Shankar: Life and Sitar Together in Music

Anoushka Shankar, the world renowned and world-class sitar player and interpreter of classical Indian music was talking about her latest album, “Traces of You,” in a phone conversation last week.

Listening to her and to some of the songs on the album like the single, “The Sun Won’t Set,” and the title track, you get a sense of the personal nature of her music and its universal appeal. It’s about what art—be it performed, recorded, written, painted or sculpted—reaches for a particularism that goes straight to the personal heart and imagination of the viewer and listener and then becomes magically universal.

This is what usually happens in the best and most successful creative endeavors. Whether receptively popular or consciously artistic, the results often seem mysterious—a “don’t know how” kind of happening that arrives with inscrutable blessings.

This is, it seemed to me, especially true for Shankar, the daughter of a legend in the world but more so in her roots, the wife of a film director who has taken risky approaches to cherished classical material in his work, and the half sister of a singer whose broad popularity nevertheless has it own mysteries.

“Traces of You” is often talked about as a highly personal work, in the sense that many see it as a tribute and musical ode to her father, Ravi Shankar, the legendary sitar player who popularized classical Indian music to the world. He became a prominent figure in the annals of rock and roll after rock musicians, especially Beatle George Harrison, took up the music. Shankar died at the age of 92 in December 2012. “It was a time of tremendous change for me,” Shankar said. “My father died while we were in the midst of recording “Traces of You,” and, of course, it was a tremendous loss for me and, I think, for all the people who loved his music.”

Everything about the album seems on the surface, and in its descriptions and particular sound, a way of turning loss into watchful celebration and memory. Anoushka invited Norah Jones, her half sister and Ravi Shankar’s daughter by a different mother, with whom she had worked before, to sing several of the pieces on the album, including “Traces of You” and “The Sun Won’t Set” and “Unsaid.” “It turned out to be a good experience, having her there, working with her. Instinctively, Norah understood what we were doing together.” They had both lost their father, and that is always a loss freighted with meaning and memory for everyone.

For Anoushka, the music is very much about and full of her father, with whom she toured, the man who trained her and gave her first sitar, the towering influence in her life. It is very personal and connected to family. There is the presence of Jones, the music of her father, and there is the fact that Joe Wright, her husband with whom she has a two-year old son, Zubin, directed the video of “Traces of You.” Another song, “Monsoon,” had its roots in 2009, when, she said, “I was just in the process of falling in love with my husband-to-be.” Wright himself shares an affinity for making original creations out of classical sources in such films as “Pride and Prejudice” and his recent astonishing version of “Anna Karenina.”

She is noted for her mastery of the sitar, for her beauty and for her fight for causes—especially about sexual violence against women, an issue that has been in the news in India. She is also noted for expanding the reaches of Indian classical music into jazz, American classical music and tango, sending it out until it returns somewhat changed, not so much fused as slightly altered and richer for the flight. “I love expanding the music while being faithful to it,” she said. “It has always been universal at its heart, Indian, but more.”

That’s why the album seems in many ways very specific and personal, but also uncommonly generous and kind in many of its aspects, an acceptance of life in all of its forms. “The music is very specific, but it has been drawn in and accepted by the world,” she said. “I know what I’ve done with my music, who I am, but things always change. I can’t predict what I will be doing musically in the future.”

“Look what has happened, this has been an enormous time in my life in the sense that I have grown with the music, I met my husband and fell in love, I’ve become a wife and mother, I’ve lost my father, all in a relatively short time,” she said. “All of this affects the music, the composing. I am not who I was several years ago, or when I was a child or an adolescent in California.”

She is, in some ways, the embodiment of the idea of the personal and universal being played out in art and life all the time. Looking at her—and for that matter remembering her father and his pioneering influence—you often see this beautiful woman, deft, not dramatic but a presence, sitar and sari. The image and the accompanying music seem exotic, different from, say Iowa or California, where she was a prom queen. At the same time, it familiar, the atmosphere speaks musically to common experience. The instrument itself seems difficult and ungainly, but yet, she elicits and plays music as clear and complicated as a proverb, and as easy as rhythm from it.

Describing how the album for Deutsche Grammophone evolved, she said “A lot of it happened unconsciously. Life took a journey of its own, and the music followed that form. The sitar leads the listener through the album like a narrator.”

Anoushka Shankar is presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 8 p.m., Nov. 15.

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