Anoushka Shankar Pays Homage To Sitar Legend And Father On New Album
The Grammy-nominated sitarist will tour India this month.
At their first studio session during the making of Anoushka Shankar’s seventh studio album Traces Of You, UK-based composer Nitin Sawhney, who produced the album, asked her what it was that she wanted to convey through her new music. Recalls Shankar in a phone interview from her California home, “I told him that I really wanted to show that am a good sitar player. Nitin started laughing and told me that we already know that.” Shankar remembers how Sawhney had eased her mind with his comeback and how it became a musical turning point for her. “I wasn’t as nervous. I could allow myself to be more vulnerable, more open,” she says. Shankar now feels that the album is one of her most confident efforts yet. The change, she adds, was an unconscious one at that point, but took over the artist in a most natural manner. “I was accustomed to responding to ragas but on this album, my response to harmonies was more free.”
Last year, when she lost her father, the sitar legend Ravi Shankar, the album took on a more vulnerable tone. “It shifted my perspective,” says Shankar, “The emotional content became the driving factor.” Although Shankar had already written the lyrics with a more “universal, eternal context” in mind, as she puts it, tracks such as “The Sun Won’t Set,” acquired new meaning, irrevocably tied to the memory of her father. “The Sun Won’t Set,” which refers to Ravi Shankar’s first name that translates into “sun” in Sanskrit, was written months before he passed away, and includes vocals by Norah Jones. The Grammy-winning vocalist, who is also Shankar’s half-sister, first collaborated with the sitarist in 2007 on a track titled “Easy” from Shankar’s fifth studio album, Breathing Under Water. But Shankar and Jones complement each other on this album as they never have before – there is a certain sweetness in the melancholy and yet, both the sitar and Jones’s smoky vocals are remarkably uplifting. “Karsh gave us space on ‘Easy,’ but this time, getting to work with my sister and letting go of my father was a unique artistic experience. It was very intense and very moving,” says Shankar. “Unsaid,” a track that was written after their father’s passing was another collaboration between the sisters. “Norah sat at the piano, trying out a new melody, and as she sang, I realized that she was singing phrases that were astonishingly close to the beloved musical theme our father wrote for Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchali decades ago,” writes Shankar in the album’s liner notes, “I asked her about it, and she told me that she had never heard the melody before. It is small, inexplicable moments like these that fill me with awe and gratitude.”
Producer Sawhney and Shankar also wrote a track together titled “Fathers” to cope with the idea that their fathers were ailing. She notes in the liner credits for Traces Of You, “Strangely and sadly, both Nitin’s father and my own subsequently passed away only a few months apart.” Shankar tells us that while she met Sawhney a couple of years ago, her friendship with the composer kicked in when she moved to London in 2009. So when she thought of making a new album, she knew right away that she wanted Sawhney to produce it. She says, “Working with Nitin Sawhney meant working with someone who is used to fusing many different styles of music, being very strong in different genres and the two of us come from the world where we approach modern and ancient sounds, classical, edgy, multi-cultural infleunces. So that was a very easy communication for us.” “Fathers” is a great example of two worlds merging where Sawhney plays the piano alongside Shankar’s sitar.
As the album took shape, Shankar realized that it had followed her life journey that year. “The passing of my father, the birth of my son, falling in love with my husband…there were quite a few different contexts informing the music that we were making,” she adds, “Five days after my father’s passing, news of the Delhi gang rape broke.” Like the rest of the nation, Shankar too was jolted by the incident and was compelled to write “In Jyoti’s Name.” The 13-track album also saw many changes. “There were a million incarnations of ‘Traces Of You’,” she says. But ultimately, Shankar admits that what we hear on the album today is exactly as she had meant it to be. “It’s an album that I’m proud of,” she adds.
This month, Shankar will perform in Mumbai and Delhi to promote Traces of You and will be joined by a group of musicians including feted Hang player Manu Delago.