2013 was an annus horribilis – a most horrible year – for me. I was a fish out of water inside an engineering college teeming with lathe machines, metal and wooden typefaces, and carpentry tools. I felt like an outsider looking in, seeking refuge instead in books and film – and music.
It was during this time that I chanced upon British-American musician, film composer, activist, and Grammy-nominated artist Anoushka Shankar’s viral music video, “Lasya.”
The song, as I would later learn, was fusion music at its finest – blending the highest ideals of Hindustani classical music with a western undertone. It was replete with the characteristic sounds of a sitar that tug at one’s heartstrings, the beat of a traditional clay pot that seemed like it was from another era, and the gradual build-up to a gratifying crescendo. The song is said to be a manifestation of goddess Parvati’s dance – graceful and soothing – in stark contrast to Shiva’s aggressive Tandava, the dance of destruction.
When Shankar joined me on a Zoom video call from her London home, she told me that this journey to a place of calm was a long and arduous one. And while her talent and creations could potentially heal hearts like mine, they did take a toll on herself for a while.
“I was brought up around performance and the commitment to it. No matter how sick my father was, he would be on stage. I don’t think that was necessarily healthy and, for the longest time, I did the same,” she said.
Her father is the late Ravi Shankar, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 92. The globally acclaimed sitar maestro, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna – India’s highest civilian award– famously collaborated with renowned musicians including George Harrison of the legendary English rock band The Beatles.
Learning to unlearn
Ravi Shankar continued to perform live until the end of his life. But there were times when he just couldn’t, which is when his daughter would have to stand in for him. Audiences would applaud her, unaware of the emotional and physical strain her father being in the hospital had had on her performance. There was a lot of unlearning from her father that she would have to do in this area, specifically related to ideas of toxic productivity and the need to perform, regardless of the toll on one’s own health and wellbeing.
“There were and still are times when I’m on stage and I want to stab my eyeballs with a knife, but there are also times when that feeling becomes weirdly transcendental because music can carry you through difficult experiences,” she said. Shankar believes that finding balance and not tipping over into darkness or toxic productivity is a slow process.
She cautions, however, against the myth of the “sad artist,” who must be depressed in order to create. She believes that while it’s safe to go out on a limb and say that artists feel deeply and experience life intensely, her experiences have not been limited by sorrow.
“Maybe it’s a cliché but there is a need to make sense of pain and transmute it into something,” she said. “However, it becomes toxic when you glorify that pain, believing that you don’t have a right to be happy again.”
On November 15, 2022, when the nominations for the 65th Annual Grammy Awards were announced, Shankar became the first female artist of Indian origin to be nominated for two Grammys in the same year. The ceremony, which will be held next year on February 5 in Los Angeles, USA, includes nominations for Shankar in the categories of Best Global Music Performance (with singer Arooj Aftab for “Udhero Na”) and Best Global Music Album for “Between Us… (Live)” with the jazz and pop orchestra Metropole Orkest, conductor-composer Jules Buckley, and musician Manu Delago. Shankar’s Grammy nomination count goes up to nine with these.
Keeping it real
Shankar is conscious of not turning a blind eye to the realities around her. In July of this year, she did the voiceover for a short film supporting the rights of the indigenous people of the Hasdeo forest, who are fighting to prevent further coal mining in India’s Chhattisgarh state.
“Early on in my career, I knew that I couldn’t keep proving myself to people because that was a battle I was always going to lose,” she said. “But when [one] talks of the intersection of privilege, things become interesting because, of course, I’ve had the privilege of being born to a successful father, and there are musicians way more talented than I who’ve never had the privilege that I have.”
That isn’t to say that Shankar hasn’t struggled with ideas of belonging and community, especially since her gender and the colour of her skin often meant that she was an outsider. “No one seemed to understand what it was like being the only brown woman in the room, and often [being] the only woman at all.”
Being the only brown woman in the room also translated into what Shankar refers to as being “exotified to become more visible.” The way in which she was looked at, and gazed upon, was woefully apparent in the fashion and magazine shoots that she was featured in where her “Indian-ness” was grossly exaggerated and highlighted.
“While other musicians would be shot in a gritty way with their instruments, they would put me on an ‘Oriental’ carpet with flowers in my hair and people on the set sniffing around me, as if I [were] enjoying it all.”
Shankar is, however, aware that she has been privileged in other ways and is conscious of passing on her privilege in ways that she can, including trying to ensure diversity in the people she hires and educates. “So, while I might [have been] the only brown woman in the room for the longest time, I recently had a lightbulb moment when I asked myself if I was doing enough to ensure that I was not the only brown woman in the room.”
Dealing with misogyny
Speaking of Hindustani classical music that is believed to be a pathway to reach the divine, Shankar points out that it’s important to remember that men don’t suddenly become imbued with the divine simply because they are creating music that is considered divine.
“A while back, I was performing in a concert hall in Kolkata, where there were many legendary musicians in the audience; my father was also there,” she recounted. “After my performance, one of those legendary musicians greeted me backstage and told me that I was so good that if he closed his eyes, he could never guess that it wasn’t a man playing the sitar. It might seem small, but it shows the kind of perspective that is [ingrained] in people for him to think that he was [paying me] a compliment.”
It might come as little surprise then that the music industry is not free from or immune to abuses of power. “People are shocked about the #MeToo movement in music, but what is so shocking about it? There are men in music and there is an abuse of women in music. If there is abuse even in religious institutions, why wouldn’t you have it in classical music? It’s the people that are the problem and there needs to be a groundswell of change from how people are raised.”
Shankar recounts doing a duet at the age of 17 with a legendary singer from the West, who was in his late 70s at the time. She felt blessed to be able to perform on stage with a musician of his stature. “At the end of the concert, he leaned forward for, I thought, the European kiss on my cheeks, but instead grabbed my face and stuck his tongue in my mouth. This kinda shit happens because people do it. It’s bigger than just talking about music.”
In spite of prevailing abuses of power and privilege, as well as all the toxicity and hate, how does she retain her love for music, and go on to compose songs that heal hearts? For Shankar, the answer lies in not ceasing to love life itself. “You read the newspaper every morning and you want to kill yourself, but [then] there’s also my kids laughing. Life is a cycle of hope and heartbreak, and we choose hope every single day.”
The Anoushka Shankar Project (India Tour) will kickstart on December 11, 2022, at the Good Shepherd Auditorium in Bengaluru, followed by a specially curated show in Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall on December 16, and a performance on December 18 at the Sirifort Auditorium in Delhi.