Upon hearing glowing press blurbs about her, Anoushka Shankar audibly winces.
"It goes without saying that Anoushka Shankar is a virtuoso sitar player," The Guardian gushed, front and center in her press release. Ditto for Harper's Bazaar, who proclaimed she's "making her own unique mark on the world." Her live show is "Expect to be thoroughly intoxicated," wrote an awestruck Time Out New York.
To which Shankar emits a sheepish reaction through her teeth: "Whoa boy."
"I have that real mix of pride and self-loathing when it comes to this stuff," Shankar tells GRAMMY.com from New Delhi; her London accent rings clear. "On one level, I feel like I'll never be good enough at it, but on another level, I'm feeling great about it."
The nine-time GRAMMY nominee isn't projecting false humility. Through the lenses of her recent music — including a new song, "In Her Name" — it's clear that Shankar is galvanized by more important things than self-gratification. One of them is a magical sense of interplay with her collaborators. The other is an inner drive to address issues that affect women and girls — chief among them, the scourge of sexual violence.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com, Shankar praises colleagues like vocalist and composer Arooj Aftab, composer and conductor Jules Buckley, percussionist Manu Delago, Dutch orchestra Metropole Orkest, and poet Nikita Gill.
With the former, Shankar is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Performance, for "Udhero Na"; with the middle three, she's up for a golden gramophone for Best Global Music Album for Between Us…, their co-created live album.
But it's "In Her Name," featuring Gill, that's at the forefront of Shankar's mind. She initially released the song about a decade ago as "In Jyoti's Name," in tribute to its namesake: a physiotherapy intern named Jyoti Singh Pandey, who died from injuries as a result of a gang rape in 2012.
Pandey's attack and death sparked protests throughout India; the news affected Shankar deeply. With the 10-year anniversary looming, Shankar decided to revitalize the tune with words from Gill. Hence, "In Her Name," which grapples with this particular horror and so many of its kind through electrifying, evocative language.
"Time cannot devour/ What we will not allow to be forgotten," Shankar recites, channeling Gill's words. "Let the wind take these embers, these ashes/ And build a goddess of wildfire in her name."
Today, Shankar grapples with her innate optimism when considering this subject, as eradicating sexual violence seems to be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back proposition. But musical monuments like "In Her Name" do crucial work nonetheless. Because at the very least, they shatter silence — and offer a thread of beauty amid human suffering.
Read on for an in-depth interview with Shankar about this crucial issue, other musical offerings in the immediate rearview, and more. And for a hub of global organizations working to counteract sexual violence, visit here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I became aware of your work 20 years ago, when Concert for George came out. What are your memories of that time?
It's a funny one, that one, because obviously, it was celebrating a loved one. So, on one hand, it was a truly iconic concert to take part in, musically. But on the other hand, the main experience was an emotional one — of connecting with people and sharing our love for someone. So, it was a very unique concert experience for me.
What was it like to be in the room with George?
A bit like being with family, but at the same time, with someone who had a larger-than-life presence as a musician and human.
You're nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Performance for "Udhero Na," your collaborative track with Arooj Aftab. Tell me about how you and Arooj connect artistically and personally.
It's mutual admiration and friendship and love, but it started off a little differently, because she was in college at Berklee College of Music in Boston. When I would tour in that region, she would be at my shows. I guess she was maybe a fan first, but she also knew some people that I knew, so we became acquaintances and then friends.
At the time, there weren't that many people like us out there touring. So, I think it meant something to her to be able to come see me out there doing what I did.
Then, that kind of shifted as she got older. We became more peers, and it's been really beautiful to see what's happened for her in these last couple of years, with people discovering how amazing she is. So, that's been really lovely.
Can you tell me about the writing and/or recording process behind "Udhero Na"?
It's a song that preexists our working together on it. It's a beautiful piece of music that she wrote long before, and then wanted to release as a bonus track when she was releasing her album, Vulture Prince.
She sent it to me, and I just utterly loved it. I recorded it in my bedroom while I was alone in my house, because I had COVID and my kids were staying with a friend. So, it was a remote and kind of bizarrely chilled-out, relaxing recording process over a cold, dark London winter.
Between Us… is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Global Music Album. I find its marriage of East and West so beautiful. How did that live recording come about?
It's interesting that you use that phrase, "the marriage of East and West." I think the reason it works is that we're so many generations past that first marriage. The pieces on this album are more like little diaspora babies that belong to the world in a really authentic and integral way. They're not the parts that make up their whole.
This live record, Between Us…, came about because I wanted to explore my music in an orchestral space. I worked with Jules Buckley to choose pieces of music that we thought could live in that space in a really beautiful way.
