To be the heir to a famous name is difficult. To follow in your father’s footsteps makes things far more complex. And, if the father happens to be as legendary as the world’s greatest ever Sitar player, Pandit Ravi Shankar, then the going is indeed very, very tough. But for Anoushka Shankar, there was hardly any adverse impact in being the daughter of the great Indian sitar master.
After all, the daughter of the celebrated Ravi Shankar, 25 year-old Anoushka Shankar is a musical phenomenon in her own right. If world music has a royal dynasty, then Anoushka is its reigning princess. She has shown herself to be a unique artist, a sitar virtuoso in her own right, and a master interpreter of the traditional music of India. Yes, she did take sitar lessons from her dad, and no, she didn’t have to struggle to break into the music industry. Nor has she stayed within the strict confines of the Hindustani classical tradition to which she is a natural heir. Then again, neither did Ravi Shankar.
Having someone like Ravi Shankar for a father and the mega-selling Norah Jones for a half-sister, has meant great expectations have been a constant background noise during Anouskha Shankar’s very public growing up. What is surprising is just how well the artist holds together the demands of an ancient tradition, the expectations of her iconic father (who is also her teacher), the glare of the media’s focus, and the usual push-pull of adolescence.
Anoushka was born on June 9, 1981, in London, United Kingdom, to Ravi Shankar and Sukanya Rajan, an accomplished Carnatic singer. Through her father, Anoushka is the half-sister of Grammy winner Norah Jones (daughter of Ravi Shankar and Sue Jones). Anoushka spent her formative years in London, and by the time she was seven, she was also living part of the year in New Delhi, India. It was around the time that her mother reunited with Ravi Shankar.
It was at this time in her life when Anoushka recalls attending two schools in two different parts of the world on a regular basis. “I went to school in London and in New Delhi. I’d start the school year in London, go do it in the winter in Delhi, and finish up in London again. And so I had two homes, two lives. So it wasn’t just growing up in one place with two cultures, I literally belonged to both and was always halfway in both, because you can’t be completely in two places,” she once commented in an interview.
In her early years, Anoushka first resisted the legacy of the sitar, a complex and ancient instrument with between 17 and 21 strings. Anoushka learned her first Indian songs and dances from her mother, Sukanya, and finally became her father’s student at the age of nine. She began her training under her father, starting with the tanbura drone accompaniment before progressing to the sitar. Her initial dislike of the specially built “baby sitar” on which she cut her musical teeth gave way to love of the instrument and the music. The world’s greatest sitar player had a special, small sitar made for his daughter, and took the rare opportunity to teach her to play the long-necked Indian string instrument traditionally performed by men. It was soon obvious that she had inherited her father’s musical talent, and she began performing and recording with him at age 13. Anoushka, incidentally, happens to be the only artist in the world to be trained completely by her father, legendary sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar.
At the age of eleven, Anoushka moved to Encinitas, California. While in school in the US, Anoushka was very prominent in the community, and she gave several charity performances as a teenager. Anoushka was chosen as Homecoming Queen at San Dieguito High School Academy, and she also represented California at the National Conference for Youth Leadership in 1998. She graduated in 1999 with high honors from the local public high school.
With every breathtaking performance, Anoushka’s talent shines and leaves audiences all around the world awestruck. This talent of Anoushka’s first came to be at the age of 14 on her first recording, which was a minor appearance on In Celebration, a recording to celebrate her father’s 75th anniversary of musical performance.
Then after, Anoushka began to shape a career that reflects her own artistic ambitions while still carrying on the Indian classical traditions her father instilled in her. In 1997, Anoushka joined her father in London for a historic performance of his Concerto No. 1 for Sitar and Orchestra, with Zubin Mehta conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Since then, she has performed the concerto several times on her own with various orchestras. In the same year, she helped as a conductor with her father and dear friend George Harrison on the 1997 release, Chants of India.
The year 1998 was a landmark for the young wonder. Her first solo recording, Anoushka (Angel/EMI), made very much under the guidance of dad and firmly within the classical tradition, was released and earned tremendous critical acclaim. The release of Anoushka came with the inauguration of the label’s comprehensive, ongoing reissue program of music of Ravi Shankar’s historic World Pacific and Angel catalog. All the titles, some of which were not previously available on CD, had been completely re-mastered and repackaged with new insights from the master musician himself.
During the 1998-99 season, Anoushka continued touring, performing at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Festival in Seattle and in a special concert at New York’s Town Hall. In 1998, Anoushka played both the piano and the sitar with Maestro Jean Pierre Rampal. In 1999, she performed a new piece written by her father for the sitar and cello, with Mstislav Rostropovich, at the Evian Festival. Highlights of the 1999-2000 season included performances with Ravi Shankar at London’s Barbican Theatre and at the Evian Festival in France.
In the year 2000, Anoushka’s second solo recording Anourag was released. Anourag put her firmly in the spotlight, and the compilation included six Ravi Shankar compositions all exclusively developed for his dear daughter. Of particular note is “Pancham Se Gara,” a father and daughter duet, something that meant a lot to Shankar.
Live at Carnegie Hall followed in 2001, and Anoushka was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music Album category, making her the youngest ever nominee in that category. Live at Carnegie Hall features Anoushka performing works written by Ravi Shankar, and the new recording was virtually a sequel to Ravi Shankar: Full Circle/Carnegie Hall 2000, featuring his spectacular performance at the same concert, with Anoushka assisting him.
The latest album, Rise (2005), is an adventurous chill-out album with strong New Age flavors that is based largely around a dawn-to-dusk sequence of ancient ragas. Anoushka arranged, produced, and composed all but one track, which was collaborated with Spanish pianist Pedro Ricardo Miño. Guest appearances from the great VM Bhatt on Mohan Veena, vocal percussion by long-term collaborators Bikram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose, and even the sound of a duduk are all present on this album. Anoushka sings and plays piano and even a little sitar.
