father. So it was only fair we sing together live for him. She's a terrific singer, and will bring a lot of surprises to the table in this tour, just like I will."

The centenary celebration of their father's birth anniversary will also have an India leg in April, along with concerts in London and Los Angeles. But a couple of months prior to that, Anoushka has landed in India for a live rendition of her latest EP Love Letters, that debuted here earlier this month.

"It's a special one. I leave a bit in all of my albums but this one is more special because of some reasons," she says, hinting at how she wrote and recorded the EP during her separation from former husband, British filmmaker Joe Wright. She claims she wanted the songs of this EP to sound as raw as their original state because they reflect how she embraced her vulnerable self during that period.

"Not retaining the rawness wouldn't have caused any 'harm' to the songs. But it would have definitely changed it. For better or worse is a subjective question. The lyrics are very raw, very vulnerable. In my opinion, it enhances the instrumentation and production value to be raw. It's not all dressed up, sanitised or overly engineered. It feels the sitar is naked, and the vocals are vulnerable. I'm drawn to that," says Anoushka.

In order to embrace this vulnerability, Anoushka decided to lend her vocals, for the first time in her career, to one of the songs, 'Lovable.' Joined by those of Ibeyi, the Afro-Cuban twin sisters, Anoushka's vocals are limited but just like how she wanted them to be — vulnerable. "The song is very vulnerable. My natural of being a non-singer really suited that [sic]. My voice is quite soft and vulnerable because I don't project in that way. So my voice actually fits that song more than it would fit standing up and belting out a whole evening's worth of performance. It felt right in this particular moment because when you write something, you have a vision in your heart. And rather than explaining it to someone, you'd rather do it yourself."

Anoushka also feels there was a latent singer in her who she had been suppressing for years now. "I suppose it's been a long time coming. I have done some background singing or chanting in Sanskrit in my songs. I've done that but I never wanted to be the vocalist front and centre. This particular song, and the vocalists I was working with, it felt like a very safe nurturing environment."

She also agrees the process of singing has added an extra layer to her healing process. "In a small way, I feel proud of it. Historically, I used to be quite frightened of singing as an instrumentalist. But as an artist, I've grown towards authenticity, vulnerability, and imperfection. I feel glad I've allowed that to happen here. But that's just a small part of it. I feel the world outside my singing, of music as a whole, is what I feel very happy with, and very close to."

Love Letters is also a rare EP that is credited with a majority female team, ranging from the singers to the technicians. The singers include Shilpa Rao (Indian), Alev Lenz (German-Turkish), Ayanna Witter-Johnson (British), and Ibeyi (Afro-Cuban), thus from a wide variety of geographical backgrounds. "It started subconsciously. During the phase when I was writing and developing it with Alev [Anoushka's longtime collaborator], I found myself more drawn towards women. I think women understand each other better, and know the space we all come from. So the process of healing and getting empowered is also similar. I felt more comfortable and creatively charged around women at that time. Once we started coming up with the music, I liked the sound of that. I wanted more of the same music for this album," says Anoushka.

She admits the decision evolved from an organic one to a conscious one over time. "I was heavily influenced by the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, particularly in Hollywood. A lot of women were emerging out of that. I felt that historically, despite being a feminist, I haven't really encouraged female talent as widely. So I thought consciously that let not the women only be the faces of this album but also the backbone. So we hired women in technical positions as well. And they've all done such a fabulous job."

This harmony of the conscious and the subconscious is rare for Anoushka, who seeks this kind of tuning in all aspects of her life. Carrying the burden of perfection as a result of her lineage, she is equally inclined towards imperfection as a vital trait in her music. Dilemmas like these dominate her daily life but she seems to have found enough grit to persist, and her stage shows help her immensely towards achieving that.

"When we're on a big tour, we might do 30-40 shows. So the struggle is to tap into the audience to recreate the same emotion or the same rawness every time. If I feel I'm not connecting well then I have to make an effort not to get psyched out. But if I feel the connection with the audience, it's alchemical, it's magical. They really add to our inspiration and energy on stage. You have to realise that you may be performing the same set every day but for the audience, it may be once in a lifetime. They're not coming there for show #16."

To listen to the full EP of Love Letters, click here.

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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2020 13:18:26 IST