Anoushka Shankar: I Remember

Eva Mackevic 24 June 2021

Anoushka Shankar is a seven-time Grammy Award-nominated British-Indian sitarist, composer and producer who has worked with everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Herbie Hancock

A childhood spent between London and Delhi. Before I was seven, I lived in Willesden Green with my mum and I went to a state school around the corner from our home. I have a lot of memories of spending time in the bank where my mum worked. They were really lovely with her. She used to be able to bring me with her, and they’d all sort of watch me in the back and let me play until she finished work. My parents got married when I was seven, and that’s when my dad moved in with us, and we simultaneously moved in with him in Delhi.

My grandmother. She passed away when I was 16. I was really close to her as a kid but then didn’t get adulthood with her. She was a really wise and wonderful woman who was an amazing singer. She would visit us in London and I have lots of memories of singing with her in the mornings before I’d go to school. It was just beautiful Tamil classical Indian songs from the South Indian classical tradition. She was really knowledgeable about music.

"My grandmother was a really wise and wonderful woman who was an amazing singer"

Anoushka with her grandmother in 1991

Anoushka with her grandmother, and mother in 1991.

I had a bit of an OCD tendency with numbers. I was obsessed with numbers that I later realised were part of the binary code. I just loved even numbers like two, and then four, and then if four was great, eight would be better, and then if eight was good, 16 would be better. I just used to walk around saying these numbers up to the thousands. But the problem was I used to then start walking and chewing in those numbers, so it got pretty mental. I had to wean myself off it because you couldn’t walk in 16-beat cycles without being really weird. A lot of it I still do subconsciously, to be honest. I still prefer to chew or walk in even numbers, but it’s not something that takes up space in my brain anymore.

The moment my first sitar came home. I was about seven. Kids’ sitars are not so common; you have to ask for them to get made. So, my dad had asked for one to be made for me at about half the size of a normal sitar. I remember seeing it for the first time and feeling excited and nervous because suddenly the concept that I might start to play was a bit more real. It was like, “Oh, here it is. Now we start.”

The duality between Dad and guru. To an extent, my dad and I fell into dynamics quite easily. The Indian classical tradition has so much atmosphere, custom and culture associated with it that I would approach music lessons in the way that I was taught—which was with a lot of reverence and respect, whereas, when we weren’t doing music together, it was a lot more informal, casual and affectionate. It was something that we grew into; when we were eating meals or when we were watching TV, it was all just very cuddly and cosy. And if I had a different opinion to his, I could share it and we would have healthy arguments or debates. But then, in the music room, it was a little bit more like he was my guru, and we were having a lesson and I was there to learn. There were definite different nuances to the relationship.

"I did my first gig was when I was 13"

I did my first gig was when I was 13, and it was the first time I remember that feeling of your heart beating out of your chest, and being really shocked by it—I thought something was wrong with me. It was right before I walked out on stage in front of 2,500 people. It was for my dad’s 75th birthday celebration, so the context was that all his students were playing. As his youngest student, I was there as a part of it. It wasn’t like we planned a big debut or anything like that, but from there I just kept on going. 

The musical connection with my dad. He and I were incredibly close, but it was a different kind of closeness. I think my mum and I had that very primal mother-child closeness where it’s about her smell, her body and her food, but with my dad, it’s hard to explain it. We had this deep artistic connection—we spent years journeying together, making and writing music together. I was part of his ensemble, part of his band, and so, we spent decades having hours on end of just playing together. So, there’s this other kind of nuanced closeness that I don’t have with too many people. Just a deep, soul-to-soul expression.

As a teenager in the 1990s I was experimenting with a lot of duality in different aspects of my life. On one side, I would be super involved in the Indian classical world. I’d be at Carnegie Hall in these beautiful outfits that were made by my mum; very big, tent-like, loose Indian outfits, but then, with my friends and my peers we were listening to Massive Attack and Nine Inch Nails, and it was a bit Gothic. I loved that age and that phase of expression and curiosity and just going, “Oh, yeah, I can do that.” Like, what happens if I take silver and make silver lipstick?  What happens if want to draw things on my face?

Anoushka in 1996

High school changed me. I wasn’t popular at all when I was younger. Throughout most of middle school [in the US], I was fairly invisible other than to a key group of good friends. High school changed for me because we had two schools in our district: one was huge and had a big football pitch and amazing facilities, and the other one was the older school that was a bit more experimental and had more arts and drama. So, I went to the more artsy, experimental one, and there I really found my feet in a different way. I was the homecoming queen, and I don’t think it would have happened in a very football-oriented traditional US high school. But, at that place, I probably fit the bill.

Working with Sting and Herbie Hancock. I was really young when I got to work with them. They were two much older, great musicians who expressed a desire to work with me on their own music. There was something hugely validating about that at a time where I didn’t necessarily have that confidence myself. It helped with my growth and my confidence as an artist. They came from different styles that I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of, so they were huge learning experiences.

Finding my own voice. When I was 24-25, there was a key moment when I needed to connect to my music in a deeper way because for me, playing the classical music that I had played, I loved it dearly, but it didn’t feel like it represented all of me. I didn’t feel like I was making music from like the deepest part of my heart. I took a pause for a year and I wasn’t touring, and I thought it would be a sabbatical to holiday and have fun, but I ended up making an album. The album Rise was the first album that I self-composed and self-produced, and it just feels like I started to find my voice in a different way.

"The most important thing I learned from my father was the idea that you’re never done learning as an artist"

Finding out I was pregnant with my first child. I was in a relatively new relationship and I was quite young. It was a moment of overwhelm, joy and fear in equal measure. I had done a show the day before, and I was unusually tired, I was just finding rehearsals and the show really difficult. And then, my best friend from California happened to be visiting that week, and I kept on telling her how tired I was the next morning, and she was like, “You’re unusually tired and your boobs look bigger. Let’s go get you a test.” And so, that was that.

My dad holding my baby son. It was one of the cutest things I’d ever seen. My dad wasn’t much of a baby-holder. But with my kid, he just fell in love and was constantly knocking on my door to come over. He’d be making small talk with me, and I would realise he didn’t actually want to talk to me; he was waiting for me to give him my baby. He would just sit and hold him, and it was so sweet.

Ravi Shankar and his newborn grandson

The most important thing I learned from my father was the idea that you’re never done learning as an artist. Everyone saw him as the pinnacle. People would literally sit at his feet, wanting to learn from him. He was one of the most knowledgeable, greatest musicians, but spending time with him up close, that was not his perspective. He would always say that wherever you go, you just see how much more there is to learn, do and discover. He approached it like a student, always curious and always humble. I think that just set my perspective straight right from the beginning.

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