Anoushka Shankar started playing the sitar when she was 8 years old. She was touring by the time she was 13. Conducting by 15. And recording her first solo CD at 17.
Still, the 25-year-old former prodigy insists her childhood wasn’t all that different from any other teenager with a passion for something.
“I felt like what I was doing was at a high profile, but when I looked at my other friends, what I was doing wasn’t that different,” she said in a phone interview from the road in Nashville.
Shankar said she worked at music like a friend worked at ice skating by practicing two hours before school every day, or like another friend worked at journalism by spending every day at the school paper and summers at journalism camps.
“People forget how much kids really do,” she said. “People may have looked at me and said, `Wow, she is performing.’ But I didn’t feel like I was doing that much different from anyone I knew.”
Of course, her teacher was a good bit different than your average music instructor. She was taught entirely by her father, sitar legend and Beatles collaborator Ravi Shankar.
But, she said, her parents never forced her to follow in his footsteps. She said music and musicians always were part of her life, so it was only natural she would start playing. At first, she took up the piano. Then, when she expressed interest, her family had a small, custom-made sitar built for her.
The sitar, whose origins trace back to the 1700s in India, is a stringed classical instrument. It has 18 to 20 strings, a long, elegant neck and gourd-shaped hollow body.
“It’s harder than it looks. It is considered to be one of the absolutely most technically demanding instruments to play,” said Shankar, who splits her time off the road between homes in California and Delhi. “Technically speaking, just to hold the instrument and be able to play is hard.”
Once she began playing, the pressure to live up to her father’s legacy and forge her own was immense. But, she said, it also taught her how to be her own person.
“For every person that may have felt I needed to forge my own legacy, there were people who felt that it was important to keep alive (my father’s) legacy,” she said. “For every person who thought what I was doing was amazing, there were people who thought it was complete crap. The good thing about having so much pressure put on you at an early age is that you learn to ignore it. I mean, there was so much of it and it was so contrasting, I realized I could never satisfy all of it. So I just did things to satisfy myself.”
She said her father’s approval of her playing and the wealth of knowledge he imparted on her about the ancient instrument were crucial to her development.
Performing alongside her father and creating her own compositions, Shankar toured the world in her teens and early 20s. She has performed at Carnegie Hall and was the youngest and only female recipient of the House of Commons Shield, awarded by British Parliament in recognition of her artistry and musicianship “as a pre-eminent musician of the Asian Arts.” By the time she was 20, Shankar had released two solo CDs, 1998’s Anoushka and 2000’s Anourag, along with the Grammy-nominated CD Live at Carnegie Hall.
Then, in 2002, another family member furthered the family’s impeccable public musical pedigree. Shankar’s half sister Norah Jones burst onto the music scene that year and took home five Grammy awards at the following year’s ceremony. Shankar and Jones (who have different mothers and grew up separately) met for the first time in their late teens, but have since become very close. They even got matching tattoos on their backs.
Shankar said she frequently talks with her half sister, about music and everything else. She said that while she doesn’t stop and think about it a lot, her family’s musical lineage is impressive.
“It goes beyond that, my cousins, uncles, and grandfather,” she said. “I am sure there is something to do with genes and opportunity. It is quite remarkable when three people each reach such a high profile. It is quite funny when you think about it.”
After a decade of touring, Shankar took a break from the performing grind in 2004. She had planned to go backpacking and “have nothing to do with music” for a year. But instead, the break allowed her to be creative again.
“What ended up happening then was I made (her third studio CD) Rise. I don’t think it would have happened if I didn’t have the time off,” she said.
“(Before the sabbatical) I was very much an instrumentalist and composer, a classical composer. I grew after that. I think it makes sense being creative that your personality comes in, your influences come in.”
Her Grammy-nominated disc Rise reflects her musical evolution. It brings modern texture to ancient sounds, melding East and West while honoring centuries-old traditions.
Shankar composed, produced and arranged the album. She infuses her sitar playing with the sounds of flamenco piano, Indian slide guitar and electronica. After her nomination—in the category of best contemporary world music—Shankar became the first Indian to perform at the Grammy Awards during the 2006 pre-telecast.
The album has won raves, and Shankar has been named one of “Asia’s Heroes: 20 Under 40” by the Time magazine Asian edition.
From prodigy to protege and her own person, Shankar’s love for the sitar and traditional Indian music remains constant.
She is touring intensely behind Rise and is working on a new album she hopes to have done by the end of the year. Shankar said the new release will push her musical fusion even further. She also will continue to work with her father and premiere some of his new work with him in the summer.
While some might think Shankar’s musical career was mapped out for her at an early age, she said the progression was gradual and organic.
“I always loved music and I loved art in general. But music was the most obvious choice,” she said. “Then my life started going in that direction, too. And I thought, OK, this seems like a good direction.”