Two years ago, when Anoushka Shankar was 16, she released her first album, titled simply “Anoushka.” It showcased her ability to play fast taans and deris, tricky chand and laya patterns, and expressive meend. Her touch was relatively light and delicate throughout. And, in a break from tradition, the entire album was prearranged compositions created by her father, Ravi Shankar. Some listeners asserted this as an accusation when the album came out, for in the Hindustani tradition prearranged compositions are usually considered to be only exercises to be played for the teacher. But the compositions followed the traditional improvisational structure so closely that they sounded like improvisations to many listeners (including this reviewer.) And there is certainly no reason to disparage the ability to play a composition exactly the way a composer wrote it. After all ¾ big news flash ¾ European classical musicians have been performing without improvising for over a hundred years.
But as any parent knows, teenagers grow up very fast. And this is equally true of teenagers who are both celebrities and prodigies. Now, at the age of 18, Miss Shankar has released her second album, “Anourag,” and is embarking on a tour which will include some solo concerts, and some duets with her father. Her touch is more decisive and powerful, and although her father wrote the ghats on the new album, she now improvises on them extensively. “Even when I improvise I usually use his tihais, or variations on them.” she says with careful modesty, “And I use different parts of his taans when I play my own.” But this is what improvising within the context of a Gharana is all about. In fact, despite numerous differences between her musical education and the traditional Indian methods, there are some surprising similarities.
Western music, both European and Jazz, has always associated improvisation with freedom. This is why the former has always distrusted improvisation, and the latter has gloried in it. But neither has fully understood the idea of improvising on one chord, within a framework that is extremely strict, but too nuanced and complex to be reduced to a chord progression or other set of rules. The only way these nuances can be authentically absorbed is with direct personal contact with a teacher. And perhaps more than any other Indian musician of her generation, Miss Shankar has had this direct personal contact with her teacher. Her mother Sukanya, who had been an accomplished classical singer and dancer, starting teaching Anoushka at the age of three. At nine, she began studying with her father on a special undersized sitar, and had her concert debut at thirteen. And to this day, she has had no other teachers in Indian music. “I usually have a two to three hour lesson in the morning with my father, then spend the same amount of time in the evening practicing and exploring things on my own” says Miss Shankar. “But I don’t listen to very much Indian music at other times. I like Nikhil Bannerjee, and some of the new younger players I’ve heard recently. But I don’t try to play what they play. I’ve learned everything I play from my father.”
It thus seems that her relationship with her guru is almost a return to the days before Allaudin Khan, when students almost never learned from more than one teacher. But the differences are as great as the similarities. “When I learned to play, I had to give up everything,” says Ravi. “It was total surrender. But times have changed. Because she’s my daughter … it simply cannot be the same. I have to compromise with her school time, her friends and her recreation time … you know what a teenager is. In my day none of that was possible.” Indeed, after saying that she practiced four to six hours a day, Anoushka admitted with a laugh that this was “on a good day.” “My father is not in any way a tyrant,” she adds, “and very rarely loses his temper. He tests and challenges me, but never intimidates me. If I do something wrong he is quick to correct me. But he’s also ready to praise me if I do something right.” Of course, Ravi Shankar himself was not the perfect exemplar of the old system. The young Ravi traveled through Europe with his brother Uday’s dance troupe until he was 15, studying music and dance at his own pace. The music he learned was especially composed for the Uday Shankar company, featuring a unique blend of Indian instruments played in unusual ways, and arranged as an orchestra. And even during the years Ravi Shankar was studying with Allaudin Khan, he refused to submit to any physical punishment from his guru. This is probably why, as Anoushka’s guru, he is willing to let her have a wide variety of interests and accomplishments.
I am used to being told by American children of expatriate parents that they can understand their parents’ language, but not speak it. So I was impressed when I discovered that although Anoushka speaks English when both of her parents are present, she speaks Tamil to her mother and Bengali to her father. And with charming modesty, she apologetically admits that she can’t read either language, and that her Hindi grammar is not as good as she would like. Like her father, she grew up in a household that exposed her to the best elements of Indian culture while her geographic home shifted all over the world. She was born in London, later moved to southern California, and has always visited India at least once a year. (It was amusing to hear her London accent slowly creep back as she was being interviewed by a British reporter on Virtuetv.com.) There was probably never any serious doubt in anyone’s mind that eventually she would become a musician. And consequently, she feels content to make her father’s gharana the center of her life, but without having it consume everything else.
Her upcoming concert tour is only a break after high school before entering college, where she plans to study literature. She also studies European classical piano, and even gave piano concerts until she hurt her arm trying to maintain a daily practice schedule on both instruments. She likes Techno and DrumnBass (She and Talvin Singh are great friends), as well as Bob Marley, Metallica, Flamenco and “anything else I can get my hands on.” But she has no intention of playing any fusion music anytime soon. “What I do is classical music. Maybe many years down the road I may change my mind, but at this point I am a classical musician. Even though my father is sometimes described as the Godfather of World music, he never tried to do this modern thing of combining several world styles together. He would bring musicians from other cultures under his direction, and they would play music in his style. But I could never do that sort of thing until I had firmer roots in the Indian classical tradition.”
