California Girl


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.”

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.”

Ravi carries the unmistakable air of an artist who has learned to see the sincerity in superficiality. When this reporter asks whether it’s okay to play his music while driving, a faint frown crosses his face before he replies, “You might have an accident.” But Anoushka is as unfettered as her father is guarded. Even Uncle George gets his fair share of abuse, as when I ask what she thinks of “Norwegian Wood,” with its famous sitar bridge. Anoushka winces: “It’s so out of tune.”

America has a way of seeping into the unconscious of even the most traditional families, pleasure principle and all. Anoushka is clearly a California dreamer, and despite his pedigree, Ravi is very much a California dad. The man who had a baby sitar made for his little girl, and who spent years guiding her through the rigors of an ancient art, is no different from countless striving parents. He hopes she will take over the business, but he hastens to add, “Everything depends on her.”

For her part, Anoushka says “It’s going to come down to what makes me happy.” She has yet to have “a gut feeling” that the sitar is her life. She thinks she might become a poet or a social worker. “Or a model,” adds Ravi. Or maybe a movie star–though probably not in Bollywood. “I get offers for Hindi movies,” she confides, “but I don’t know. You have to run around trees for awhile, then roll down a hill and walk around in the rain in a white sari.” Not exactly Evita.

The test will come after she graduates from high school, when she ventures onstage with her sitar–and without Raviji. This seems much scarier to Anoushka than playing alongside her monumental dad. Even when he enters the room, her voice lowers a bit. “Oh, it’s gone,” she says of a thought as Ravi passes by.

He wears his achievements as distinctly as his large diamond ring, but he is fragile now, and a delicacy shows in his eyes when he speaks of the tradition he’s bestowed on Anoushka: “It has been such a slow process, and it will continue as long as I am in this world.”

But right now, Anoushka isn’t thinking about her inheritance. She is having her picture taken, basking in the flash. And after that, she is going out for Thai food. Kewwwl!

Research: Michael Zilberman