In Their Own Words: Sitar Virtuoso Anoushka Shankar

Classic Arts Features   In Their Own Words: Sitar Virtuoso Anoushka Shankar
Anoushka Shankar is currently collaborating with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to bring life to Ravi Shankar's latest composition: Third Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra. The younger Shankar shares her thoughts on the piece in this interview. View daily Webisodes here on Playbill Arts.

Filmmakers Chris and Alex Browne are currently capturing this collaboration as Indian and Western classical music combine. They are creating RAGA SAGA, 12 daily webisodes that give you exclusive access to the skill, the artistry and the inherent drama that are part of the unique Orpheus rehearsal process.

As an online partner of the Orpheus Raga project, Playbill Arts is hosting each new video as it continues through Feb. 1. Visitors can expect a new video each morning by 9 AM. The entire series may be viewed by registering for free at


Anoushka Shankar: In Her Own Words

Your father performed his first two sitar concertos himself, and now his third concerto is in your hands. What is that like for you? Did you work together to craft the sitar part?

It is really quite humbling. We sat together at a few different stages of composition to have me play things while he composed, and he definitely wrote the sitar parts very much with me in mind. It is an amazing feeling to know that this has been written for me to play, and to have the opportunity to imbibe the music and then present it to the world.

How does your father approach composition?

He composes in a very improvisatory way. He just creates in a constant stream, and generally it works best if someone is there to catch his ideas and get them down. That's something that I love to do when he's composing, as it offers such an intimate look into the process and the music itself. But I haven't actually been around much of these last two years, since I have been touring a lot. David Murphy, a conductor from the United Kingdom, has been a key figure through every step of writing this concerto, helping my father through different stages of the music, as far as getting all of his ideas down and transcribing the Western notation.

Is the piece fully notated? Is it possible to capture all of the sitar's inflections in Western notation?

The music is completely notated, and all the sitar parts are written down. But you are right to ask about the inflections. That interpretation is something that would come more from my own knowledge of the Indian music, which can't really be perfectly written out in Western notation. Also, I've been learning the piece by ear and not from the score, so my understanding of the inflections also comes from directly hearing it all from my father, which is the way that teaching normally happens within Indian classical music anyway. As a side note, my father has been excited to compose at this scale, with certain modern tools for the first time, such as having the music recorded and sampled to be able to hear it as he goes along. He had never done that before. He has loved hearing everything on the computer, but the hilarious aspect is having the programmed sitar on there, because it is terrible! All of those inflections end up being played through the computer in the way they are written in Western notation, and there are many places where it sounds really funny. It does not sound the way I would play it.

This composition draws much of its language from the Indian classical tradition, which may be unfamiliar to many Western listeners. Can you introduce that system of music, especially raga?

Raga and the rhythmic system, tala, are in a way two parents of Indian classical music. Unlike in Western classical music, which develops very much within harmony and counterpoint, we largely do not have harmony in Indian classical music. It is very intricately based on linear melody and its interaction with rhythm and tempo. The ragas are basically melody forms. We have certain parent scales, similar to the way one could have in any system of music, upon which are based hundreds and thousands of ragas. They each have specific ascending and descending scales, or certain recognizable phrases or patterns. But beyond that, they might be associated with something more abstract, like a mood, or a time of day, or a season they are meant to invoke, such as the rainy season or the heat of the summer, which are qualities of the music that you cannot really describe in words. It requires a lot of study and knowledge before one can actually grasp the nature of these ragas. One has to know them very well and have them at one's command to be able to improvise within them.

Your instrument also may be unfamiliar to many Westerners. What is a sitar, and how do you create its characteristic sound and inflections?

The sitar is probably the most popular stringed instrument in the North of India. (We do have two classical systems in India, the Hindustani system of the North and the Carnatic system in the South.) It is made almost entirely of teak wood, except for the rounded gourd at the bottom and a detachable gourd at the top. It is a stringed instrument with frets and 19 strings, but 13 of those are resonating strings that run underneath the main strings. That is part of what gives the sitar its unique buzzing sound. Another unique feature of the sitar is that the frets are curved, which enables us to pull on the strings and bend notes very specifically. Up to five or six notes can be bent from any given fret, which is really important on the sitar, given the fluidity of Indian classical music. You would never play very staccato in Indian music. So bending notes helps us get over the boundaries of being a fretted instrument.

Orpheus prides itself on playing orchestral repertoire with a chamber music sensibility; Indian classical music, with its emphasis on group improvisation and collaboration, also seems akin to chamber music. Do you feel that your past experiences have prepared you for this new collaborative setting?

I am very excited to get to work in this context. I have never worked within chamber music, though I have had the experience of playing my father's first concerto many times, which is with a conductor. So this will be a very new and interesting experience. But you are right; in a way, this is how I am used to working within my own field. People always comment on the interaction or the chemistry between musicians onstage, because we are largely improvising and having to play off of each other. We come up with ideas and read each other's nonverbal signs and cues while we are onstage performing. I sometimes miss that interaction in more stringent settings. I think this concept of working directly with the musicians will bring that strength forward, so it should be very exciting.

Some of your projects have extended the range of traditional music and instruments into even more new styles and genres. Have you experienced any backlash from the Indian classical music world for these explorations?

Largely, there has been very positive support. That is because of the times we live in. People around the world are fascinated by crossover and cross-cultural dialogue in every field, especially music. If there was any resistance within a classical framework, it was more something people such as my father went through. He was largely the pioneer within Indian music, the first to come out and do things like write sitar concertos, collaborate with Western artists, and alter the presentation of the music. So back then, yes, it was criticized, until it became the norm. That road is much easier for someone like me today. And I do think it is very important to carry forward the traditions I have been given, not to abandon them in order to supposedly fuse or communicate with other artists. That is something I am very passionate about: bringing tradition into today's context.


The series will culminate in the Jan. 31 Carnegie Hall debut of the work at the Stern Auditorium/ Perelman Stage.

Tickets, priced $29-$98, may be purchased here.

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