California Girl

East Meets West (Coast) in Anoushka Shankar

The crowd at a Ravi Shankar concert is always a culture clash, and last Friday's Carnegie Hall recital was no exception. Paleo- and neo-hippies bopped beatifically beside staid Indian businessmen and their sleekly saried wives. Old-school bohos in bedspread décolletage brushed sandals with the occasional diplomat. Sitting onstage with her illustrious father was the epitome of this mix, his 17-year-old daughter Anoushka, fingering her sitar in a white silk dress, half sari, half gown.

She had spent the previous two hours tuning up, then she'd stood politely for a backstage photo-op with the prime minister of India, and then sat patiently onstage while the PM invoked the lordly name of Ram and took a bow. Finally, Anoushka got to play, accompanying her father's deeply pensive contemplations. Only when her solo began did she become more than the dutiful daughter, flashing dexterous and pellucid phrases that culminated in the evening's most rapturous moment, an exhilarating duet with Raviji. The rag (or melodic mode) that sustained this interplay, and even the rudiments of her solo, had been chosen by him. "That is our way," explains Ravi Shankar.

At 78, the world's greatest living musician is looking for a legacy. He is a renowned teacher whose students have included George Harrison and a steady stream of devotees. But Ravi's star pupil is his daughter, who has been learning the sitar from him since she was seven or eight. Tutoring his own child was a new experience for the master--"like molding soft wax instead of hard rock."

Ravi Shankar's daughter could become a poet, a social worker, or a sitar master: ''It's going to come down to what makes me happy.''
Robin Holland
Ravi Shankar's daughter could become a poet, a social worker, or a sitar master: ''It's going to come down to what makes me happy.''

But for Anoushka, those early lessons were more like an ordeal: "All those boring scales; up and down, up and down. My fingers were cut and my legs were sore." Gradually, though, as her father introduced her to the slow, mystical alap and the rhythmically charged gat, Anoushka began to experience the thrill of making Indian music. "It's not like jazz, where you can improvise on a mode or chord," she says. "There are so many rules, yet you have to be completely free in your interpretation. To go deeply into a raga is to understand the rules so you can find the permutations."

At the age of 12, she says, "I discovered and realized and decided to do it"--become one of the few women to play the sitar professionally. In Indian as well as Western music, the traditional gender assignment should have made Anouskha a singer. But she was Ravi Shankar's daughter. "I never noticed I was the only woman on the circuit until journalists started asking me about it," Anoushka maintains.

She's been performing with Ravi for several years now, and she's about to release her first CD, Anoushka. The jacket shows an elegant 17-year-old you can't take your eyes off. But offstage, in a snug halter top and jeans, she's another Anoushka: the California girl.

"Kewwwl," she says when told that her family will be going out later for Thai food. Raviji is "my dad," Harrison is "Uncle George," and the musical subject of the moment is Metallica (a word that brings a pained look to her father's face). She prefers Madonna to bhangra, despite the scandale at the MTV Awards when the Material Mom appeared in Hindu markings and ohmed. "A lot of Indians were offended that she tried to make herself into a Goddess," says Anoushka, "but it's no big deal to me. I'm not possessive of my culture."

In fact, growing up in a suburb of San Diego has given Anoushka a casually multiculti persona, not to mention a SoCal accent. At home, she confides, the languages get "kind of gummy. Like, when I want to say something to my mother that my dad won't understand, I speak Tamil; but when I want my father to say something my mom won't get, I speak French; and we all speak English to each other." It's the same with music: Metallica coexists happily with Debussy, her favorite composer when she plays piano. And when she goes into "the Indian music room" to study with her father, it's like talking in another language: "I listen with a different ear."

In that respect, she's a lot like her dad, who began his career in postwar Paris before settling down in London and ending up in California, and who has composed everything from film scores (for Satyajit Ray's sublime Apu Trilogy and the blockbuster Gandhi) to a concerto for sitar and orchestra. But it was rock 'n' roll that made Ravi a superstar, playing to rapturous hordes at Woodstock and Monterey, getting standing ovations for tuning up, looking out over a sea of stoned faces.

What Ravi prefers to remember about the '60s is "the innocence--the genuine desire to know things." But Anoushka describes a more hellish experience: "It was really hard for my dad, because in India he was accused of selling out for playing with rock stars, while in the States, it was all, like, pot and acid, sex and sitar music." Imagine keg parties scored to Bach's Saint Matthew Passion and you can gauge the insult. "Drugs are my dad's pet peeve," Anoushka says. He might put it more gingerly, but he has never tired of reminding journalists that dope and raga don't mix: "If you get high, you will hear the wrong things."

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