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All In The Family: Ravi Shankar and his two daughters

Norah Jones at Cannes Norah Jones at Cannes

Had he not been a much loved sitar virtuoso, this frail nonagenarian may have wowed world audiences as a dancer. The arts course through Pandit Ravi Shankar’s veins like an impassioned gale, a force he recreates as his callused fingers dance over the sitar, making every string his own.

Ravi Shankar spent a good part of his childhood in Varanasi, a North Indian city where the temples, narrow alleys and winding riverside paths are beset by the overwhelming aura of spirituality. When he was ten, he went to Paris as a member of his brother Uday Shankar’s dance troupe. He learnt to play various instruments besides acquiring training in dance. As luck would have it, the lead musician of the princely court of Maihar, Allauddin Khan, performed with Uday Shankar’s troupe on a tour of Europe. Later, Khan offered Shankar serious training in music only if he would leave the dance troupe and come to Maihar.

In Maihar, Shankar learned to play various string instruments, mainly the sitar and surbahar. He lived with Allauddin Khan’s family in the traditional guru-shishya parampara, where the disciple is treated as family and lives with the guru. The disciple, in turn, must reciprocate by serving the guru and staying devoted to him. Shankar married Allauddin Khan’s daughter Annapurna Devi in 1941. However, the marriage didn’t last and they separated in a few years. While Shankar chose the sitar, Annapurna Devi became a legendary recluse who played the less popular surbahar.

Shankar started working with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) soon after he left Maihar. The IPTA was the crucible of ignited minds that later left their mark on all contemporary performance avenues in India, including dance, theatre and cinema. He then worked with All India Radio before resigning to tour Europe and the United States, where he played to small audiences, introducing them to Indian music.

Clipboard01Clipboard01 Through common sources in the recording industry, Ravi Shankar met and collaborated with George Harrison of the Beatles, and the rest is history. Harrison visited India to study the sitar under Shankar and later played the sitar while recording the song "Norwegian Wood." Other musicians also discovered Indian music and this pioneered the raga rock trend. Shankar was invited to perform at Woodstock in 1969. In 1971, along with sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, he performed at the Concert for Bangladesh in New York, evincing applause from the audience even when he spent 90 seconds tuning his sitar.

With its staccato timbre, the sitar is not a very easy instrument to master. Shankar brings to it a depth that is as beautifully melancholic as it is profound. Playing in the lower register, he creates twanging sounds that reach the very depths of the soul; when he soars, he carries the audience’s hearts with his sitar. In concerts and albums, the constant notes produced by the accompanying tanpura, a drone instrument, act as a wonderful foil to the rich sounds of his sitar music. Though the sitar is primarily an instrument played by practitioners of Hindustani classical music, Shankar incorporates influences from Carnatic music in his playing.

Settled in the United States, at 90, this indomitable little man is still an endearing face on the Indian music scene. His fans know each twist and turn in his musical journey as well as they know his dog Suki, who accompanies him everywhere. Anoushka Shankar, his daughter by his second wife Sukanya, seems set to follow in her father’s footsteps. She began playing with him when she was 13, and released her first album at 17. Now nearing 30, Anoushka has established herself as her own person, wonderfully treading the fine balance between being her father’s most famous protégé and a thinking musician. She still plays with her father, but has increasingly been seen in solo concerts, where her elegant sartorial style and the resonant strains of her sitar compete for attention. Anoushka made her first screen appearance in the 2003 film Dance Like a Man, where she played a young woman born into a family of professional Bharatanatyam dancers. Not wanting to get caught in the rut of the mainstream Hindi film industry, she has refused many offers from production houses in Bollywood. In the last few years, she has developed work with Western classical musicians. She performed a duet with violinist Joshua Bell at the Verbier Festival in 2007. In 2009, she was a sitar soloist alongside the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for the series of concerts premiering Ravi Shankar’s 3rd Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra.

ravi-anouska_cbill-wood-1ravi-anouska_cbill-wood-1While they share a very warm relationship, Anoushka has never collaborated professionally with her half-sister Norah Jones, a chart-topping singer whose debut album in 2002 won her five Grammy awards. Norah Jones is Ravi Shankar’s daughter with the New York concert producer Sue Jones. Jones spent most of her childhood living in Texas after her mother separated from Shankar in 1986, when she was seven. She attended a performing arts high school in Dallas before moving to New York where she sang in lounges before being spotted by a record company executive. Come Away with Me, her first album, was a wonderful blend of mellow, acoustic pop with soul and jazz. Each of her four albums have done exceptionally well at the box office, all earning the status of ‘platinum records’.

In 2007, both sisters contributed to the album Breathing Under Water, a joint collaboration between Anoushka and Karsh Kale. Breathing Under Water also featured a rare guest appearance by Ravi Shankar. Anoushka sees her different musical experiments as ways to continue growing while ensuring her music stays fresh.

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Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar in concert.
Last modified on Tuesday, 01 February 2011 18:52

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