Curbing Dissent Affects Everyone, Including Musicians: Anoushka Shankar

The international musician, about to go on a world tour, says she is all for fusion and collaboration with other artistes but not for its own sake.

Sitarist Anoushka Shankar. Credit: Laura Lewis, Deutsche Gramophon

Sitarist Anoushka Shankar. Credit: Laura Lewis, Deutsche Gramophon

At 35, sitarist Anoushka Shankar, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s talented daughter, has become a successful musician in her own right. A woman of Indian origin, born in London, raised across three continents, she is raising two sons, even as she meets the unrelenting demands of her career. Of her rich multicultural life, she says, “I wouldn’t be who I am without it–my passport is just a piece of paper.” In April, she tours the US with an all-Indian classical concert, premiering at New York’s Town Hall. She spoke to Vibhuti Patel, by phone, from London.


In India, fiction, poetry, visual art, even history, have been politically threatened in recent years.  As a composer, do you see your cultural freedom and creativity imperiled in music?

To the extent that even our ability to speak freely has been curtailed, all utterance will be affected. We might not immediately see the impact on an instrumental piece, but if a society is limited in its ability to voice contradictory opinions or dissent or criticism of those in power, that has an overall effect on the freedom of all expression–including that of musicians.

How do you think artistes in the West are responding to the current climate of racism and xenophobia? 

It’s brilliant! I count myself in their number. I write letters to government, I call friends and get them to add their names to petitions. I march, I write music, I take part in benefits. To me, it’s a natural extension of being a citizen, of using one’s voice when it matters. It’s dangerous to be silent. If one has a voice that people listen to, it’s important to keep using it.

What can artistes do to save our rich traditions? 

My experience has been that one can keep a tradition alive only by keeping it alive. When a tradition becomes frozen in the past, it risks its own demise. It ceases to be relevant to the people of today by becoming a relic–to be treasured as something in a museum. An art form should be something that you take out, use, love, and have as part of your life–like a favorite plate in your cupboard rather than [something stashed away] in a black case. For me, it’s all about exposing people to the art form so that it does not feel foreign and intimidating. It’s about allowing the form to evolve and breathe as a living tradition, so it continues to grow and relate to people of each subsequent generation.

Our great sitar masters–your father, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Abdul Halim Jafar Khan–have all passed away. How do you see your generation coping with carrying the weight of such a majestic tradition? 

I don’t see it that way. Words like “coping with” or “carrying the weight of” a tradition imply something too great to bear. From such a negative perspective, it becomes impossible to perform—how can one play from a burdened perspective? For me, music comes from love and connection, from joy and openness. One has to find a way to play from that place, not feel like one is a shadow. If listeners want the music to come alive, it’s important to support younger musicians positively.

It may not be a “burden,” but it is a tradition that you’re inheriting and carrying on?

You’re right, it is a tradition one’s inheriting and carrying on. And, how we cope is a natural question to ask, an important question. None of us is representative of an entire generation, we’re individuals who come from different musical subsets and gharanas. We do this in different ways–someone else might approach this in a completely different way than I do.

Are enough younger musicians coming out to carry the torch forward? 

 It’s not about numbers, it’s about the kind of support and exposure, the funding and education that classical music receives. The pressure to constantly market our music, in what’s called the “new wave,” forces musicians to do collaborations and fusions–just for their own sake. Not that fusion or crossover is wrong. I’m a fan of such collaborations, I do them myself–but there’s a trend to demand that classical artistes do that: in order to give them the stage and exposure that they deserve, to brand things as a new collaboration, a new partnership. It does not allow pure classical music the space and respect to just be itself. That’s what I worry about. So, the big-exposure shows only go to some random, put-together duet between two people, neither of whom would get that exposure independently, even if they were geniuses. That kind of hyped marketing system seems endemic in India at the moment. It stifles support of the music.

Has this affected your experiments as a composer with, say, fusion?  

I’ve been engaging in crossover work for 12 years now. It was not as common then as it is now. It was unusual for classical musicians to do that but I’ve made a career of trying to prove that one can hold on to one’s roots while trying out new things, that they’re not mutually exclusive. My father was a perfect example of that. From the beginning, he was a pioneer who faced criticism for doing things that were new at the time. Artists should be able to take risks and try new things, that’s how an art form grows, it’s what keeps it alive. I myself don’t call it “fusion.” I term it more specifically, based on each particular project. My latest, “Land of Gold” (2016), is an experimental album that features Indian classical music and Western classical minimalism. It has a cinematic approach and fuses instruments together in novel ways, symbolic of the multicultural life I lead. I believe in dialogue across borders.

You have performed with some of the greats of the Western classical stage—will you continue that or are you coming full circle with “Home”?

This last season has been incredible: I had my debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, just before that, I played with the L.A. Philharmonic and the N.Y. Philharmonic. I played my father’s Sitar Concerto No. 2 in these three concerts with Zubin Mehta. So, I’m still working within the realm of classical crossover between Western and Indian music, with leading connectors and orchestras, collaborating with musicians on new music. With “Home,” 2015’s Indian classical album, I tried to stay connected with my roots while trying to grow into new music. I hadn’t made a classical record in a while, so I felt a deep desire to do that but I knew I’d continue to explore and experiment.

How do you balance marriage, motherhood and professional musicianship? 

It’s a juggle, a hard balance. I’m lucky to have family–help with the kids from my mother and mother-in-law. I tour much less than I used to. My new home-studio has helped me be creative while leaving home less. I recorded these latest albums from home. My husband also edits his films there. He produced my last album, I helped a bit with Anna Karenina. It’s lovely to have a creative environment here, for us, and for the kids as well.