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December 24, 1999


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In Her Father's Footsteps

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Lavina Melwani

Anoushka Shankar

The world of classical Indian music is very much a father-and-son enterprise, with each successive generation taking up the musical instrument of their forefathers. Enter Anoushka Shankar, one of the few daughters to follow in the footsteps of a famous musician father.

The daughter of legendary sitar Pandit Ravi Shankar, she is proof that fathers and daughters can have equally meaningful musical collaborations. Anoushka, now 17, has been performing all over the world with her father since she turned 13. She has played at Carnegie Hall and even performed solo with Zubin Mehta conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Recently the British Parliament presented her with a House of Commons Shield in recognition of her artistry and musicianship, the youngest and only woman to receive this honor.

The media seems to have embraced her enthusiastically: BBC Music Magazine wrote, "Anoushka looks set to be as important a pioneer as her father" while The Telegraph in London noted, "The one person who outshone Ravi Shankar when the 75-year-old sitar maestro performed at the packed Barbican Hall in London was his 14-year-old daughter, Anoushka."

Vivacious and bubbly, Anoushka has stage presence and performs with confidence. Just a few months back, she signed an exclusive contract to record for her father's current label, Angel/EMI Classics. This first album marks her solo debut and is titled simply -- Anoushka.

Anoushka was born in London to Ravi Shankar and his second wife Sukanya, who is an accomplished Carnatic singer. By the time she was three or four, Anoushka was singing with her mother. When she was nine, Ravi Shankar crafted a baby sitar for her and taught her to play. When she was 11, the family moved to California. She grew up mostly in the west but spent at least three months in India every year.

Is it difficult being her father's daughter?

"As a sitarist, I'm getting a hundred times more attention from the media than I would have if I wasn't his daughter. All I have to do is prove myself," she says, before smiling and adding:

"But the proving myself part is where the difficulty about being his daughter comes in. I think people's expectations are a lot higher since I am his daughter."

Her typical day revolves around school, homework and friends and sitar practice when she is in California. When she is touring she has to do her studies by correspondence and life becomes a succession of plane rides and hotel rooms. Ravi Shankar and she tour all over Asia, from a base in India.

In summer they are based in London and do Europe; and in the fall and spring they perform in different cities in the US. Anoushka is an accomplished pianist and that was her second career choice. She also loves writing and often writes for the school paper on topics that matter to her, like child abuse. If she didn't have her musical career, Anoushka sees herself going to college and perhaps studying psychology and counseling abused children.

How has she managed to merge her two very different lives -- that of a celebrity performer and high school kid? Does it make her very different in the eyes of her peers? Says Anoushka, who goes to public school in Encinitas, California, "Most of my friends think it's pretty cool. Most of them have something else going on -- they play the guitar or act -- they have something.

"So this happens to be my something; it just happens to be a lot more high profile. Some people are a bit in awe of that -- but not my friends."

Life for Anoushka is a balancing act between east and west. Both Ravi Shankar and Sukanya are Brahmins and Hindu rituals play an important part in their lives. They celebrate every Hindu festival from Krishna Jayanti to Durga Puja. Their beautiful house in California has huge statues of Lakshmi, Ganesha and Saraswati, and a large Om outside the door.

Says Anoushka: "All my friends say our house smells so good -- because you walk in, the first thing you smell is Indian food. Then you go a little further, and you smell the incense in the puja room!"

According to Sukanya, Anoushka has read the Mahabharata in English several times and knows every character from it. She says, "In India, she's Indian, at home, she's Indian but when she goes to school, she's American. As modern as she may be, she has all the values in her mind."

Even while living in California's Valley Girl culture, Anoushka maintains her Hindu roots. She chants Sanskrit slokas and attends Ashtanga yoga classes at a local gym.

She says: "I don't think Hinduism should be tied to India because it's a religion and India is a country. It's very easy to be Hindu and be outside India. Religion is a very personal thing and anyone can hold any philosophy inside of them."

Anoushka loves her sitar because it has brought her father and her very close. There is a vast gap in their ages -- the maestro, at 78, is old enough to be her grandfather but their music practice and concerts ensure intense closeness. They also love watching old movies together, especially Alfred Hitchcock mysteries. What most people don't know is that Ravi Shankar has a droll sense of humor and the laughter really escalates when good friend George Harrison is around.

Anoushka jokes: "My father says people call him a pundit because he's always punning so much!"

Ravi Shankar has been her guru from the moment she could hold up her baby sitar. "She has the uncanny gift of being able to repeat some of my improvisations so accurately that it amazes the listeners, and gives me such delight," he writes in 'Raag Mala', his autobiography.

"I feel so proud! She inspires me and brings out the best in me, both when I teach her and on stage. I soar to such heights, and then I see in her eyes such deep appreciation, which moves me so! My heart fills with such love for her that it almost hurts."

He has composed all the ragas on her debut album. He says, "Just like her personality, she can completely switch between Indian and Western music. Not everybody can do that, unless you are blessed by God and have that special gift. Anoushka has beautifully performed all the pieces which I specially and lovingly composed for her along with my blessings."

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