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Lessons Learned Close to Home

John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Though you could talk forever about the myriad melodic forms and rhythmic cycles of Indian classical music, at its heart lies not the mechanics of ragas and talas, nor even the aesthetics of rasas, the specific moods or emotions the music expresses. Rather, at the core of this ancient tradition is a personal and artistic relationship--that of master and student.

A particularly rare and vibrant example of that relationship is flourishing in this almost stereotypical Southern California community. The streets are all faux-Spanish, Camino This and Via That, and the influence of sun and surf is everywhere. But up one hill lives the legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar--"The Godfather of World Music,” according to George Harrison --and his most promising protegee, his 16-year-old daughter, Anoushka.

“The beauty of our music is really in the improvisation,” Ravi Shankar says. “There is always something new; it can never be exactly the same. That is why there is so much excitement in Indian music.

“It’s such an old tradition,” Anoushka says, “handed down all this time. There are so many rules.” She sighs. “The ragas that we play can be very specific--these notes you emphasize, these you touch lightly, pull this way, and so on. But then to know it so well, that you can have freedom--that’s so incredible to me, that with so much restriction you can still be so free.”

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Achieving that freedom, father and daughter agree, is the most difficult thing to learn. If it were only given notes that mattered, the music of this completely oral tradition would have been written down long ago, and the master-student relationship would matter far less than it does.

“For me the hardest thing is to let go when I’m playing,” Anoushka says, “the way my father improvises without even thinking about it for a second and just keeps playing and playing. Most of the time I’ve been learning, I’ve been playing fixed pieces that he teaches, so now it’s sometimes hard for me to improvise on stage. I’m getting better at it, but I was really self-conscious at the beginning.”

“The hardest thing is to be on your own and able to improvise endlessly,” her father, 78, concurs. “That takes time.”

Born in London, where the Shankars lived in the ‘80s, Anoushka has been playing sitar since she was 9 years old. A soft-spoken but self-assured young woman, she made her professional debut in India with her father when she was 13 and for the past two years has played in all of his concerts, around the world.

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“I had a little baby sitar that was made for me,” Anoushka remembers. “I haven’t really seen anything like it anywhere else. I’ve seen a lot of kids playing a [full-sized] sitar, maybe not holding it up but laying it on the ground. I learned to sing from my mother, so I knew the notes already and the concept of scales.

“It never occurred to me to play at all; it was my mom’s idea,” she continues. “I don’t think my dad actually wanted to teach me, because he didn’t want to force me or anything like that. So my mom said, ‘Why don’t you teach her now while she is still young, and when she gets older she can stop if she wants to,’ and that’s what we did.

“I loved listening to the music, but at the beginning I didn’t really enjoy playing. I was about 12 when I really got into it. Then they said, ‘Hey, you can stop if you want.’ But I already loved it.”

The traditional paradigm for learning Indian classical music is one of almost monastic devotion, intensive study for years with a guru. That is how Ravi Shankar himself learned. After spending most of the 1930s touring Europe and the U.S. as a promising dancer with his brother Uday’s company of Hindu dancers and musicians, Shankar returned to India to study with Ustad Allaudin Khan.

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“My teacher was very old-fashioned,” he recalls. “ ‘Music is not for sale,’ he said. I had to give up everything to go back to an austere, celibate life, with only music, no distractions. That’s not possible today.”

This period seems to have acquired near-mythological status in the Shankar family.

“The term for this is sadhana--dedicated practice,” Anoushka says. “There was a time when my father practiced 18 hours a day, for about seven months. I don’t think I could do that. It means total surrender, to let go of everything.

“On school days"--Anoushka is a junior at a local public school that makes allowances for her professional schedule--"I don’t practice much more than two hours a day, and on weekends maybe three or four. I think my record is eight hours a day. When we were in India, I had more time.”

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“She doesn’t have 100% of her time for the sitar,” Shankar pere concedes. “She has her homework and piano. She has her friends and a telephone--she’s a teenager, you know what I mean? She does take the help of writing down some of the things I teach her.”

Mindful of the pressure for purity in an oral tradition, Anoushka acknowledges notating music reluctantly. “I do have some music which I wrote down, just for my own reference, like what my dad’s been teaching me and stuff. That’s breaking the rules, I guess.”

To her father, however, notation is simply a tool she has been able to use to overcome some of the distractions of a Southern California teenager’s life.

“Anything from one-fourth to one-half you learn just by listening,” Ravi Shankar says. “Anoushka is such a good combination; because she has been so much in the West, she is very adept in writing down lessons, but she also memorizes easily from my training.

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“She can switch completely from Indian to Western music, and give each her full concentration. Not everybody can do that sort of thing, but some people are blessed by God and have that special gift. Anoushka is definitely one example. She inspires me and brings out the best in me, both when I teach and on stage.”

Though she enjoys all kinds of music, the principal focus of her Western training has been the piano. Anoushka was in India for three months earlier this year, and in January she made her professional debut as a pianist, playing short solos by Grieg and Debussy and accompanying famed flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal in one of her father’s pieces, in a concert in New Delhi.