Manu Delago had been a dear collaborator of mine for several years at that point. He was central to a few of the songs that I kept wanting to see translated into the orchestra, so we invited him in to almost be a second soloist on the show.
We did this little run of shows in 2018, and then had some conversations about: Let's book some more. In the middle of all that stuff, the pandemic happened. As we started coming out of it, I just found myself going back to that album on my Dropbox now and then; I had the recording from one of the shows we had done.
In isolation, it blew me away to hear so many human beings together, on a stage, playing music together. It was hard for me to even remember what that felt like, and I kept listening to it, saying, "Oh my god, I was! I was on stage with 40 people playing music!"
I found myself getting a lot from the energy of hearing people together playing music. So, as we came out of it, I just wanted to put it out there. We didn't record it thinking I was going to put it out one day, but it's been a joy to share it.
I feel like the most pristine, lossless WAV file in the world couldn't do justice to how it felt with all that music swirling around you.
That's a great way to put it. Especially with music that has lived in different avatars: to hear it expand and grow to that scale feels really magical.
But at the same time, I think that's something that's so beautiful about music — some of the songs here, I can play them with just Manu and have the most amazing experience of connection and chemistry in music. But then, it can also grow to include all these other people, and it's beautiful.
Tell me more about the deeper workings of this music — the submerged majority of the iceberg as opposed to the exposed tip.
Working with Jules Buckley in particular, we were able to orchestrate around the sitar in a way that felt modern and energizing as opposed to conventional or overly sentimental.
Because I think it could be really easy to do that, especially with the emotional quality of the sitar. Not that any of this is wrong, but it could be really easy to go into Bollywood strings or kind of faux-Western-classical territory. I think his sensitivity with the way he worked around my music, the ragas… he was just brilliant.
And the orchestra is mind-blowing as well, because I have so much experience working with a truly diverse array of unbelievable musicians — the ones the world says are the best in the world. [But] working across traditions is really, really hard.
People can take the best orchestra in the world, and they might really struggle to play an asymmetric beat cycle with precision, for example, which would maybe be simple for us. We just speak different languages.
So, what I think is happening on that record is, even when it sounds simple, the level of skill the orchestra, Manu and Jules are exhibiting allows all the elements to come together, and the way they do is really amazing.
I get that it's inelegant to say "the marriage of East and West," as that's been happening forever. It's something I've always thought about the Beatles' "Within You, Without You"; it kicked open the door to that idea for me. But it's just one part of the chain.
Yeah, it's part of the chain! I think that's the evolution. We had some first meetings of East and West that started with my father, an iconic legend. Then, generation after generation of different meetings. This just feels like it's an existing rather than a meeting, and that only can come forward from it happening before, and pushing forward from there.
Can you talk about "In Her Name" and its decade-long gestation? What was the germ of the song — the intention — back then?
The intention at the time was more of an emotional response to what happened to Jyoti Singh Pandey 10 years ago — her gang rape that eventually led to her death.
Like so many humans in the world, I was affected very deeply by that news, and it led to me telling my own story. It really impacted me deeply, and it came out in a piece called "In Jyoti's Name."
The reason I named it that was because up until that time in India — and usually still — victims' names are protected to shield them from what some may perceive as the shame of what happened to them.
And her family, at the time, actually gave permission to release her name. I thought that was really powerful, because it spoke to how it wasn't her shame. I felt significance in it, so I released the song in her honor, but with her name in it.
As these years have gone on, there have been so many others like her. I'm almost reluctant to continue naming them, because there are so many that I'll miss one. But I found myself noticing the anniversary was coming up this year, and thinking: God, 10 years is a time in which a lot can change.
Yet, I remember at the time saying: This has got to change, and enough is enough. It feels like that's not what has happened. That's why I felt it important to come back to it. Not just to mark the anniversary, even though that is, of course, significant, especially to people who actually knew and loved her.
But to just question where we are. Around the world, in all the ways that women's bodies are impacted. It just felt like an onslaught, and I think this piece of music comes from there.
Can you talk about Nikita Gill? What she brought to the song, and what you appreciate about her?
Ah, she's magic. She has a very powerful way of speaking simply, that is not simple. It takes a great deal of skill to make something seem as accessible as that, but speak a truth that reaches in that kind of way that she makes it.
So, when I realized I wanted words on this version, she was my first and only phone call. She said yes before I even finished asking; for all the same reasons I wanted to make the song, she wanted to be a part of it.
I don't know what to say about her poetry, other than it speaks all my feelings in a way that I would never be able to express, and it's an honor to get to speak them.
