Currently touring Australia, nine-time Grammy nominee, composer and sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar dazzled Sydney audiences with a masterful concert at the Opera House last Friday as part of the Sydney Festival. Her concert which went for about an hour and a half, featured a lush array of traditional Indian classical blended effortlessly with contemporary genres, especially Western classical, jazz, and music for cinema soundtracks. Alongside Shankar were the performers Arun Ghosh on clarinet, Tom Farmer on double bass, Sarathy Korwar on drum-kit and other percussion and Pirashanna Thevarajah on mridangam, ganjira and other percussion instruments. It was her fourth time playing at the Opera House (all sold-out shows) and her first trip to Australia in 6 years.
The tour coincides with the recent release of Shankar’s latest EP Chapter 1: Forever for Now, the first of a trilogy of “mini albums”, and the first to feature her new line-up of brilliant musicians.
What makes Anoushka Shankar’s music unique is its versatility, appeal, and capacity to evoke mood, particularly through the thoughtful use of motifs, almost always grounded in beautiful phrases from a raga, drawn out and expanded through artful repetition and variation. Her compositional style brings these motifs out to speak for themselves or in delicate conversation with pure raga expression and sometimes quite surprising chord patterns. It is a beautiful thing to hear and even more to experience live, with the rich and complimentary combination of Shankar’s sitar and Tom Farmer’s double bass, in particular, carrying the show over the structure of brilliant rhythm by Korwar and Thevarajah and Ghosh’s soaring clarinet interludes.
The concert yielded a nice mix of some great Anoushka classics as well as new works from Chapter 1. She started alone with the plaintive and pleading What will we remember, in the raga Madhuvanti, inspired by the collective intensity of the global pandemic and the hopes of many, that the emerging different ways of thinking and approaching life might endure. Grounded in this raga, associated with pathos, this piece sets a tone of gravitas, calling on us all to remember those fresh perspectives and do better.
Bringing good into the world is an important part of Anoushka Shankar’s ethos, with a deep commitment to using her platform to speak out about social justice issues, including as part of PETA India’s campaign against zoos, the One Billion Rising campaign to end rape and sexual violence or, somewhat more cautiously, about the erosion of freedoms in contemporary India. In this vein, it was also refreshing to hear three pieces from Shankar’s 2016 album Land of Gold, which focused on the refugee crisis, especially sitting so close to Sydney Harbour. It was an important reminder of the uncomfortable truth of Australia’s harsh asylum seeker policy, grappling with the harsh realities of the crisis without politicising the issue. In an interview for Women of the World 2021, Shankar said, “When we’re using art and music to talk about issues it reaches people in a different emotive way, and it helps them to connect with their sense of empathy for each other in a way that discussions sometimes might not… with art (the) heart stays open”.
Shankar has found ways to open up her own heart and bare her soul, not just on broader socio-political issues but on issues within her own life. Her powerful and deeply personal album Love Letters deals head-on with the anguish and heartbreak of betrayal and love lost, in the wake of her divorce, offering some catharsis. “I know that every time I bare my soul, I’m ok at the end”, Shankar said, in a 2020 interview with Mojo Story.
She juggles these characteristics with a grounded awareness of her immense celebrity and all that comes with it (including partnerships with big players), managing to carry it off with grace and show a possible pathway for emerging artists. Even if it’s not the pathway of one’s preference it is incredibly refreshing to see creativity, dedication and a grounding in tradition meeting success and South Asian artistic traditions valued. Meanwhile, it’s refreshing that she is able to have fun doing it, for example, breaking up her Australian performance schedule with a trip to Melbourne specifically to catch the tennis.
Other moving moments during her Opera House concert included tributes to both parents, her North Indian father, sitar trailblazer the late Ravi Shankar, and her South Indian mother, Sukanya Shankar. The quintet played one of her father’s compositions which “stood out” to her. Fire Night is an upbeat piece not originally composed for sitar, but perfectly suited to it, to which a new section and riveting solos were added. In honour of her mother, Anoushka Shankar performed Daydreaming from the new EP, an arrangement of the gorgeous Carnatic composition of Narayana Theerthar Madhava Māmava in the raga Nīlāmbari, quintessentially used in Carnatic laali (lullaby) songs. Fittingly, this kriti was sung to Anoushka Shankar by her grandmother when she was a child and one day Shankar played it for her son as he slept on her lap which inspired the arrangement, adding to the appeal of her music to rasikas of both Indian classical music forms.
Shankar’s focus on making mini-albums is a smart choice, arguably aligned with her resistance against the often unjust demands placed on artists. It’s also a chance to release more often and leave fans wanting more. The relative brevity of the Sydney concert also left us wanting more. But the quality performance and variety of moods evoked more than made up for this, particularly the chance to see such masterful musicianship, with the brilliance of Anoushka Shankar and each of her outstanding co-musicians, and their precision as a group. If anything, I would love to see them let loose a little more and fly in the face of precision, something which may happen in future Chapter releases, over the coming world tour and at future Australian shows which will hopefully next come before too long.
For those who wish to catch Anoushka Shankar in Australia her last public show will be as one of the performers featuring at Sydney Symphony under the Stars: Pictures in the Sky at Parramatta Park at 8 pm Sat 20 Jan (FREE EVENT).