Anoushka’s performances continue to enthrall and captivate her audience in one form or the other. At the historic “Concert for George”, a memorial for her family’s dear friend, George Harrison, held in the venerable Royal Albert Hall in London in November 2002, she performed a sitar solo during “The Inner Light” with Jeff Lyne before conducting a new composition of her father’s which featured performances by 43 musicians playing Indian and Western instruments.
She has premiered several new works of her father’s, including a piece for sitar and cello with legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich at the Evian Festival in 1999, “Mood Circle” at the World Economic Forum in New York in 2002, and “Nivedan” at the “Healing the Divide” benefit in New York City in 2003, which was organized by Richard Gere and Philip Glass, and attended by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Anoushka has shared the stage with many of the world’s top celebrities, including Sting, Madonna, Nina Simone, Anjelique Kidjo, Herbie Hancock, Elton John, Peter Gabriel, James Taylor, Ray Charles, and even Prince Charles.
Her performances and renditions of the highest order of sitar have earned her a number of awards, accolades and honours. In recognition of her artistry and musicianship, the British Parliament presented Anoushka with a House of Commons Shield in 1998. She is the youngest as well as the first female recipient of this high honor. Anoushka became the first woman to perform at the Ramakrishna Centre in Calcutta in February 2000. The Indian Television Academy, Asmi, and India Times chose her as one of four Women of the Year in India in 2003. In 2004 she was chosen as one of twenty Asian Heroes by the Asian edition of Time magazine.
She even had the honor to be the first Indian woman ever to perform at the Grammy Awards when she performed during the pre-telecast ceremony of the 48th awards. In addition, she was the youngest ever nominee in the Best World Music Album category for a Grammy in 2003 (the year her half-sister, Norah Jones, walked away with five awards, including Album of the Year).
The very basis of Anoushka’s personal and professional life indeed happens to be her relationship with the illustrious father. Her father, her friend, her teacher, her guru, her colleague – Panditji has played many roles in her route to success. There is always an invisible aura of the great man hovering over Anoushka, and she acknowledges that this is the case. Many see her as the keeper of a flame, and she says, “There’s a lot of external pressure on me, people looking for the family tradition to be continued. But I’ve never had it from my parents. My father wants me to be happy, he’s always said that.”
Considering the relation with her father to be a special one, Anoushka says, “I act very differently when we are playing music or when he’s teaching me either on the instrument or vocally than I would in a normal situation. Like, if we’re just watching a movie or something, and he says something I think is silly, I can correct him. But if we are in a musical setting, he’s my guru, which is a very, very respectful relationship. And so I would never say anything like that. Maybe I would ask a question like, “Well, why would it be like this?” It’s a very different way of being”.
Anoushka is also very cautious about sharing the stage with her father. She feels that a good 90 percent of what his father plays on stage is improvisation, so it is quite a Herculean task playing a duet with him. She needs to constantly stare at him and visually pick up on cues as he continues to improvise. Anoushka’s devotion to the sitar and to her father’s guidance is unmistakable, and it is her discipline that has led her towards an extraordinary performing career. As Ravi Shankar’s biographer Ken Hunt rightly states, “She’s driven – she’s her father’s daughter. That’s both in genes, and in music. She has the same fire for the music that he has.“
Anoushka’s personal life has often been dragged into the limelight and is sometimes surrounded in controversy. Be it her relationship with half-sister Norah Jones (with whom she says she has a normal relationship with for the last nine years) or with Narendar Kotiyan, her mother’s ex-husband who demands that Anoushka is his daughter, the media and the public continue to put her under the spotlight.
Despite the media controversies, this mystically talented music maestro excels in her life and career. Incidentally, despite being a sitar player of the highest order, Anoushka has also published a novel, contributed as a writer to several other books, and has shown herself to be a gifted film actress. In 2002, Bapi: The Love of my Life, a biography she wrote about her father, was released. In the following year, she acted in her first film, Pamela Rooks’ “Dance like a Man,” a story about the daughter of two dancers continuing the dream of her parents through her own dance.
This gifted musician has many sides to her, many most people do not know about. She is a supporter of animal rights and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and she has appeared in a thirty-second public-service announcement against animal suffering. Her very name was inspired by a very good friend of the family, Dr Anne Pennington, and the Russian version came about because of the then-popular actress, Anoushka Hempel.
Music to Anoushka means many things. She likes a wide variety of music, such as Goa trance, English drum and bass, and and German trance. She likes Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, Bob Marley and such others. An ardent piano player, she feels if she had not been a sitar player, she would have been a pianist.
These days, Anoushka spends much of the year giving solo performances in Europe, America, and Asia, and she continues to tour around the world with her father’s ensemble. At the young age of 25, she has already achieved more than most performers twice her age. While she admits she has “done a lot, I don’t think I’m doing that much more than the average successful kid who gets good grades and does a lot.” For her, the goal is set. “I still think there’s a way to go. I haven’t done a solo tour in India, which is the real test. And I’m only just starting to tour solo. A year or two from now I’ll feel that my career is established.”
Anoushka has truly proven that the saying that offspring of famous persons often fail to shine wrong. She has not only made her parents, especially the legendary sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar proud, but she has also made an indelible mark for herself in the field of music. Anoushka is truly and rightly the youth icon and face of Indian music in the West. She is doing what her father never would have thought necessary — bringing Indian classical music back home. It is thus not without any reason when Amjad Ali Khan, a revered Indian musician and contemporary of her father, opines that Anoushka is the future of Indian classical music.