The Ravi Shankar Legacy
Anoushka Shankar in conversation with Shankar Ramachandran
It was but thirteen months ago that he sat with me in this same drawing room, on this same couch and spoke with me at length about his interest in Carnatic music. I feel his presence in this room as I begin this conversation with Anoushka.
Please tell us how you started learning music.
I learned Carnatic music from my mother — very informally, in London. We moved here to San Diego when I was 11. I just remember singing Sarigamapapadhanisa every day before going to school. Later I remember my father working with me to change my pronunciation from ri to rey, and da–to dhuh. I learned songs like Raghuvamsasudha and Rara Venugopala from Mom.
You played Raghuvamsasudha in the concert yesterday. Did you know to sing it?
No. Never very well. I just sang one or two lines. Later I suppose I learned it properly from my mum. We were preparing for a show of my dad’s and were working with Ganesh and Kumaresh. I also had a recording from MS. And I would listen to it a lot. It’s just something I enjoyed and was nice to do for my mom last night.
Later when you started learning from your father, did you learn only the sitar or did he first teach you vocal music?
In the way that it’s part of the education he taught me vocal as well—so lots of songs. But it wasn’t so much vocal training, but lots of songs and sargam. I wouldn’t do vocal exercises in the way I would do hand exercises. It was mostly about gods and goddesses. Every time he introduced a new raga he would teach me a little song in that raga to help me remember. They were generally his own compositions. It was like an education at the same time. When he was teaching me Bhairav he would teach me a little four-line song about Siva and tell me about the energy of Siva. It would be about Mahadeva, but always contain the essence of the raga. It was stuff that would help me catch on at a young age. Another example was a song in Hamsadhwani on Ganesa and Saraswati. It was designed to help me catch on to things at a young age.
When did he let you start playing on the sitar?
It was simultaneous. I started learning when I was seven or eight. It was songs and sitar at the same time. I was playing catch-up on the sitar, learning fingering and where the notes were. I did my first show when I was 13. It was initially short duration lessons. It was not casual, but not extremely intense. And he would check in with me. He wanted to make sure that I knew I was not being forced to play. I think that was very important to him to always say that I wasn’t being forced to play the sitar. He wanted me to know I had a choice. He would always add a ‘But’. He was sort of letting me know that I could make the choice but that if I was choosing it I had to give it the seriousness and dedication it deserved.
I was in school initially in London, then in Delhi for three years and then we moved here to San Diego.
What was the teaching schedule like?
It was usually after school. After a couple of hours for homework and playtime and stuff, we started practice around 6 o’ clock. At that very young age it would be less than an hour. By the time I was ten or twelve it was more like two and in the weekends several hours. Once we moved to San Diego we travelled every year to India for the music season for several months. It was quite difficult because I would leave for three or four months in the middle of the school year every year and had to work really hard. The teachers gave me work so I could travel. I had to catch up when I came back. . But it was amazing because when I was in India I was able to focus on the music more and we would have whole days spent learning music. At that time it was much more concentrated learning.
Did he ever tell you about how he learned?
Yes. It was insane. And how his guru learned. It’s a different world, isn’t it?
How did he first teach you when you were very young?
The sitar must have been very large for you. I think I went through three different sizes. At first I had one that was about half the size of a normal sitar and it was very simplistic. It didn’t have any of the under strings, just the six main playing strings. My second sitar was a three quarter size. By the time I was twelve I moved to my first full size sitar. It was still simplistic. It didn’t have the taraf. That came later. My fourth instrument was the right size for me. I have heard of children learning on a full size sitar and playing it keeping it on the floor. But I imagine that must be quite difficult. You would then have to relearn everything.
Did he help you with your finger placements?
Oh yes! I think that was something quite special for me. Normally students come to my father for advanced training. They have done all their foundation and basics with someone else, and look for nuanced training with him. I was his first, certainly one of the only students he trained from the complete beginning. So in my case it was like “This is how you hold the sitar”. He was very particular about things like hand position and which direction to strum in. He gave me a really strong foundation. It felt incredibly picky and incredibly strict at the time, but it gave a strong basis and all those patterns are established. From that point wherever you go you have got that to hand. He was very meticulous about all those details.
What aspect of your music do you think resembles or follows from his music?
