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Anoushka Shankar: lights, camera, concert

Ahead of Anoushka Shankar's India tour, the sitar player and composer on the art of creating a live score for the silent film 'Shiraz'

A still from ‘Shiraz’. Courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek
A still from ‘Shiraz’. Courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek

Anoushka Shankar has lived up to her legendary father, the world’s most famous sitar player, Ravi Shankar. She is a global music icon, a multiple Grammy award nominee. But unlike her father, she hadn’t composed for a film until now. And keeping with the spirit of musical inventiveness that runs in her family, her debut as a film composer is far from the ordinary.

Last Saturday, at the 61st BFI London Film Festival at the Barbican Center in London, Shankar presented the restored version of Frank Oztin’s Shiraz (1928), a forgotten classic from the silent era, for the first time with a live score with a 7-piece orchestra. The Indian/German/British co-production starring Himansu Rai, Seeta Devi and Charu Roy, is a mythical tale about the 17th-century princess who inspired the construction of Taj Mahal. It has been restored by the British Film Institute as part of the UK-India Year of Culture, 2017. The BFI National Archive, in association with British Council, is bringing the film, with Shankar’s performance, to Hyderabad, Kolkata, New Delhi and Mumbai on November 1-5 respectively. Ahead of her tour, in an interview conducted over phone, Shankar spoke about what it was like to create music for a silent film, why an obscure short is her favourite Ravi Shankar score and, in context of current events, the uncanny timing of the tour.

Anoushka Shankar. Laura Lewis, Deutsche Grammophon
Anoushka Shankar. Laura Lewis, Deutsche Grammophon

This is your first film score and not a conventional one. How was the process different?

The sheer of volume of music required was one of the challenges. In a silent film, there are no consistent starts and finishes in the musical pieces, so there was a lot of work to be done. We have only a few moments of silence where it suited the film. Otherwise, it is more like an extended piece of music; we don’t get a moment of break. (laughs)

And as my first film score, it’s a different thought process. Writing for a film means the music has to serve the film, the narrative. For many months it would be me and my sound engineer, and sometimes me alone, writing the music. We rehearsed together with the ensemble a few days before the premiere.

The score seems to be a mix of Western and Indian classical. What was the idea?

Yes. The film is set in 17th Century, made in early 20th Century and is being released now in the 21st Century. So in terms of being faithful to the film, I could be faithful to any of these. For some moments of the film, the music is such that it could have been from 350 years ago. I wanted to design a soundscape that was also accessible to the modern viewers. We have used Western instruments to balance the Indian instruments: such as the clarinet and flute, the western cello to counter the sitar.

How much scope does the score leave for improvisation?

It’s much more composed than what I normally do. My shows have room for a bit of improvisation. In a film, you can’t have that risk; you can’t have someone taking 10 seconds longer. So, in terms of precision, it’s like watching a Beethoven performance. What I did do is make sure that everyone gets a moment to shine.

Your father and guru, Ravi Shankar has a rich legacy as a film composer, most notably The Apu Trilogy. Did you remember him and his film work while working on Shiraz?

Of course. He has composed some of the most memorable soundtracks. At the beginning of summer before I started working on Shiraz, I watched The Apu Trilogy again. I just wanted to refresh my mind about what was so wonderful about it. It’s just the fact that it is so faithful to the film. Music and the film are inextricably intertwined with each other and it also manages to sound fresh and improvised. That’s what I took away from it. I wanted that live energy, you could take the film away and you’ll still get a full concert experience.

Which is your favourite Ravi Shankar film score?

There is a little known short film called ‘Cherry Tale’, made in the 50s. Father scored it along with Allah Rakha on the tabla. Again, the music has such a wonderful responsiveness to film. It’s just a short film about a man with a fair amount of humor and tenderness. I used to watch it a lot when I was a kid.

A still from ‘Shiraz’. Courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek

The film also feels eerily timely. Last week, a MLA of the ruling government called the Taj Mahal “a blot on Indian culture".

I am a believer things happen at certain times they are meant to be: me coming to India all of this is happening around the Taj Mahal. I am pleased in taking part in a project that celebrates the Taj Mahal as an icon of Indian culture and history at a time when it is being questioned.

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