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Anoushka Shankar: 'I've been finding and enjoying a sound that's simpler'

Anoushka Shankar speaks to Lounge before a short tour this week, including a set at the Lollapalooza Festival in Mumbai

Anoushka Shankar in 2021
Anoushka Shankar in 2021

For almost three decades, Anoushka Shankar has been one of the most forward-thinking artists in Hindustani classical music, taking the sitar boldly into new sonic territories. The daughter and protege of Pandit Ravi Shankar—the world-famous sitar maestro who is known as the “godfather of world music”—she made her debut performance aged just 13, accompanied by none other than Zakir Hussain at Delhi’s Siri Fort. She spent the next few years accompanying her father on concerts all over the world, performing at some of the world’s most prestigious stages. 

By the time she was 18, she had already released her debut album Anoushka, a collection of Hindustani classical ragas that established her as a sitar virtuoso in her own stead. In the years since, Shankar has become almost as synonymous with the mediaeval stringed instrument as her father, whose influence remains central to her musical identity.

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“It’s so hard to talk about his influence, because he’s everywhere,” she says, talking over Zoom last December, on the 11th anniversary of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s death. “Even as I grew up and started finding more of my identity, I didn’t lose anything that he taught me.” 

Much like her father, Shankar isn’t content just painting within the lines of the Hindustani classical tradition. Starting with 2005’s Rise, she expanded her sonic palette to include jazz, pop, Asian Underground electronics, and even hip-hop. As she grew more confident and accomplished, she became more ambitious in both sound and concept. 2011’s Traveller, produced by Javier Limón, explored the connections and history between flamenco and Indian classical, while 2016’s Land Of Gold was a devastating yet hopeful response to the refugee crisis. These were dense records with complex layers of sound, the sort of albums that critics love to “unpack”. 

And then Shankar took another left-field turn. Her 2020 EP Love Letters—written in the wake of her divorce—pulled back from the maximalism and the grand concept in favour of a raw, intimate vulnerability. Last year, she released Chapter I: Forever, For Now, a four-track EP—the first in a planned trilogy—that almost sounds like she’s performing next to you at a campfire, combining intimacy with a sense of boundless space, her sitar painting the sky with gentle brush-strokes of vibrant emotional colour. Is Shankar, to borrow a term from the Taylor Swift fandom, embarking on a new era? 

“The pandemic, personal life events, they all meant that for a while I was writing from an inner space again, rather than an external space,” she says. “I do feel like I've been finding and enjoying a sound that's simpler somehow, and I think that maybe comes from a confidence that I didn't have to the same degree before. I think it takes some kind of confidence and trust to allow things to be unadorned.” 

Recorded at Berlin’s famous Funkhaus complex at new label LEITER’s studio—run by German composer Nils Frahm, who also appears on the EP—Chapter I exists within the sun-dappled memory of a summer afternoon spent in the garden with her two young boys.

Shankar was playing the sitar, with one of her kids resting his head in her lap, when an old Carnatic lullaby came to her, unbidden. The EP is an attempt to capture the emotional resonance of that moment. 

“I started playing it, and first of all, remembered how much I'd always loved this lullaby,” she says. “But I also realised how much I enjoyed playing it and hearing it on the sitar, which I'd never heard before. So I kind of tucked that away, that's the only thing I came into the studio with. I knew I wanted to create something in that peaceful lullaby space.”

Shankar credits producer Arooj Aftab—alongside Frahm, whom she calls a friend and an influence—for the record’s unique blend of intimacy and expansiveness. Shankar has known Aftab socially for a long time, but the two first collaborated in 2021 on the Pakistani-American musician’s track Udhero Na

“In her own way, she does what I do in my music,” says Shankar. “Bringing unexpected sound-worlds together in a way that makes sense and feels authentic. But she does it with more space than most of my music has.”

Chapter I is only the first instalment in three planned ‘mini-albums’, each created in a different space with different producers. The second chapter has already been recorded—with award-winning British composer Peter Raeburn handling production duties—and is set to drop in early 2024. She says it's more of a night-time record, leaning into the ambient space. For someone who has been making albums since 1998, this change in process has been quite an exciting experiment. 

“There's still an overarching connection, she says. “It feels important to me that once they're all out, people can listen to them in sequence and they make sense. But they can have a different identity, a different feel. They can be stages that connect with each other but exist on their own. I found that quite creatively freeing, to think of a smaller nucleus of songs.” 

For now, Shankar is on the road, hitting India for a short tour this week—including a set at the Lollapalooza Festival in Mumbai—ahead of a string of European dates in spring. It can be challenging to find musicians who can do justice to the wide range of sounds and styles in Shankar’s ouvre, but she's incredibly excited with the new quintet she's put together.

“The irony is that sometimes when you stay within one tradition, there can be more freedom, because everyone knows that one style,” she says. “As soon as you move into the crossover space, it sounds more free to the listener, but it's usually more limited for the musicians. What I love about this band is that it's the closest I've come to where the sound-world exists in a genre-free space, but you still have a lot of creative freedom. It feels very fulfilling to me.”


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