The legend and the sitar's new star

03.11.10
Ravi Shankar
The Sydney Morning Herald

Ravi Shankar was 62 when his second daughter, Anoushka, was born. He will turn 90 in a few weeks and she's 28. He's at the end of his career, having worked tirelessly to introduce classical Indian sitar music to Western audiences. She, by contrast, has grown up in a complex global, cross-cultural world having spent her childhood in Delhi and London and her adolescence in California. She is a world music sitar player for the 21st century.

Over the past decade Anoushka Shankar has played Indian classical music with her father but she has also toured with the British rock band Jethro Tull, played with classical violinist Joshua Bell, collaborated with minimalist composer Philip Glass, recorded with Sting and her half-sister, Norah Jones, and been produced by the Indian-American electro club whiz Karsh Kale.

Anoushka is the future. She sits in the lobby of the Hilton in Adelaide (where, with her father, she was the headline act on the final night at Womadelaide) looking like some exotic and beautiful Indian flower or bird. Small, fine boned, delicately featured, vibrant with life and enthusiasm, she is both a respectful daughter and a passionate innovator.

When playing with her father she performs classical Indian sitar ragas. She explains: "In theory our classical music is meant to be as improvised as possible. In my father's case, he improvises entirely to the point where most of us don't know what he is going to end up wanting to play …

"The unusual thing is to have these two melodic instruments together because obviously he leads the show and my role is to match his brain as much as possible, to follow along, because nothing is set.

"It is a lot of thinking on your feet … We understand each other really well. It is kind of beautiful. We have played together for

15 years. It is a lot more collaborative now." The result at Womadelaide - two ragas in an hour - was at times like duelling sitars, with Ravi playing a complex run of notes, Anoushka repeating them then Tanmoy Bose's tablas echoing what the sitars had played.

Anoushka admits her father is a very old man (on stage he walks with a stick, has a student tune his sitar and looks frail).

But with a light laugh she says: "He can remember back in the 1940s. He might forget what he had for breakfast. His humour and his wit are still there. He does things like … reading Time and Newsweek every week. He is still so connected to the world.

''I was watching Beyonce on YouTube and I explained her to him. He was interested."

It is that contemporary connection that has made Anoushka so relevant in world music. She may play classical sitar but her influences are decidedly Western. She points out that as a child: "I was coming home and learning sitar but funnily enough I was also a Neighbours addict. So like all the other seven- and eight-year-olds I had my Kylie Minogue tapes and videos that I would dance along to. I loved MC Hammer and Michael Jackson. I did grow up with a foot in both camps."

Ask about Sting singing Sea Dreamer on her 2007 album Breathing Under Water and she'll point out: "I was a rabid teenage fan. Trudie [Styler, Sting's wife] had organised a benefit in London that I took part in, at which point she realised that I was a big fan of his and at my next birthday I got a Happy Birthday fax from him … Then he invited me to play on his record. A couple of years later we were doing Breathing Under Water. It was an opportunity for me to work with my sister, Norah Jones. Both of us were Sting fans."

Strangest of all is her work with Jethro Tull. "Ian [Anderson] had toured India a couple of times and he wanted to duet with me. I didn't know what I'd gotten myself into. What was I doing in this band? So he wrote some pieces for me. There's one called Tea With Anoushka which employs Indian-like scales and gives me a lot of room.''

Ravi Shankar may be a legendary champion of 1960s cultural and musical fusion but he never deviated from his desire to popularise Indian classical music. Anoushka is more catholic and generous in her approach. Her fusions and experiments belong to a new century where pop and classical are both part of a new age of musical globalisation.