Anoushka Shankar Harnesses The Bicultural Experience In Sydney Festival Performance

The sitar virtuoso's acceptance and graceful embrace of her bicultural identity erupts from her skilled fingers like a superpower.

Anoushka Shankar at Sydney Festival 2024

Image Source: Jacquie Manning

In her latest performance as part of Sydney Festival, Anoushka Shankar’s ability to transport audiences to deep emotional spaces that traverse global boundaries is unwavering. But at the core of her 90-minute performance with this newly formed quintet is a joyous return to a simpler sound and a confident exploration of all facets of her identity. In this space, she reaches a broad, diverse audience and gives a voice to the many bicultural Australians like me, who may be navigating how to reconcile the different parts of who they are.

Growing up as an individual with identity plurality, such as identifying as both Australian and South Indian, can be mentally and emotionally challenging. For those of us who are first or second-generation migrants, much of the struggle has been focused on being recognised as Australian despite our bicultural identity – being just as Australian as everyone else.

To achieve this, we often avoid cultural duality and instead alternate between our two cultural identities. For example, we might embrace our Indian identity on the weekends with our families but erase all shreds of this part of ourselves in professional settings. This comes with an enormous cognitive load that our monocultural counterparts don’t have to manage, but we also miss out on the positive aspects of biculturalism. 

For sitar virtuoso, composer and producer Shankar, her acceptance and graceful embrace of her bicultural identity erupts from her skilled fingers like a superpower. Her performance coincides with the release of her new EP Chapter I: Forever, For Now and marks her fourth performance at Sydney’s most iconic venue, the Sydney Opera House. In this unadorned quintet, she appears joyous, confident, and reinvigorated by a return to a simpler sound.

Born in London to parents from different parts of India, Shankar had exposure to the emerging British world music scene, Tamil culture, and Carnatic music from her mother, and Bengali culture and Hindustani music from her father and guru, Ravi Shankar. Her artistic growth reflects an exploration of all these facets of her identity.  

Her father, Ravi Shankar, has been referred to as “Indian music’s first international star”. He brought the sitar to the metaphorical west, enticing the Beatles’ George Harrison to take sitar lessons and commencing the quest to “de-exotify” the instrument. It’s a quest that Anoushka Shankar just might have achieved, but she had to first master the instrument to break what it represented. 

In her first three albums, she established herself as a Sitar virtuoso in her own right, delivering traditional ragas that showcase her dexterity and proficiency on the instrument. She then began to expand her horizons. She took the instrument to the realms of jazz and pop in 2005’s Rise, flamenco in 2011’s Traveller, hip-hop and electronica in 2016’s Land of Gold, then to performances with chamber orchestras around the world and even to the domain of film and television scores (co-composing the score for Mira Nair’s adaptation of A Suitable Boy). 

Anoushka Shankar at Sydney Festival 2024

Image Source: Jacquie Manning

Her time making music has also been influenced by the evolving world of art and music in London. The United Kingdom is ahead of Australia in the race to embrace our bicultural identity, with third and now fourth generations of Indian migrants growing and pursuing the arts. In the melting pot of global culture, an audience for music that traverses boundaries has been born and as such, so emerge the artists that represent them. Where Ravi Shankar’s naysayers complained he was threatening the purity of the Hindustani classical form, subsequent generations are searching for something that sounds like them. Music that holds nostalgic tributes to their childhood but is framed by the jazz they listen to while they’re cooking. Sounds that express the wholeness of their bicultural identity, that doesn’t ask them to pick a side, that speaks to their own complex internal identity and their external yearning for social change. 

With her father's legacy behind her, Anoushka Shankar has now confidently entered a new era of introspection and unabashed confidence in her artistic identity. In a quintet featuring Arun Gosh on clarinet, Tom Farmer on double bass, Sarathy Korwar on drums, and carnatic percussionist Parashann Thevarajah on Mridangam, Moorsing, and Kanjira, Shankar revisited key songs from past albums and presents arrangements from her new EP with unembellished spontaneity.

Some of the set’s highlights include two songs from her new EP which demonstrate her return to her roots. In the opening piece, What Will We Remember?, she performed a traditional Jor Jhala consisting of a long, solo rumination in raga Madhuvanti followed by a faster paced section that builds into a climax. An elaborate demonstration of her flair and ability to command a stage without accompaniment, it set the tone for the rest of the show. 

The second song from the new EP was a stunning and nostalgic arrangement of Narayana Theerthar Madhava Māmava in the raga Nīlāmbari, which she debuted as Daydreaming. A lullaby that her mother used to play for her as a child, the piece is a tender tribute to her maternal heritage. 

She equally tributed the deep connection with her father and guru in her own version of Firenight. In her introduction to the song, she jokingly mentioned that she’s been stealing from her father all her life but what proceeded moved well beyond the primary composition. Originally an instrumental on her father’s album Improvisations, she demonstrated a mastery of rhythm and fingering by delivering jazz musician Bud Shank’s flute melody on the Sitar. The piece invigorates with space for all members of the quintet to improvise a solo. 

Although it’s her name on the event page, this group of musicians is a true quintet and there were many moments of sonic partnership that seemed to sit in a genre–free space. The two tracks Boat to Nowhere and Secret Heart from her 2019 album Land of Gold really brought the quintet to life, featuring a moody double bass and several astonishing solo and collaborative moments from Arun Gosh on clarinet. The soaring compositions seemed to transcend time and space. You simply had to be there to see it.

Within Australia’s music scene, we are yet to see the breakthrough of bicultural artists at the scale of Anoushka Shankar. It was heart-warming to see such a diverse audience of different ages, colours and backgrounds, fill the Concert Hall. She is an artist that truly traverses global boundaries. Perhaps this is a glimpse of what is possible if we cultivate it. 

Vaanie Krishnan is a live performance critic in Sydney. She has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Time Out Sydney, Limelight Arts Journal and Arts Hub in Arts and Culture. You can follow her on Instagram here or view her portfolio Theatre Enthusiast AU.