The sitar, a classical instrument most commonly used in Hindustani music popular throughout India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, is four feet long with a long neck and metal strings.
Established in India as late as the 18th century, it wasn’t until revolutionary composer Ravi Shankar introduced and integrated the sitar into Western pop music in the ‘60s. His incorporation of activism, education, and innovation would set the stage for sitar players all over the world.
Fast forward to 2003 when his daughter, Anoushka Shankar, became the youngest and first woman nominee in the World Music category of the Grammy Awards for her compositions in Live at Carnegie Hall. Born in London but raised in New Delhi and California, Shankar began studying with her father at a very young age. At only 14 years old she found herself performing worldwide alongside her father, and at 16 she signed a record deal with Angel Records (EMI). By the time Shankar reached the age of 30 she had received five Grammy nominations and was the first Indian artist to perform at the Grammy Awards.
Aside from the sitar, one of Shankar’s biggest gifts is making worlds meet. As an activist, she uses her platform to speak about women’s rights and violence against women, while as a musician she experiments with contemporary genres and performers such as M.I.A., Norah Jones (her step-sister), and Rodrigo y Gabriela. We sat with the brilliant musician at the Uppsala Guitar Festival to talk about corroborating activism and fusing the traditional and modern worlds of music.
Tell me about how you fell in love with the sitar at such an early age. I know that your father was a huge influence, but what were some groundbreaking moments for you as a child.
As you say, I was raised around it, so I loved it before I can look back and tell you how I fell in love with it. As I grew older and started to play , I think one of the things that I really loved about it is it’s a very unique form of music in the sense that because it’s an oral tradition, it’s not a written down form of music. So even though it’s a classical music style, it’s not people sitting and reading off a page, as beautiful as that is. This is something taught generation to generation and then improvised upon. And so, for me, I fell in love with the fact that I felt connected to something very ancient through playing the music. You can feel the [snaps fingers] lineage of what’s being handed down over centuries, but at the same time it’s your own, and you have to immerse yourself in it, and absorb it enough to be able to improvise and make it of the moment. So, the fact that it’s very ancient and completely fresh and will never be the same way again, that is very tantalizing to me.
Have you ever had one of those moments where you’ve wanted to forget all of your classical training?
It’s like a—what’s the word for a forward-moving spiral process? I feel like I’m always dancing between both of those experiences. I need to step away from my classical tradition in order to just hold the instrument as my own. It’s just me and my ideas, and my playing, and then when I reconnect with the classical tradition, I’m overwhelmed by how beautiful it is, and how that heritage is very beautiful. And then I get sick of it again and need to step away. I think that’s why my albums hopscotch a little bit. I’ve made albums that are very experimental and collaborative, and then I go back and make a classical record. Last October [I toured] with this band where we had upright bass, a full drum kit, electronics. And then in November, I was with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta at Lincoln Center. Being able to have all of those experiences feels true to me, but also keeps it fresh as well. I totally get what you’re saying. I do need to totally let go, but I also love it, so I don’t say goodbye to it permanently.
You’re a composer, you’ve been playing the sitar for decades, and you’ve done a lot of activism as well. It seems like you’re a voice for what is happening in the world, and you express that through your music. How do you view and approach the relationship between activism, tradition, and contemporary composition?
That’s a really good question. When I’m using my musical voice to be in any way associated with activism, I’m careful to make sure it’s something that is 100% honest to who I am and what I feel. I think that’s what people connect to in music. There has to be some emotional depth that only comes from feeling it truthfully, that people can understand in the music. Whether they understand what you’re feeling politically or not, they have to connect to the truth emotionally, and that’s totally different than marching, or a benefit concert, or an angry post, or wearing a t-shirt. That’s direct, right? So that’s different. You can say what you need as eloquently or ineloquently as you’re able, but with music, there has to be an emotional response. I’m very careful to engage with anything as deeply and honestly as I can, and try to keep the focus there. When I then use my name and do things outside of music, it’s almost the opposite, where I allow myself to be a lot more direct, a lot more verbal, angry, if that’s what I feel. But still, it’s about honesty. I try not to step into things if I don’t feel them in my belly. I try not to be afraid of pushback—we’re citizens, and that’s where we have a right to use our voices. I don’t need to be an expert to voice my beliefs. That just comes from being a citizen of this planet.
