Anoushka Shankar is Keyed into the Consciousness of Music

Credit: Jamie-James Medina

If music is a universal form of storytelling then Anoushka Shankar hopes her current tour will find common ground with her engaged audiences, and also reflect on the past. The story is cathartic, as the sitar virtuoso looks back at her life’s journey through the celebratory Reflections, her personal reflections album.

Ms. Shankar certainly has much to celebrate. Her father–late sitar legend Ravi Shankar–who would’ve turned 99 this weekend, broke several music genres with his mastery of his instrument. Anoushka, herself, has come a long way with her career, simultaneously learning the sitar and piano as a child before growing up to influence the world of music on her own terms.

The classically trained musician, just the same, grew up in multiple worlds – ergo exposing her to different cultures. There was the obvious: Ms. Shankar is the daughter of a man who expanded the depths of Indian music on the world scene. Ms. Shankar would also spend substantive time living in three of the world’s alpha-level cities (London, Los Angeles and New Delhi).

Growing up in a worldy and eclectic environment allowed Ms. Shankar to develop a diversity of tastes – which is evident in her music, which combines elements of classical, electric and modern.

Her eclectic and worldly tastes are on full display during her current tour, which arrives in Southern California in mid-April (including an April 19 stop at UCLA). The overarching theme of Ms. Shankar’s tour is Reflections, which the sitar virtuoso described as less of an evolution and more of a snapshot of where her journey has meandered to date. Ms. Shankar, while on tour, is playing some of her favorite sets but also trying out a few new tunes, allowing her audience to both revel in the past and discover what could be on tap in the future.

Her music might be ever changing and the current tour is a self-described as a snapshot, but Ms. Shankar clearly had a lifelong exposure to the wide world of music, where she witnessed the works of George Harrison, Sting, Norah Jones (her half sister), Karsh Kale and, of course, Ravi Shankar.

Ms. Shankar recalls her first exposure to the sitar – her parents had her start up on the classical Indian instrument when she was just 7 years old.

“It was very casual at that point, my interest [in sitar] increased as the lessons stepped up,” Ms. Shankar said.

Also increasing was the pressure to fill the shoes of her famous father. Playing the same musical instrument as Ravi would obviously come with expectations and, well, pressure. The junior Shankar actually had a preference for the piano. Tickling the ivory keys came without the pressures of mastering the sitar, giving Ms. Shankar an avenue for musical creativity otherwise not available to her.

Ms. Shankar would eventually have to choose one instrument over the other, and the time to make the hard-pressed decision occurred when she was 16, maybe 17 years old. The sitar virtuoso was equally passionate about the piano and sitar – pressures be damned. Yet maintaining a mastery in both started to become … challenging.

Although she chose the path of the sitar, but to this day Anoushka has no idea why. Did she choose the sitar because of a personal connection to the instrument? Was the sitar ultimately part of her life set-up? Ms. Shankar isn’t sure, but then again, considering her mastery of the instrument and the music she has since created on her own, perhaps the soul-searching reason of “why” doesn’t really matter.

What does matter, to Ms. Shankar, is the way music interacts with humanity and the soul. The language of music, according to Ms. Shankar, transcends petty divisions and otherwise mundane nuances of everyday life.

“It means different things to different people,” Ms. Shankar, in philosophically contemplating the way music is received by the listener.

She added Indian music “is broad and vast,” particularly in its ability to crossover to other cultures and the way it celebrates diversity.

Music is also about dialog, Ms. Shankar said. Her father was certainly a pioneer of cross-cultural experimentation but Ms. Shankar is not trying to replicate the life of Ravi. The narrative is now about having a two-way conversation between cultures and experiencing the various nuances of her art. Arming music with a positive message can facilitate these two-way conversations, particularly in a world where our political climate is shamelessly fostering divisiveness.

“[Music] is a way for us to reach our hearts,” Ms. Shankar said, adding tunes with a purpose are not only emotionally moving but can also foster empathy in the face of political divisiveness. “I have really strong beliefs of how music helps raise our consciousness.”

Anoushka Shankar performs at UCLA’s Royce Hall on April 19 at 8 p.m.; tickets range from $29 to $69. For tickets and full info, click here. Remaining tour dates are available here.

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