A Return To Ragas: Family Matters For Sitar Player Anoushka Shankar

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Anoushka Shankar's new album, Home, marks a return to the Indian classical music her father, Ravi Shankar, taught her. (Courtesy of the artist)
Anoushka Shankar's new album, Home, marks a return to the Indian classical music her father, Ravi Shankar, taught her. (Courtesy of the artist)

In the 1960s, the late musician Ravi Shankar became an ambassador for Indian classical music. He performed at Woodstock, collaborated with the Beatles and introduced Western audiences to the sitar, the Indian stringed instrument. For the last two decades of his life, Shankar was often joined on stage by his most dedicated student: his daughter Anoushka.

Along with performing alongside her father, Anoushka Shankar has experimented with DJs, made an album of flamenco music and teamed up with her half-sister Norah Jones. But on her latest album, Home, Shankar has returned to her father's classical training. She told All Things Considered that it's a collection she's wanted to make for a long time, but it happened to come together just two years after her father passed away.

"He taught me right from the beginning," Anoushka Shankar says. "So, in a way, the album did sort of feel like a real focusing on him and a process of reconnecting with him through playing the music that I've learned from him."

In the booklet for Home, Shankar included an essay written by her father in the 1960s as an introduction to Indian classical music — but she also encourages listeners to approach the music without learning about it first.

"I think sometimes when you speak about something like 'Indian classical music' and 'ragas,' and all of that's new to people, it can be quite intimidating, in the same way that I have sometimes found opera and Wagner intimidating — one doesn't know where to begin sometimes," she says. "So I'm quite keen to just say, 'You know, just listen.' If one's curious and wants to know more, one can, but in the beginning you can also just listen."

The listening, Shankar says, should take some time. "This music is a slow burn, you know? If someone's used to the average two-and-a-half-minute song on the radio, it can be hard to understand what's going on, because at two and a half minutes we're still just playing the first notes and establishing things," she says. "Give it the time to open up and play, and then it sort of seeps under your skin, and it has a very profound impact as a result."

Ravi Shankar understood this effect, and while he didn't get to hear Home before his death, Anoushka says he had faith in her appreciation of the music. "He's been really supportive of all the albums I've made in the last years, and I'm sure if he were alive he would feel particularly proud of this one," she says. "But I think he felt very confident, especially in the final years that we were performing together, in the way I was playing — that that classical music was sort of safe in me, so to speak. I don't think he felt the need for me to have to do it in his time."

Hear the rest of the conversation with Anoushka Shankar, as well as excerpts from Home, in the audio link.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The late musician Ravi Shankar became an ambassador for Indian classical music in the 1960s. He performed at Woodstock, collaborated with the Beatles and introduced Western audiences to the sitar, the plucked Indian stringed instrument.

For the last two decades of his life, Ravi Shankar was joined on stage by his most dedicated student - his daughter, Anoushka Shankar.

ANOUSHKA SHANKAR: I started learning classical Indian music under my father when I was about 7 years old. And by the time I was 14, I was on the road with him. By 18, I was touring solo. And what happened with all of that was, it was just such as fast trajectory that in my early 20s, I felt slightly at odds with it, like I needed to step away for a minute. And that was really my first step towards - it sounds cheesy, but, sort of finding myself.

BLOCK: So in 2005, Anoushka Shankar branched out. As an instrumentalist, she experimented with DJs, made an album of Flamenco music and collaborated with her half-sister, the singer Norah Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUN WON'T SET")

NORAH JONES: (Singing) The sun won't set, not now, not yet.

BLOCK: But after more than a decade of modern interpretations, Anoushka Shankar has returned to her father's classical training. Her new album is a collection of Indian ragas performed on the sitar. It's called "Home."

SHANKAR: I've been wanting to make this album, "Home," for a long time, but as it's happened, I've made it now just two years after my father passed away, who was my teacher and, progressively, a collaborator. So when we played together, it was so inherently easy, like, we could just start and finish each other's ideas. And so in a way, it did sort of feel like a real focusing on him and a process of reconnecting with him through playing the music that I've learned from him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR SONG)

SHANKAR: In the booklet for my album, I've included a lovely essay that my father had written in the '60s as a sort of introduction to Indian classical music. But the thing I always like to say and that I like to tell people is to forget about that as well because I think sometimes when you speak about something like Indian classical music and ragas, and all of that's new to people, it can be quite intimidating in the same way that I have sometimes found opera and Wagner intimidating. One doesn't know where to begin sometimes. So I'm quite keen to just say, you know, just listen. And if one's curious and wants to know more, one can. But at the beginning, you can also just listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR SONG)

SHANKAR: The other thing I really feel is that it's a slow burn. You know, it's not a quick fix, in a way. And if someone's used to the average two-and-a-half-minute song on the radio, it can be hard to understand what's going on because at two-and-a-half minutes, we're just still playing the first notes and establishing things. So it's a good idea to give a classical Indian album more performance time. You know, give it the time to open up and play, and then it sort of seeps under your skin and it has a very profound impact as a result sometimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR SONG)

SHANKAR: People would assume my father had been asking me to make a record like this, but funnily enough, he hadn't. He's been really supportive of all of the albums I've made in the last years, and I'm sure if he were alive he would feel particularly proud of this one. But I think he felt very confident, especially in the end, in the final years that we were performing together, I think he felt very confident in the way I was playing, that that classical music was sort of safe in me, so to speak. I don't think he felt the need for me to have to do it in his time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR SONG)

BLOCK: Anoushka Shankar's new album of Indian classical music is called "Home." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.