Anoushka Shankar unabashedly reveals her vulnerabilities in new album

The sitarist's latest music is effortless—an expression rather than a creation

68-Anoushka-Shankar Anoushka Shankar | Laura Lewis

Three years ago, sitarist Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the legendary Pandit Ravi Shankar, released her EP, Love Letters. Its music was drenched in pain, coming as it did after her divorce from filmmaker husband Joe Wright, her anxiety over being a single mother to her two sons and health issues following painful surgeries, including one to remove abdominal tumours. “Am I still loveable if you stop loving me?” she sings about heartbreak in one of the songs. But there is also strength in the music―she is not voicing the pain as much as exorcising it. The album, in that sense, is almost a catharsis.

She’s written before about dredging music from this place of pain. “I’ve been struggling to write music lately and today, I’ve realised it is quite simply because, once again, I’ve been afraid that feeling too deeply will cause me to lose myself―that I will be engulfed by a pain I don’t want to touch or dive into,” she once shared. “Even though from experience I know it’s precisely that self-losing that allows me to change and heal.”

And now, with her latest mini album, Chapter 1: Forever, For Now―the first of a planned trilogy of mini albums―she is more confident in revealing that vulnerability. In the “self-losing” that she spoke of, it is clear that she has found herself. There is something organic about the music in Chapter 1, as though it is an expression, rather than a creation. Its four songs were recorded at Berlin’s Leiter studio, and produced by Grammy-winner Arooj Aftab. My favourite was the opener, ‘Daydreaming’, featuring Nils Frahm on the piano. It is based on an old Carnatic lullaby that Anoushka’s mother and grandmother used to sing to her. One day, while rocking her sons to sleep, she strummed the tune to them, and memories started tumbling out.

“I have always loved the song, but usually when I have heard it performed it is quite dynamic,” Shankar tells THE WEEK over a Zoom conversation. “So, there is a whole percussion accompaniment and solos and a bit more buoyancy to the song. Whereas I wanted to bring out that lullaby flavour, that relaxing, hazy kind of feel.”

Leaning back against comfy green pillows and sipping coffee, occasionally putting her feet up, Anoushka seems as relaxed as the mood she is trying to create in her song. When she smiles, the resemblance to her father is inescapable. This is the 10th year since she came out with Traces of You, her seventh studio album in which she pays homage to her father, who had died in 2012. (The album also features vocals by her half-sister Norah Jones.) She says that what she misses most about him is his laugh, which is fitting since Shankar used to laugh a lot. In her biography on her father, Anoushka recalls how he used to find humour in everything. She remembers a time he was in hospital and in a lot of pain. When they visited him, he told them that the monitor attached to his finger looked like a little ET and made it wiggle a ‘hello’ at them. He shot off a couple of spontaneous jokes and impersonated a nurse with a strange accent.

Often, he would joke with his audience at concerts, sometimes introduce Anoushka as his mother, wink at her in between songs, and occasionally announce a piece and then confess he had no idea what he was going to play next. “If there is one thing that Bapi has taught me about performing, it is that it has to be fun,” writes Anoushka. And it is, most of the time. Sometimes, though, it is not. In a social media post, Anoushka reminisces about playing on the closing night of the Edinburgh International Festival in August while suffering from migraine. Right beforehand, she was vomiting and in searing pain, “hiding in a dark room with every part of me pleading not to have to go out into the lights and loud sound”. But she had to go out and play as though everything was alright.

“A lot of what artists do is quite invisible,” she says. “If you are getting up there night after night, you are getting up there through all your life events. My marriage broke when I was in the middle of a tour, and I was going onstage every day sticking a smile on my face, but my life was falling apart. It is not something you can share with your audience; they are just there for the show. On the one side, there is something transcendent about it―it is beautiful that music can lift you out of that difficulty. On the other side, it is something artistes do that goes unnoticed that is quite amazing, but also a little unfair.”

But for the most part, she loves touring, even though it means leaving her sons for long stretches of time. (“Why are you gone so much? You just came back,” is their constant complaint.) And now, she will be touring India in January, including a performance at the Lollapalooza music festival in Mumbai. She says India holds a special place in her heart, because it is where her music and instrument come from. It is also where she held her first concert at the age of 13. That same year, she entered the recording studio for the first time, for her father’s album In Celebration. Two years later, she helped as conductor with her father and George Harrison of The Beatles, on their 1997 release, Chants of India. It was not always smooth sailing, as she remembers being quite the brat then.

“I was convinced that something wasn’t working,” she says. “There was a shloka that my dad wanted everyone to do, but it was out of rhythm, and I was like: ‘This song is not working. We should move on.’ I was overstepping a bit. I was a kid and I was my father’s daughter. That time, Uncle George told me, ‘You must give it time. If you want to make something work, you have to find a way.' It was a real learning for a 15-year-old.” Since then, she says, she has learnt something from everyone she has collaborated with, from Sting to the Dalai Lama. But her best teacher remains her father.

“In a way I am lucky, because I get to hear him whenever I want,” she says with a wistful smile. But even without the music, the memories are vivid: Teaching him how to blow bubbles because he said he had never done it as a child, being gifted four party dresses on her fourth birthday, him cringing at her “black lipstick” phase, playing Holi together…. She often wonders about what he would have said regarding many things in her life today. As she says, “It would have been lovely to continue the conversation.”