Music » Music Feature

All in the family

Sitarist Ravi Shankar passes on his magic to daughter Anoushka


Father-daughter acts are quite rare in North Indian classical music. "Usually what happens in Indian families is that [female performers] get married, and little by little their performing careers stop," says Ravi Shankar, the 83-year-old composer, sitar master and worldwide exporter of his homeland's music.

When his second wife, Sukanya, gave birth in 1981, both parents envisioned a quite different future for their new daughter, Anoushka. A former professional dancer, Sukanya fostered the child's early musical training, and at age 9, Anoushka began to study sitar with her father, in his homes in London and New Delhi.

In 1992, the family set up a household in Encinitas, Calif. There, Anoushka acquired a public school education and a whiff of a Valley Girl accent. She studied Western classical music alongside her ongoing instruction in the intricate fingering of the sitar. In her early teens, she made her performing debut in New Delhi, played on one of her father's albums, and conducted a collaboration between Shankar and former Beatle George Harrison.

Harrison, who Anoushka knew as "Uncle George," was a regular visitor to Encinitas, as were Sting and composer Philip Glass. When Anoushka was 16, then-18-year-old Norah Jones, born to musician Sue Jones and Shankar prior to his marriage to Sukanya, first visited her. "[Norah] didn't know much about my music," says Anoushka of her famous half-sister, "but now she comes to concerts whenever she can." On one of her visits, long before her Grammy-sweeping debut album, Jones shared several songs with the Shankars. "Even then I was impressed," says Shankar. "I was telling her she should record."

Shankar's daughters reportedly get along very well and have even attempted to forge a more formal musical dialogue. "It was kind of a disaster, but, in theory, we would like to do something together," says Anoushka.

After her own debut on Angel Records in 1998, Anoushka, now 22, began touring actively, both solo and with her father. "I learn even more from him when we're on stage together," she says. "As he continues to grow as a musician, he always has more to teach me. And as I continue to grow, there's always new things I'm able to grasp." Anoushka has advanced from an auxiliary role on second sitar to getting near-equal billing as her father.

In his teens, Shankar's own training, at the hands of his future father-in-law, Baba Allauddin Khan, was far more grueling and isolated than Anoushka's experience. He went on to compose ragas, ballets and film scores. With his then-brother-in-law, Ali Akbar Khan, Shankar brought his nation's classical music to the West in the '50s, bending the ears of Western classical virtuosi, jazz innovators and rock stars. Eventually, he would collaborate with and compose for many of the Westerners he had influenced.

Shankar's recent tours and recordings with Anoushka are not the first to be a family affair. His son Shubho, born in 1942 to his first wife Annapurna, occasionally performed sitar alongside his father until his premature death in 1992. "Being related is an additional special feeling," Shankar says about his current work with Anoushka. "But the pleasure is even more when the student happens to be terrific in her talent, as Anoushka is."

Like Jones, Anoushka has drawn in audiences of her own age, as well as older fans. "There are some people who just kind of blindly love me, just because they love my father so much and they're so happy that someone is continuing his legacy," Anoushka says. "And there are some people who are the flip side, they just assume that every bit of success I've had is because of my father and because it would be easy for me to become famous. And there's a nice little section in the middle who just kind of have a good time and listen to the music, and those are the people I look for in my audience."

Add a comment