She also writes poetry, some of which she shares with the feminist club at her school.

“I really like it,” she says. “We get together and talk, have poetry nights. We’re not really aggressive, but we are really involved in the local AIDS walk and domestic violence walk, things like that.”

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Feminism and tradition aren’t always compatible forces, but she’s pragmatic about the combination.

“I’m one of the few women in Indian music, but that’s actually going in my favor, so I can’t complain. It isn’t that women aren’t taught. For example, my father’s guru taught his own daughter [Annapurna], who was my father’s first wife. But usually they got married and did not have careers.”

Although she is wise enough to know that career decisions made at 16 are subject to change, Anoushka expects to continue as a musician.

“I think I will, because I really enjoy it,” she says. “When I think about it, it’s possibly the easiest thing that I could do, because it’s almost being handed to me. It’s a really good deal and I do love it.

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“Sometimes I don’t think I could see myself touring year round, but travel, it’s like the best thing in the world. Seriously, I love it. I love meeting the people, just watching and learning, going to market places and old streets.”

The Shankars--Ravi, Anoushka, and her mother, Sukanya--recently returned from Sweden, where Ravi received the Polar Music Prize along with Ray Charles.

For Anoushka the prize was meeting the American blues master. “He was everything you’d hope he would be,” she says excitedly, “and he dances when he talks, just like he does onstage. It was so cool. He played ‘You Are the One’ and ‘Your Song.’ ”

Anoushka also played at the ceremony, Sukanya points out. “Ray Charles came up to her and said, ‘You touched my heart, girl, you touched my heart.’ We all had a crush on him.”

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Ravi Shankar is hardly oblivious to either the glory or the cash of the Polar Prize, which includes $125,000. His response, however, is tempered a bit, a reminder of those years of ascetic training.

“Naturally, I feel very honored and grateful. This time was really wonderful. But at times I also feel that this is just that which pleases the ego, but does not make me a better musician, you know?”

Anoushka will not have to travel far for her next concert, however. Tonight, she joins her father in a performance at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

“Anoushka is going to assist me,” her father says firmly. “I have a short solo, which I composed especially for her, and she’ll play that. The demarcation is very clear, you see, because she is my student--my disciple, I would like to call her, not student. As long as you are with your guru, it has to be that very clear thing. It is not like a duet.

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“For the program, we will select ragas. We start with very old forms and end with a free-for-all, but within our own set of folk music and traditions. Sometimes I do lots of things which come God knows from where. There is a tinge of blues sometimes, because we have some ragas which use the same notes as the blues. For fun sometimes I’ll play a phrase of something like ‘Yankee Doodle.’ But that is just in the end--not always, just sometimes. We build up, from very slow, spiritual things to very fast, virtuoso, playful things.

“The audience gets dazzled by tremendous virtuosity, but what happens between the notes sometimes gets lost. To be able to touch the spiritual core, that is the highest thing in Indian music.”

Considering that 90% or more of Ravi Shankar’s performance is improvised, there’s not a lot of rehearsing to be done.

“We’re playing with a tabla [drum] player we haven’t played with before, so he will probably come over here a couple of times and we’ll all play together,” Anoushka reports. “It’s not so much rehearsing but just getting to know each other. Sometimes my dad tells me just the day before or that morning--maybe in the dressing room!--what we’re going to play.

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“In concert we alternate a lot, and if I can kind of guess what he is playing, I accompany him, often an octave below; basically I just follow him.”

This summer there will be concerts in Israel, Italy and England for Team Shankar. In October, they will be back home, for a concert at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, which benefits the Ravi Shankar Foundation.

“This is something that I have always wanted to do,” Ravi Shankar says of the foundation project, “building an archive to collect and organize all my work from the last 50 or 60 years. It’s not like a school or just teaching--that part is there, but on a very small scale, maybe just a few students in the old guru system. The archive is the basic thing.

“It will have to be in two countries. In Delhi we have some land and building has already started, hopefully to be ready within a year. But I want to have something here also, because this country always has been so dear to my heart. Nowhere is there such deep interest for our music and culture.”

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Shankar also has begun teaching as a regents professor at UC San Diego. In March, Anoushka played Ravi’s Concerto No. 1 for Sitar and Orchestra with her father as joint soloist, with Zubin Mehta and the London Symphony Orchestra. In December, she will play it on her own in La Jolla.

“I know the piece, since I’ve played it with my dad. I have the experience of playing with an orchestra, but this is a lot more exciting since it’s just me.”

As a product of an unusually close guru-disciple relationship, does she have a voice of her own?

“I don’t know yet. I think I’ll only know that when I start playing solos, so my playing is not as dependent on what he is doing. Right now I’m following him,” Anoushka says.

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Her father is less ambivalent.

“Not now, but I’m sure she will. She will find a world of her own, but it will take a few years. Everybody has to find a stamp of their own--touch and sound and approach.”

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Ravi Shankar with Anoushka Shankar, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight, 7:30 p.m. $18-$38. (949) 553-2422.

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