To read a list of Anoushka Shankar’s accomplishments is to read many life stories in one: masterful sitarist; film composer; impassioned activist; the youngest and first female recipient of a British House of Commons Shield; the first Indian musician to perform live or to serve as presenter at the Grammy Awards with seven nominations under her belt, and the first Indian woman to be nominated; one of the first five female composers to have been added onto the UK A-level music syllabus. She is a singular, genre-defying artist across realms – classical and contemporary, acoustic and electronic.
Anoushka began studying the sitar – and Indian classical music – from the age of 9 under the intensive tutelage of her father, Pandit Ravi Shankar: a master of the instrument, and a figure without whom 20th Century music would quite simply not have been what it was. After making her professional debut at thirteen, she began touring worldwide alongside her father then embarked on a successful touring career when she was 18, becoming known for her virtuosic yet emotional playing style, unusual instrumentation, and precise rhythmic interplay. Having discovered electronic music as a teenager before later immersing herself in the Goan psychedelic trance scene, she found parallels with the meditative, introspective qualities of Indian classical music in the ecstatic release of the dancefloor: using different colours to paint the same picture.
Having released three classical albums for Angel Records EMI and performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Barbican multiple times by the age of 25, the switch to earthy ambience and deep textures on 2005’s Rise was fuelled by a desire “to create music that more fully represents who I am.” Her follow-up album Breathing Underwater, created in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Karsh Kale, envisioned a sonic world where ragas, bright analogue soundscapes, contemplative electronics, and guest turns by Ravi Shankar, Sting, and Anoushka’s half-sister Norah Jones could all slot next to each other without seeming an inch out of place.
Signing to Deutsche Grammophon in 2011 marked the start of a decade of unbridled fertility. Over the course of four distinct albums, each Grammy-nominated, disparate threads were woven into a tapestry, even as themes shifted and sound palettes expanded. Co-written with frequent collaborator and handpan exponent Manu Delago and featuring M.I.A, Vanessa Redgrave and Alev Lenz, 2016’s Land Of Gold crystallised Anoushka’s sound: a de-exotified, high-definition sitar resonating across unpredictable, genre-resistant instrumentation.
Anoushka’s foray into composing for film birthed what she considers her most challenging piece of work: scoring the British Film Institute’s restoration of Shiraz, one of the first major Indian silent feature films, and performing it live at screenings. Her recent work co-composing the score to Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy is a sonic portrait of post-partition India.
Anoushka has been outspoken about her experiences as a woman and a survivor of child abuse, throwing her weight behind campaigns such as One Billion Rising. She frequently works with organisations such as the UNHCR and Help Refugees to raise funds and awareness for the refugee crisis. In 2020 she was announced as the inaugural President of the F-List: a UK database created to help bridge the gender-gap in music, and as an Ambassador for The Walk: an international artistic project in support of refugees.
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