Sitars in Her Eyes

Anoushka Shankar is her father's little raga muffin

The sitar is one hell of a difficult instrument to play, much less to master. With up to 21 strings, it is an unwieldy beast; a player must be pretty limber just to hold it properly. Generally, players treat the instrument and its music with deep respect, often announcing pieces in hushed tones, as Anoushka Shankar does on her third record, Live at Carnegie Hall (Angel).

"Oh, no, I sound like a jackass on tape! I'm terrified of the microphone!" Shankar says before dissolving into the first of several fits of giggling. The liveliness of her voice is even more surprising than her accent, which is closer to New York than New Delhi. "I'm used to having the instrument between me and the mike. I feel so dorky talking into this huge thing!"

At only 20, the model-gorgeous Shankar is clearly not your father's sitar player. But she is her father's picker — her dad is the still-spry 82-year-old Ravi Shankar. The world's best-known sitar player (thanks in large part to his longtime association with George Harrison) has been coaching his daughter since she was 9.

Anoushka Shankar: not your typical California homecoming queen.
Anoushka Shankar: not your typical California homecoming queen.

If the man some call the "Godfather of World Music" had any difficulty in sorting out the roles of teacher and father, it wasn't from Anoushka's end. "To be honest, it was probably harder for him. He's accustomed to having so many students he taught in a different way, but I was younger than them and his daughter," she remembers. "And it wasn't brought up like this was going to be a lifelong career. It was about checking out the instrument, which I wasn't too crazy about at first."

Indeed, learning the sitar would be daunting for even the most experienced musician. Developed during the collapse of the Mogul empire circa 1700 (though its exact origins are unclear), the sitar is a lute instrument with a long fretted neck, numerous tuning pegs and a bottom shaped like a gourd. It is used almost exclusively in the music of northern India. The number of strings varies from 17 to 21, with three or four played fretted like a guitar, three or four "drone" strings plucked with a wire finger plectrum, and a series of "sympathetic" strings lying under the frets that resonate when the others are played.

Unlike her half-sister — countryish jazz singer Norah Jones, who was raised by an American mother and estranged from Ravi — Shankar grew up immersed in both Eastern and Western culture. Not many California high school homecoming queens are professional sitar players; perhaps Shankar was the first. After setting aside her tiara, she recorded her debut, Anoushka, followed by Anourag on Angel Records, the label that oversaw a comprehensive reissuing of her father's catalog.

It was this connection that led to Live at Carnegie Hall. "The program was already being recorded for my father's record [Full Circle/Carnegie Hall 2000], so I asked them to do my set as well," she says. "It has a certain energy that studio recordings don't carry over. I don't like [studios] very much. It's very dry, and there's no feedback."

Shankar is also unconcerned with any technical errors that may be recorded for posterity. "I don't care if I make mistakes — there's a fire that comes out when I play live. And if I screw up, I'm stuck with it."

Accompanied by expert tabla drum players Bikram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose and several others on the tanpura (a sort of simpler, fretless sitar), Shankar does show the versatility of an instrument many Westerners have heard only as background music in hippie movies or at restaurants serving tandoori chicken. On "Raga Madhuvanti," Shankar's spare, solo instrument commands attention while showing her technical mastery. Other material ranges from the playful ("Bhupali Tabla Duet") to the hotly sensual ("Raga Desh"). The record's last number, the nearly 19-minute "Raga Mishra Piloo," recorded at a date in England, builds to a frenzied climax of deep beats and whirring steel strings.

And though all of the songs are credited as Ravi's compositions, Shankar says that much of Live at Carnegie Hall is her own work. Improvisation is, she believes, the heart of a raga.

Like Willie Nelson, whose battered guitar is as much an icon as his bearded, ponytailed visage, Shankar pretty much sticks to one instrument on the stage and in the studio. The sitar she plays is close to 50 years old and was given to her by Ravi, who played it for most of that time. Meticulously handcrafted by Ravi's former backing musician Nodu Mullick, it is one of only six instruments he made, five of which are in the possession of the Shankar family. Shankar likens it to a "Stradivarius of the sitar" while detailing the extent to which her family has gone to protect the instrument.

"My father used to actually buy the airplane seat next to him for it whenever he traveled. They would be booked as 'Mr. Shankar' and 'Mr. Sitar,'" she laughs. "You can't do that today, so we have this obnoxiously huge fiberglass case to protect it. But I am still so nervous. I can't wait to get back to the hotel to check out every inch of it."

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