Music can be stronger than words, says musician Anoushka Shankar, revealing how it completes her being
It is often said that art embodies a journey of perpetual learning, leading one to discover more about oneself as time goes by. Along with my own journey with the sitar, over the last few years especially, I have found myself beginning to connect many different pieces of myself together. Music is intrinsic to my life in ways that are beyond the realm of the obvious and the tangible. It is almost like a language I speak, its vocabulary enabling me to articulate reflections and emotions that no other language can quite encompass. My most recent album, Land of Gold, for instance, was born out of the need to channel a sense of distress that had taken over me at one point in my life. Writing the album coincided with the birth of my second son. I was extremely troubled with the contrast between my ability to care for my baby and what millions of people were going through, not being able to provide the same kind of security for their children, under nightmarish circumstances. Here, my music was a constructive way for me to channel everything I was feeling – to express and explore my emotional response to the trauma I was watching unfold before my eyes every day. I believe that art can make a difference and music has the power to speak to the soul. It is important for people who believe in the power of connection, to speak out at times like these – especially when they are surrounded by isolationism and mistrust.
At the time, there was one truth that I was attempting to deal with – that the world was going through a huge upheaval and the number of people being affected was shocking. It’s still happening today, in fact. The emotions this notion gave rise to within me, began to seep into my days in the studio. My personal response was strong for two reasons. First, the fact of how fortunate I was, growing up in a multicultural environment that is the key to who I am and what I do, was something I had been taking for granted. I grew up across three continents and am able to travel around the world as I please. By virtue of the passport I have and where I happened to be born, a lot has been available to me. But the idea that some people have access to all this while it is denied to many others, felt wrong in a very fundamental, hard-hitting way. I had just become a mother again, and that phase in any woman’s life is a really emotional, profound and vulnerable time. To watch images of children suffering and their parents trying to give them safety and shelter in contrast to everything I was being able to do for my children – that contrast had never felt so stark to me before. That was how the album was born.
As the tracks came along, I also found chances to work with a lot of people who understood what I was attempting to articulate and let me weave their musical dialects into mine, so that I could create something truly expressive and diverse. Collaboration has always been important to me, from the very beginning of my career, and I’ve had wonderful experiences over the last decade of working in tandem with musicians from various cultures. There are many challenges to working with music that straddles several varied styles, and my attempt is to push even further in the crossover space to create a new genre-free soundscape where instruments and cultures are symbiotic and have something meaningful to say together. Music is, after all, a universal language but it can be argued that every genre has its own essence, so to speak – its own ethos and its own sensibilities in some sense. When you’re working with crossgenre collaborations, bringing together electronic, jazz, hip-hop, minimalism, Indian classical sounds and more, each element brings something of its own to the table and takes what you create to a new level.
As much as I love working with people from wonderfully diverse cultures and travelling across the globe, my roots lie firmly in India – which is why it always feels wonderful to come back here with every new album I create. India is one of the places I call home. I lived and went to school in Delhi for several years, and the city remained a base for me through my teenage years into my twenties. I also have a relationship with Kolkata and Chennai due to my Bengali and Tamil parents. Then there is Mumbai, where I have so many friends; Bengaluru, where I have family; Goa, where I have spent many amazing winters… Whenever someone asks me how I remember my childhood in India, I wonder: how to pick a memory! There are simply too many. I launched my book about my father in Delhi when I was 20 and it was the first time fashion designer Manish Arora custom-made clothes for me. I felt like a princess and was so proud to have released a book of my own! In Goa, around the turn of the millennium, I used to be able to go completely incognito, letting my hair down with my friends. Dancing the way I did there is one of my most favourite things in the world. And my father used to get especially nostalgic whenever we travelled to Mumbai for a concert. Everywhere we drove, he was constantly pointing out the locations of beautiful memories. I loved hearing his stories that would surface whenever we came back to India and will carry them with me through the rest of my life, along with some beautiful stories of my own.
The author is a world-renowned sitar player and the views expressed in the article are her own