FEW stories are as fascinating as that of Anoushka Shankar’s. The London-born sitar player was age seven when she found out that she was the daughter of Ravi Shankar, the world-famous Indian classical musician.
Less than a decade later came a further revelation: She had a half-sister in the US, the singer/songwriter Norah Jones. When the sisters first met as teenagers, in 1997, both were simultaneously on the cusp of successful music careers without knowing it. Jones, of course, would go on to become one of the biggest selling artists in the world, while Shankar’s sitar-driven albums would earn her five Grammy nominations.
“It’s a pretty fascinating story and you couldn’t really write this stuff,” says Shankar from the East London home she shares with her husband, film director Joe Wright, and their sons Zubin, 5, and Mohan, 1.
“I understand why people find it interesting. When Norah and I first met, everybody wanted to know whether we would instantly feel like sisters, but to me it was an unanswerable question. I have never known another sister to compare.”
Now 34-years-old, Shankar is warm to questions about her family. “It’s part of my story, and that’s absolutely fine, but it’s not the only part,” she says.
That story wouldn’t be half as interesting if Shankar hadn’t gone on to forge her own remarkable career. Over eight albums she has become one of the leading instrumentalists in world music, fusing electronica, jazz, and traditional Indian ragas over her exceptional sitar playing. Her collaborators have included Sting and M.I.A, while she has also worked with “Uncle George”, better known to us as her father’s long-time friend, George Harrison.
Shankar’s latest album, Land of Gold, is her most striking work yet. It was written in response to the refugee crisis.
“It was an emotional reaction to what I was seeing,” she says. “Simultaneously, I had just had my second child and it was that contrast of nursing a baby while watching unaccompanied minors having to go on these horrific, unspeakable journeys. That contrast suddenly felt so horrifically wrong; that I had these rights by virtue of where I was and that other people didn’t.”
Through emotionally powered tracks such as Boat To Nowhere, Shankar has crafted a work that has a cinematic quality to it. This was aided, she says, by Wright, her husband, who directed Atonement and co-produced the record.
“The way that he looks at music is different to how I do. He comes from a perspective of narrative and mood and story,” she says. “So, he was able to express what something needed in order to push the emotion.”
Shankar admits that she can only imagine the distress experienced by those crossing the Mediterranean on uncertain journeys. Nonetheless, she has experienced dislocation in growing up between London, California, and India and has also endured horrific trauma, revealing in 2013 that a family friend had sexually abused her as a child. Did these experiences inform the darker emotions on this record?
“I’m sure I draw on my own experiences in the sense that I’m sure that’s where empathy comes from. I do think that my own experiences as a child might be something that I draw on, but I have a feeling that it came more from becoming a parent. The idea that something could happen to your own children is so frightening and yet these things are happening to other children.”
Shankar hopes her record will foster discussion about the crisis. “I wouldn’t presume that huge changes would come about through something like an album, but I do hope it is part of a greater movement towards connection and discussion. It is an issue we need to discuss.”
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