Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Hearing Anoushka Shankar perform live is a transcendental experience. These excerpts are from my notes written during her April 26, 2002 performance at Southern Oregon State University in Ashland, Oregon. They appear in their original form and have not been edited.
“She enters onto the stage almost as if in a trance. And then all of a sudden her fingers become stems these long beautiful broadheaded arrows that stab into the strings (of her sitar). Suddenly, a big river of music is flowing blind through time — the holy milk of the silence bubbling and boiling, becoming clear pearls of sound. It’s so pristine, so perfect and beautiful. It’s the music of the wind through the trees falling across your breath at the infinite hour of dawn. Perfectly spontaneous, existing only in the moment as it’s created, this is the process of conception and birth and death and resurrection all taking place at once before our very eyes.”
“The young woman. Perfect Indian flower. Barely 21 years old (bares) an ancient soul (older) than the memory of rivers in dreams. The young woman. Perfect Indian flower. Sits under the high blue lights of the stage (pausing) to smile toward her players. This true and humble understanding of her place in the universe amongst all things visible and invisible, born and unborn.”
“Percussionists at either side of Anoushka call out to each other and respond with more music (beating) drums wildly (sweet) blue thunder of melody (until) smoky clouds of dust rise from their fists and fade (back) into the still night air of an April shower…”
“Setting her sitar down, she joins her hands together and bows; and the audience collapses into bottomless bowls of applause. The echo is never-ending…”
Anoushka Shankar, the 21 year-old daughter of famed sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, has been playing music since she was a small child. A true prodigy accomplished on the piano as well as the sitar, Anoushka’s vision as a artist extends directly from the heart of her father — on stage, the two literally offer their blood to the audience. More than a “concert,” it’s a supreme sacrifice of the self, bringing the sweet musical strains of their native India unto the ear of the world.
Anoushka, born in London and reared in California, began studying the sitar under her father’s tutelage when she was only 9 years old. Four years later, she made her debut in New Delhi, India — a 13 year old girl challenging the work of her father and the great masters of Indian music who preceded her by centuries. Since 1995, she has performed both with Ravi Shankar and as a solo artist, amassing five-star reviews throughout the western world. Anoushka’s crowning achievement came in 1998, at only 17 years of age, when she was honored by the Parliament in London which bestowed on her a House of Commons Shield, recognizing her pre-eminence as a musician. To date, she is the only woman –and the youngest person– ever to be so celebrated.
The late George Harrison, lead guitarist and founding member of the Beatles, was greatly influenced by Ravi Shankar’s work and continuing evolution as an artist. “Most people are musicians because they play a certain instrument,” Harrison once said of the elder Shankar. “But Ravi, to me, he is the music; it just happens to be that he plays the sitar. And it’s like that with Anoushka. She just has that quality…She is the music.”
Anoushka’s playing, like her father’s, is deeply rooted in Buddhism, paying homage to spirits and unnamed ghosts with the gifts of the earthly body. And like her father, Anoushka’s music is but an extension of the soul, peeling away these tin masks of human suffering and replacing them with the perfect serenity of unborn dreams. As Anoushka performs, it’s almost as if she is lost in conversations with God. This is music of magical proportions, moving men from their secret chairs, casting the whole skulls of mountains into transparent shadows. At once, heaven has been reunited with the earth and the sun.