Sitars in Her Eyes

The sitar is one hell of a difficult instrument to play, much less master. With up to 21 strings, it is an unwieldy beast that one must be pretty limber just to hold properly. Players treat the instrument and its music with deep respect, often announcing pieces in hushed tones, just 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!" Anoushka 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 much 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 Anoushka 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 Anoushka since she was nine.

But if there was any difficulty in sorting out the roles of teacher and father for the man some call the Godfather of World Music, it wasn't from her 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 that are played fretted like a guitar, three or four "drone" strings that are 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, the countryish jazz singer Norah Jones who was raised by an American mother and estranged from Ravi, Anoushka grew up immersed in both Eastern and Western culture. Not many California high school homecoming queens are also professional sitar players; indeed, perhaps Anoushka was the first. After setting aside her tiara, she recorded her debut, Anoushka, followed by Anourag on Angel Records, the label that also 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," Anoushka 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." She 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), the record does show the versatility of the instrument most Westerners may have heard only as the background to hippie movies or at restaurants serving tandoori chicken. On "Raga Madhuvanti," Anoushka'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," actually 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, Anoushka says that much of Live at Carnegie Hall is her own work. Improvisation is, according to Anoushka, the heart of a raga.

Like Willie Nelson, whose battered guitar is as much an icon as his bearded, ponytailed visage, Anoushka 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 himself 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 Shankars. Anoushka 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."

This year she experienced a different kind of loss with the passing of the man she knew as Uncle George. George Harrison first became intrigued with the sitar after hearing it played by an Indian band in 1965 during a scene for the movie Help! Harrison traveled to Bombay the next year to learn the rudiments from Ravi, an experience that also watered the early seeds of his lifelong dedication to Indian culture, music and Hinduism. In turn, the diminutive Ravi became a Zelig-like fixture on the British and American rock scenes, appearing on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, the Band's Last Waltz and the Concert for Bangladesh, as well as in the famous films made about those events.

"We spent the whole day with him the day before he died…yeah, I got to say good-bye, which was very nice. He was very close to me," Anoushka says, her voice drifting off. "He had an amazing sense of humor. I will remember him saying some pun or really corny joke…that makes me laugh a lot."

When not practicing, recording, writing (her biography of her father, Love of My Life, comes out this summer in India) or performing gigs either with Ravi or solo, Anoushka also has a more typical 20-year-old's passion: clubbing. "I love trance music, drum 'n' bass and dancing!" she enthuses. Her favorite place to go is Goa, a hip beach town on India's west coast. "It's where trance music really started. Even now you'll hear things there that you won't hear anywhere else for two years."

She also enjoys going to Brazilian and Turkish bars. But if she plans a postgig club-hopping night in downtown Houston, she'll have a tough time not getting carded. "Hey!" she says in mock offense, "I am legal in England!"

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero