Sitarist Anoushka Shankar headlines Sewanee Performing Arts Series

By Julia Wallace

In Guerry Auditorium on November 8, Anoushka Shankar sat in the center of the stage with her sitar. To the right were Pirashanna Thevarajah on Indian percussion and Sanjeev Shankar on the shehnai, and to the left were Danny Keane and Ayanna Witter-Johnson who both played cello and piano. This staging, with the audience facing “north,” embodies the musical differences in east and west, and Anoushka is right on the border.

The set featured music mainly from Anoushka’s seventh album, Traces of You, and expressed a true fusion of European classical sound and traditional Indian composition to sound both contemporary and time-honored, eastern and western.

The first piece began slowly, with deep long notes on the cello and light plucks on the sitar, then with the introduction of the shehnai (an Indian wind instrument) and a hand drum, the pace escalated, and suddenly, seamlessly, the concert had really begun. The next couple of pieces featured the piano, which added a very contemporary vibe to the sound. The most interesting musical addition, however, was Manu Delago on the hang. The hang is an idiophone percussion instrument, which can be most easily compared to a steel drum, but sounds much lighter. It compliments the sitar beautifully, and created pleasantly unexpected harmonies. A few of the songs, including the title track “Traces of You,” implemented vocals by Witter-Johnson. One of the most moving pieces, “In Jyoti’s Name” was written for the gang rape victim in Delhi whose death attracted world media attention. The shehnai in this song almost sounded like a woman crying out.

The diversity of the instruments and the perfect blend of their sounds is a testament to Anoushka’s songwriting and composing talents. The program notes explain that she was “inspired by the idea that everything in the universe leaves an indelible mark, or a subtle ‘trace’ on everything else it comes into contact with … Anoushka draws inspiration from her relationships and multicultural lifestyle to trace a journey of love, change, and loss.” In the process of making Traces of You, Anoushka’s father, the world-famous sitar player Ravie Shakar, died due to upper-respiratory and heart issues. The program notes further explain that “three forms of love, love for father, love for husband, and love for her son, proved to be the ultimate inspiration for some of the deepest music Anoushka has yet written.”

The sitar is an impressive instrument, with seven playable strings (and about 13 “sympathetic strings” for drone and melody) and an incredibly long neck. Anoushka played it flawlessly, and, if it’s possible, made it look easy. She smiled while her fingers worked at lightning speed, as if she we were watching her listen to the music rather than produce it.