NEW DELHI: The haunting and poignant opening melody of Anoushka Shankar’s song Bright Eyes really encapsulates the pain that the sitar player and composer has experienced recently. Shot in black-and-white, the video sees Anoushka, with a short-clipped hairdo, rendering the evocative notes on her sitar, as singer Alev Lenz croons the lyrics. A part of her new EP, Love Letters, Bright Eyes and the other songs were all written as a response to events in her personal life. And, they reveal a new, more unfiltered side of the musician. Not letting her past hold her back, the artiste, armed with her new EP, has now embarked on a worldwide tour, and will stop by to perform in two cities in India. We got to speak with her about the worth of female friendships, family and music...
‘Rising through the pain’
Love Letters is a compilation of songs written across 2018-’19. These years brought Anoushka health issues, heartbreak and domestic upheaval. In August, in a detailed social media post titled Lady-Bits, which opened with the words, “As of last month, I no longer have a uterus,” she opened up about her hysterectomy. “The news triggered fears about my womanliness, my possible desire to have more children in the future, the fear of dying in surgery and leaving my kids without a mother, the effect the changes may have on my sex life, and more,” she divulged.
The year 2018 saw the artiste separate from her husband of seven years, and father of her two sons, Joe Wright (director of movies such as Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina). As a result, the album is much more personal than her earlier works. “On Love Letters, I focused exclusively on songs with lyrics, creating a collection that directly addresses heartbreak and its ensuing emotions in a way that instrumental music can only hint at,” she offers. “I’ve written from a personal place before, of course, but there was something particularly tender and raw about the process this time. The songs are really about rising through the pain, rather than shutting down,” she says.
Ode to female friendships
With an almost exclusively female crew that worked on the EP, Anoushka says the album is her ode to female friendships. Alev Lenz, who is a principal collaborator on the album, was a trusted source of emotional support for her and it’s their conversations that evolved into the songs on the album.
“I really got to experience the way women show up for each other when crisis strikes. And, that’s really where this music came from – the shared experience of women, holding my hand and helping me find a safe place to put some of my feelings,” Anoushka says. She adds, “My mother has been a key influence on me as a musician and person from birth onward. She continues to be one of the people I’m closest to, and I do often go to her for support and advice.”
The first single from the EP titled Lovable is a collaboration with the French-Cuban sisters Ibeyi. The healing anthem is gentle yet powerful. The lyrics, coupled with the soothing voices of the trio, will make this one linger on your mind for hours. Those Words features British composer, singer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Indian singer Shilpa Rao, and is based on a poem penned by Anoushka. “I feel, Love Letters has been a part of a longer journey towards a very simple, international sound, in which the sitar is no longer exotic or classical, but simply a tool of expression when juxtaposed with the voice and cross-genre elements.”
The EP tour, which begins in India, marks the artist’s return to the country after a long gap. “I’m deeply looking forward to returning and sharing my music again,” she tells us. She has also been quite vocal in the realms of activism, feminism and humanitarian causes. For instance, after the Nirbhaya gang-rape case, Anoushka teamed up with the 'One Billion Rising' campaign, and shared her own story of sexual abuse.
All in the family
The year 2020 marks the centenary of Anoushka’s father, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Looking back at her relationship with him, she reveals, “I can never express my gratitude for what I was given by my father, as it shapes everything I do, and is within all the music I make. His legacy as a musician continues to blow me away. I don’t know if we all truly understand exactly how much he did for music, and for India, and Indian music in particular.”
As a part of the celebrations to mark the occasion, Anoushka will be seen sharing the stage for the very first time with her half-sister, the Grammy-award winning singer Norah Jones. Why did it take them so long to perform together, we ask. “We’ve been asked hundreds of times over the years, of course, but it never felt like a natural fit, and more of a gimmick. This, however, feels entirely appropriate. It feels just right, and I’m so looking forward to it,” says Anoushka, confiding that the two sisters are actually “very close”.
Catch the Love Letters Tour on February 14 at Siri Fort Auditorium