Regarding this global horror that you're deeply invested in and making music about, what progress have we made in the last decade, from your perspective? And where do we go from here in order to negate this suffering and death?
It feels like for every step forward, there's a kind of step back. And it feels like as it can happen with progress overall, there's so often resistance.
It can feel really baffling at times that this topic can suddenly become center-stage, and we can be talking about it and listening and learning. Then, suddenly, some politician comes along, or something happens where there's some shaming tweet about someone, and it just feels like we get pushed down again.
So, I don't know if I can say to you whether we've made progress overall, because for every bit we have made, it feels like we're going backwards. I feel like, historically, I've always landed on the side of optimism, and I'm [Uneasy laugh] a little undecided about that right now.
“In Her Name” single artwork. Credit: Shilo Shiv Suleman
I'm pretty young, but I do remember a time when the model of manhood was aggression and derring-do and imposing your will on others. Consent was addressed in the media in crazy ways that wouldn't fly today.
Yes, thank you for bringing it there, because things have definitely moved, and it is amazing to look back and realize how nuanced change is.
I can go back and watch a TV show I feel nostalgic about, and I can feel shocked about what's actually in there in a way I didn't necessarily remember at the time. Which shows how things have changed. As a child, as a teenager, as a young woman at that time, that would have been presented to me as fine, so I processed it as fine. I can look back and go: Wow.
That can be a very strange feeling, because it brings a bizarre kind of grief for myself, or others like me, in the past. As a child, I was raised in what people were telling me was a post-feminist society. We were told everything was fine now.
But like you're saying, we go back and look at the way it was, and it was so far from fine. It's a weird thing to look back and realize I've had to continue learning that, as a woman, I deserve better than that. Or that people I'm next to, or raising, deserve better than that.
I guess what gives me hope is that I'm raising boys. That was something that gave me a heart attack at first, when I was pregnant and realized I was having a boy. I had to work through what that was about. It was like: Oh my god! I'm raising future men! What does that mean?
And then I turned it around and I was like, What an incredible opportunity. And I watch my older kid and his friends, and they're just amazing. Their language, their understanding, their nuance, their care, their awareness. It really, really blows me away.
My older son doesn't want to watch things that don't pass the Bechdel test. You know? Or he gets really frustrated by old cartoons, where it's all about romance; he'll immediately catch when something sexist happens. His group of friends is really, truly mixed and safe and open.
I didn't have a fraction of that when I was his age. That was not what was [prevalent].
I'm sure that extended to your beginnings in the music business, which was and is male-dominated in many regards.
It really was, but I'm more aware of that looking back than I was at the time.
I remember reading a statistic for which the numbers escape me now — I'm making this up — but say, it took 30 percent of women in a boardroom to speak 20 percent of the time for men to feel like they were speaking more than half the time. Because their presence felt so novel. It felt so loud.
That's kind of what it was like. Now, I can look back and say, "Yes, it was very male-dominated." But at the time, I probably would have seen myself and one other woman there and said, "Wow! This is great!". [Laughs.]
The 2023 GRAMMYs are coming up, and you're in the midst of a press cycle. But what are you planning on when this hectic period wraps up? What will you be working on when there's a clearing?
I just did a mini-tour of India, but I haven't come back and done a proper tour of America since the pandemic. So, that's going to be happening in the autumn, which I'm really excited about. I'm in this very last-minute panic of what that tour's going to be. [Laughs.] I'm leaving it to the wire.
I'm starting to write a new album at the beginning of the year, and I'm very excited about that as well. If things go according to plan, it's a new album and the beginning of a big tour.
Can you drop any hints about that album?
[Hesitantly.] A producer I'm very… excited about? [Laughs.] No, I guess not. Not yet!
Before we get out of here: you've been steeped in the sitar for your entire life. All these years later — even with your advanced facility with the instrument — do you ever feel like you've just scratched the surface with what you can express with it?
I feel like I'm at the beginning section of the whole available journey. There is something about getting good at my instrument that brings true joy. When I play now, there's an intimacy with my instrument that's such a beautiful feeling. I could have had a similar amount of skill 10 or 15 years ago, but I don't feel like I had this feeling when I play.
I know that comes from growth, so I can tell I'm growing through an evolution on my instrument. I can feel that, and that feels really, really beautiful.
One of the frequent stories I tell when people ask what I learned from my dad is that I learned more from example. He was at the top of the mountain with the instrument, but I sat next to him every single day, watching him still journeying and seeking and looking at how much more he had to do.
So, I can't even answer the question in correlation to that, because I know where he was compared to me. Therefore, what he still saw ahead of him. That puts it all into perspective, I guess.
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