What this new album illustrates is that she also wants to give a whole new audience a chance to discover that tradition. She clearly enjoyed being photographed for the CD in ways that show the many sides of her beauty and personality—in traditional sari, in elegant evening gown, and in a stylish pantsuit made of Indian material. Her record label understandably expects that some of these pictures will end up on teenage walls next to pictures of Brad Pitt and Madonna. And when those teenagers end up buying her CD, they will get a genuine education in Indian Classical music. Like her father, she has a good sense of what aspects of Indian classical music are most accessible to westerners, which enables her to reach out to them without making compromises. “I decided to keep my performance on each raga short for two main reasons. First of all, there were a lot of ragas I wanted people to hear, and I couldn’t do all of them unless I kept each performance short. And secondly, I knew that most people who are exposed to this music for this first time have trouble following it when you spend too much time on a single raga. There were certain things I had to leave out, especially the deep notes on the long alaps. That’s a shame, in a way, because those deep notes sound especially good on my sitar, which was made by a great craftsman named Nodu Mullick. He only made five sitars ¾ he would work for years on a single instrument ¾ and my father owns four of them. The one I play now was his principle instrument for many years, but he gave it to me after my first public performance when I was 13.”
Although it may have been packaged in bite-size chunks for western consumption, the music itself is pure, of the highest quality, and offers a good sample of the many treasures of the Hindustani tradition. Most of the songs open with an aochar alap, and include a chhed, (a brief quote of the entire scale of the raga) before going through the traditional slow unfolding of the raga that expands both above and below the central sa. She includes a performance in the seven-beat rupak tal, which she handles with complete confidence. And some of her newer listeners may be most excited by the dueling tablas of Tanmoy Bose and Bikram Ghosh, which Anoushka accompanies in the traditional manner, with a short lahara melody that repeats for the entire tabla solo. Tabla solos are always the part of Indian music that is the most accessible to someone raised on Rock and Roll, especially the more virtuoso contemporary styles. “The modern tabla players improvise just as much as the melody instruments, so I have to be able to keep the tal in mind at all times.” says Anoushka. “One thing that helps is to keep a cross rhythmic pattern in my head, and play variations on that. For example, if I were playing in teental, which is 16 beats, I might do a series of variations on two sevens and two nines, or two fives and two threes. And I always keep time with my foot, especially in unusual tals like rupak.”
The most unusual piece on the album is called “Swarna Jayanti,” which is based on a new raga and a new tala, both of which were created by Ravi Shankar in honor of independent India’s fiftieth anniversary. The tal, which is played by both tabla and Mridangam, has fifty beats which is divided as 3 +4 +5 +6 +7 (=25) followed by 7+6+5+4+3 (=25). The ghat that Anoushka plays on top of this has a division of four fours and a nine, the first nine being 2+3+4 and the second being 3+3+3. Ravi Shankar plans to turn this into a major orchestral work, which will no doubt be truly impressive. As it is played on this album, however, it will sound to most people like a nice melody with some interesting rhythmic jumps. The only way that the two over layered tals can be heard in such a small ensemble is for each player to stick to the piece as written. Once Anoushka and the percussionists do a bit of improvising, the variations cause the original rhythm to exist nowhere but in the heads of the composer and performers.
The biggest treasures on the album are the traditional performances of well-known ragas like Yaman and Shuddha Sarang, which Miss Shankar plays with unimpeachable professionalism. And the climax of the album is Ravi Shankar’s appearance in duo with Anoushka. The liner notes clearly say that Anoushka is accompanying Ravi, so we must assume that the sitarist who does the bulk of the improvising is Ravi, and the other sitar, mixed noticeably lower and frequently playing a supporting motif, must be Anoushka. But after hearing an entire album of Anoushka, the most notable characteristic of this duo performance is how much father and daughter sound alike. There are sometimes a few subtle ornamentations that appear in Ravi’s playing that don’t appear in Anoushka’s, at least not on this album. But his playing seems as youthful and energetic as hers, and both of them seem to have a shared exuberance in playing together. There are a few breaks from tradition, such as the melody lines with the two sitars playing in thirds. When compared to the playing of the best western classical musicians, who devote their entire lives to playing harmonies, some of these passages sound a little out of sync. But the mastery of the Indian techniques by both Guru and student is so unassailable it seems almost pedantic to point this out. If you never change what you play, you can probably do it perfectly, but what’s the point?
Fame is a fickle thing, and frequently shines it’s spotlight for reasons that have nothing to do with merit. We should be grateful when it chooses people who genuinely deserve recognition, even if the spotlight shines in the right place for the wrong reason. This album confirms what her first album indicated: Anoushka Shankar is a very good sitar player, in the process of maturing into a great one.
Teed Rockwell is president of the Multicultural Music Fellowship. He has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.