I think it’s very difficult for me to separate myself from the fact that I have learned from him. My entire training came from him, so it is hard to analyse what would be different. The tone and my way of playing are all from him. My love of rhythm playing comes from his showing me the fun to be had from that. I find the permutations and thinking in that way while playing very exciting. He never abandons that commitment to the essence of the raga, no matter how fast the piece goes. He never lets go of the essential character of the raga, whereas many just play the notes of the scale when it gets to a certain speed. It could be any raga at that point. That’s something he has really drilled in to me. So when I am playing in a classical context, that’s something I never feel comfortable letting go of. When I am playing really fast I really think a lot about that.
He encouraged me to listen to everybody, but especially Ali Akbar Khan Saheb, of course Nikhil Bannerjee, and Vilayat Khan Saheb. He really always talked about Annapoorna Devi and her playing style. He encouraged me to listen to her surbahar recordings. And that was amazing. He talks about how it is all about vocal music ultimately. And he wanted me to listen to a lot of vocal music to try and transcend that staccato element of our instrument—more than anyone else, to Amir Khan Saheb and Bade Gulam Ali Khan Saheb.
Do you feel it is important to be able to sing in order to understand what you are trying to play?
I think that is true. I would like to sing better than I do. It is the most immediate form of musical expression and if you have that to hand then that will influence the way you express yourself on the instrument. And if I want to teach in the future, then at that point singing will become important. Listening to my father expressing himself vocally really helped me to understand what he was showing me, what to reach for.
Listening to vocal music is also very important. I do think it is important for all musical styles. The voice is the ultimate musical instrument, even when I think of a John Coltrane or a Miles Davis. Even the saxophone is most moving when it is like a voice. For any music to be able to tap into that inner human expressiveness in the instrument is what touches you the most.
Did you listen to Carnatic music as well?
I didn’t listen actively myself but by Mum listened a lot, so I was exposed to it a lot indirectly. I learned Bharatanatyam for a few years. My mum had learned from the Dhananjayans and in London we were going to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan all the time. I was very comfortable and familiar with the ragas and talas of Carnatic music. It feels a lot less foreign to me than it does to many Hindustani musicians.
My father is someone who has had that association with Carnatic music and loves Carnatic music and working with Carnatic music so much. He always encouraged my association through my mother. But when I am playing a Carnatic raga like Charukesi or Keeravani, my approach would be more my father’s interpretation of that raga, as I learned it from him. I wouldn’t claim to play in the Carnatic style.
What is his legacy?
It’s really across the board. In India and outside of India it is very different. The legacy of presentation of the art form, the legacy of the material of raga and song creation, collaboration with western artists that simply didn’t exist before, and the number of amazing students he has produced. He has so many wonderful disciples at the forefront of Hindustani music. His film music compostions…
I grew up with so many of his students. In Delhi at any given time there were five or six of them living with us in the house. They were a part of my education. My father would teach me and they would do practice with me. At the beginning I learned separately and then watched their lessons with him. They would help coach me. Then later we would all do these group lessons together and then practise together. They were a big part of my training.
A lot of things professionally came to you at an early age. Where do you want to go from here?
I want to have a very rich life in order to have the emotion to express artistically. I don’t really have big professional goals. I feel very satisfied and lucky. I just want to keep growing and learning. When you sit with my father on stage as I did last night, there is nothing that can remind you more of how infinite this is and how much there is to learn. My father says how much he still wants to learn, still wants to do. If he is saying that it gives an incredible perspective to where the rest of us are. I hope to keep discovering music and do work that people enjoy and I enjoy.
How was the experience of playing with him last night?
Like other nights, last night mine a very multi-faceted role. When I am supporting him on the sitar, it is a very exciting and unpredictable role. I cannot plan and decide what I
would like to do because I am the second instrumentalist. When two musicians play with each other, in most shows, one will completely finish an idea and then let the other person start a new idea. My father has this habit of starting a line and just looking up at me and in that split second I have to pick it up. It requires a high level of concentration. It’s very exhilarating and on the knife’s edge. I watch him like a hawk when he is playing. On the one side I have to be ready to take on whenever he wants me to, and on the other side think about how I can offer support. He loves it when I play in a lower octave along with him. It’s about really staying tuned into him. But I am simultaneously taking care of the stage. If he can’t hear I have to make sure the sound is balanced well. It did feel amazing to be able to do that again with him.
Even two years ago we would play thirty or more concerts together. But now I have not played with him since February. So this is getting to be a unique opportunity to play with him.
Do you have any other concerts planned with him?
No. I have a show planned next year in London at the Barbican when is very exciting because I have played there with my father. In two weeks I am playing my Dad’s second concerto, the one he did with Zubin Mehta, with an orchestra. I have played his first concerto a lot. Next year, I am curating a four-day festival in Dortmund. I am working on a new album.
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