Last year was a tough one for sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar, in which she dealt with painful milestones such as her hysterectomy and separation. In a freewheeling chat, she bounces back and talks to us among other things about her goals for 2020, her new EP Love Letters, her upcoming India tour and plans for her father Pandit Ravi Shankar’s centenary birthday celebrations.
Tell us about your new EP, Love Letters.
On Love Letters, I focused exclusively on songs with lyrics, creating a collection of songs that directly address heartbreak and its ensuing emotions in a way that instrumental music can only hint at. Also, I feel Love Letters has been part of a longer journey towards a very simple, international sound in which the sitar is no longer exotic or classical, but simply a tool of expression when juxtaposed with the voice and cross-genre elements.
You are coming back to India after almost two years to perform. How does it feel to be coming back?
Yeah, it’s been the longest gap. It feels really weird to have been away so long, so it feels important to be coming back. And I’m obviously looking forward to seeing a lot of friends and to sharing this music. But also, it’s a really interesting time over there right now. There’s a whole other level of engagement that’s going on in a way that I find really exciting and inspiring. I’m looking forward to kind of touching base with that as well.
Tell us about the plans for your father Pandit Ravi Shankar’s centenary celebrations that are being kicked off this year.
It’s hugely exciting. This is really the big event of my year, as my dad would have been turning a 100 this year. We are doing a series of really special concerts that will never happen again. Incredible collections of musicians will be coming together on a stage and playing music that people never get to hear live. The details change in different cities—we are kicking off in London, we are going to America, and we’ll be coming to India.
In some cities, we have some really amazing guests. For example, on his actual birthday, my sister, Norah Jones, and I will be playing together live for the very first time, which is really exciting and special. That will be in London. I’m very involved in putting the shows together, choosing some of my favourite music of my dads, and I am really excited about bringing that back to India later in the year.’
You have found a new path in sitar music, deftly blending classical raga structures with flamenco, electronica and blues. Do you think you would have been dissatisfied doing just classical music, delving only in that world? As vast as it is, did it feel limiting?
I’ve always been extremely interested in the technique and thought required to dialogue with other musical styles at a high standard, rather than just as some casual jam or fusion experiment. I can’t say at all that Indian classical music is in any way dissatisfying; it’s as vast as the ocean! However, like other artists, I need to make music that represents my own inner truth and inner voice. I’ve found myself more able to do that within an international space that has an Indianness at its root but branches out to encompass sounds and cultures across borders.
During international collaborations, what are the points of confluence of Indian classical with other forms that you find?
It depends what style and with whom I’m collaborating. And also depends on my choices—there is an infinite gradient between one style and another, and whether to meet in the middle or closer to one’s root is purely a matter of choice.
You’ve spoken earlier about being tremendously affected by Europe’s refugee crisis. How do you feel about what’s going on currently with the new Citizenship Amendment Act in India?
Protests are an important part of democracies across the world. But what hurts is to read about the violence and fear around it. Everyone has the right to peacefully give voice to their beliefs. What’s been the most beautiful takeaway for me is to watch the people coming together and protesting and using their voices. That deeply filled my heart with hope. I was deeply moved and inspired.
Having watched events play out in America and Europe, how do you see India’s events tying with the global sentiment? Do you think this is part of a global sentiment that is spreading?
Yeah, I personally believe that. I am not claiming to be an expert, but that is my personal experience. Some of the details change—in California, when they talk about immigrants, it might be Mexicans they’re referring to when they speak in these horrifically dehumanising ways; or in Italy, it might be Somalians. But the attitude is the same, as is the process of distraction from the real causes of the problems people are struggling with. In other words, the spreading of intolerance due to fear is the same, and an increasingly prevalent shouty sound byte culture around the world leaves less and less room for respectful, nuanced dialogue. That’s just my opinion.’