We all talk about echo chambers on social media, where you realize you’re posting and sharing with people who all feel the same way as you—that’s what it’s like in my personal social media [networks]. But in my music social media, it’s not an echo chamber, because people like my music page, so they’re from all walks of life. I post things that to me seem very obvious, because they’re my views, and I can be surprised that a high percentage of people who like my music don’t feel the same way as me. Sometimes I really get some vitriol. People are liking me for my music, not because I’m a politician. And at the same time, I want to go to bed feeling like I’ve done my part. It’s a daily process, I guess. I get the pushback occasionally, and I try to respect other people’s opinions as much as I can..
Are you the type of person who gets the pushback and wants to push more, or wants to step back?
Both. Facebook is a great example, because I use it for a mix of posting about shows, posting about political things. In 2014, I wrote some posts about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and there were a good 4,000 responses under my feed. There came a point where I couldn’t read all the posts if I wanted to keep living my day. I engaged as long as I could, and tried to continue respectful dialogue, because I found it very interesting that people took the time to respond to me, and I wanted to respond to them, but after a while it does get to a point where I’m obviously not changing someone’s mind who doesn’t feel the same way as me. So, respectfully, “Goodbye.”
And your music is the way that everyone kind of agrees, right? The people that are liking your page, they’re at least agreeing that they like what you do.
It’s funny. My Dad, the way he had his career, he generally kept things… his line was humanitarian, not political. He would do a benefit concert—the concert for Bangladesh, it was such an iconic concert, instigated by him and George Harrison. His line was always about using music for humanitarian causes, but not to step into political divisiveness, because someone could connect to your humanitarian message even if they didn’t know that they disagree politically. But once you are very clear politically, then they might not hear what you’re saying, because they feel like they disagree with you. And there’s a lot of wisdom to that, because people are listening to us because we’re musicians. Sometimes people shut the door on listening to you if you step into that stuff. However, I don’t feel like I 100% agree with that, for me, because I feel like the world is such shit sometimes that you need to say everything you need to say. How could I not say I wouldn’t vote for Trump? How could anyone not say that?
Let me ask you a little bit about 2013, when you actively campaigned against crime against women. How do you translate that through your music?
At the time I had [out] an album called Traces of You, and one of the pieces that I had written [“In Jyoti’s Name”] was in response to that horrific gang rape in New Delhi. I dedicated it to her name. It was probably the angriest piece of music I’d ever written, and we played it around the world, and we kept talking about it, and sharing it, and dedicating it to her. So there’s a way in which you could tie it to the dialogue, simply by playing that piece of music. I do feel like in a quasi-spiritual sense, you’re offering something up. Beyond that, I don’t know what I can do musically. Pain is a great music tool. I’ve used it in many many ways over the years, but not in a way I can analyze pretty easily.
Do you feel like your identity as a woman and as a classical musician corroborate?
They do now, but I feel like that has a lot more to do with me than the world. As a teenager—I started young—I was on stage performing in every sense of the word. There was a way I thought I had to be, there was a way I thought I had to conduct myself in interviews—smile, be demure, be all of these things that are taught—not just as a performer, but in my culture as well. In my 20s, that sort of continued. I started making music that was more true to myself, but I still felt like I had to be a certain way to be perceived as okay, or safe.
I’m loving my 30s. I feel like all the different threads are coming together. It’s a bit of a “fuck it” button, really. You don’t have to be what everyone else wants you to be. I just feel more comfortable in my own skin. And then that naturally feeds into my music. I don’t feel apologetic about anything anymore. I don’t think I could do that in my 20s. I don’t think I would have felt safe enough to share a story like [“In Jyoti’s Name”] if I didn’t think I could hold myself through what was going to come from sharing it. But that’s a part of my story, and that’s a part of too many people’s stories. I want to try to be a part of changing that.
You are an influencer for classical performance and contemporary composition, so in which ways do you actively defy and elevate your culture?
You’re making me think today.
This is something I think about a lot because I’m Mexican and I play Cumbia. And it’s a battle for me. So I really wanted to get your perspective on that.
At the risk of repeating myself, it comes back down to authenticity and truth. Bad example, but a classical musician deliberately trying to rock out in order to be more popular—it looks cheesy. Or someone who’s very much not from the classical world writing something with an orchestra to gain prestige. It just doesn’t sound right because they don’t know what they’re writing. That stuff… you know when it doesn’t feel authentic. When I’m writing music, I’ll have lots of influences. I’ll listen to lots of things, but I’m really mindful not to do something that doesn’t feel like it’s coming from my inner core, [which] is multi-cultural. I did grow up across three continents, and traveling the world, so I do have multiple influences. It’s that balance of not being apologetic and afraid. But also not to stick a breakbeat on it just because it’s going to sell more records, if I don’t know what that is and it doesn’t feel right to me. So to just kind of try to have that integrity—I think that’s what people hear and appreciate.