Anoushka Shankar: 'I still get to interact with my father through the music'

From his deathbed, Ravi Shankar composed Sukanya, an opera for his beloved wife. His daughter reveals how a Hindi myth, a British orchestra, and the sitar and shennai have formed a coherent and moving whole

As I child I remember my father asking my maternal grandmother about the origins of her daughter’s name: Sukanya. She told him the story from Hindu mythology, in which the beautiful young Princess Sukanya marries an elderly sage and remains faithful to him in spite of temptation from two mischievous young demigods. My father was enchanted by the story, and said he would love to make it into an opera.

The joke in the family was that my mother was named in a prescient manner; the legend of Sukanya deals in its essence with a young woman who, through her devoted love, brings her older husband back to youth (with the help of some demigods). My mother and father were 34 years apart in age and my father got to experience a new marriage and family life with her from his 70s onwards. Their love felt alive and youthful, even at the end. This opera was very much a dedication to my mother, or a final grand work inspired by his love for her.

My father was interested in all forms of music, and he adored opera, especially Mozart. I have a clear memory of an afternoon in Delhi, when I was around seven or eight, of my father and I listening to The Magic Flute in my parents’ bedroom. He sat and watched me dance an improvised piece to the entire opera with that slightly baffled expression adults sometimes have when watching a child’s exuberant activity.

Although the idea of an east-west opera had been floating around in his head since that conversation with my grandmother in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t until after the premiere of his symphony, which I performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010, that he focused on Sukanya.

Anoushka with Ravi and Sukanya Shankar.
Their love felt alive and youthful … Anoushka with Ravi and Sukanya Shankar. Photograph: PR Company Handout

He had been developing it for some time before telling my mother, because he wanted it to be a surprise. Even though he knew that he might not finish it, he was working frantically with his close collaborator David Murphy in the months leading up to his death to leave something there for her. And he has left a personal message in the music: he has used my mother’s favourite raga, Yaman Kalyan, throughout the score. She says it was the raga he was playing at the moment she found herself falling in love with him.

When my mother told me he was working on the opera, I had mixed feelings. As a listener, the idea of combining Indian classical music and opera struck me as odd. I don’t mean odd as a bad thing, but as something completely foreign and therefore strange. However, as with most things that start off foreign and strange, once I put a little time in to listening and learning, it all started to make more sense.

Conductor David Murphy in rehearsal for Sukanya.
‘David is an expert at notating the score for western musicians’ … David Murphy in rehearsal for Sukanya. Photograph: Bill Cooper

I also found it very endearing – here he was aged 90, not yet content to rest on his laurels but still wanting to push the boundaries to further horizons. It was simply another area in which my father was able to imagine something that hadn’t been done yet – an Indian opera. Such a thing had incredible scope for creating bridges between two wonderful traditions from the east and west, which after all was something he’d done through his entire career.

We don’t have “opera” in India, but we do have dance-drama and theatre: it’s common to tell a story through dance and music with many performers on stage. Translating that tradition to opera feels quite organic – the novelty for me is more in the musical cross-pollination. It’s intriguing to hear trained singers such as soprano Susanna Hurrell, with her beautiful operatic voice, singing classic Indian ragas and sargams. You hear the operatic sound but in melodies that are not native to operatic language, all bolstered by really beautiful orchestration. It’s a completely new juxtaposition and the result is immense, epic and rich.

Starting the opera when he was in his 90s, my father knew his time was limited, so he worked tirelessly on it right up to his final illness in 2012. Even during his last days in hospital, David was visiting him and notating till the last possible moment. When he passed away he left behind a fantastic blueprint: he had sketched the entire raga structure and almost all the melodies. David – who has prior experience arranging my father’s works – then completed the score, working with librettist Amit Chaudhuri and with the support of my mother and myself.

My role has been to teach the Indian musicians the way my father would have done, voice to instrument, bringing out the detail and the nuance. David is an expert at notating the score for western musicians, however, Indian music is not notated. It’s the role I had on so many of his projects and it feels quite natural and comfortable. During this week’s final rehearsals I’ve been filling in the small gaps that were left in the melodies, working with the Indian ensemble on their solos and details.

My father envisaged an opera scored for Indian and western musicians, Indian and western voices, and Indian dancers. He wanted to explore new musical territory such as Indian spoken percussion – konnakol – with operatic lines in the western style floating above.

My father had asked David to prepare two performing versions; an opera house version with an orchestra, and a chamber/touring version. In 2014 David conducted highlights from Act one in the chamber version, with two singers, a small orchestra and four Indian soloists, at Norwich Arts Centre and in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio theatre.

The world premiere production of Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya.
The world premiere production of Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya. Photograph: Robbie Jack - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Now, thanks to a hugely exciting co-production between London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Opera House and Curve, Leicester, the world-premiere production has the full forces of a 60-strong LPO, the BBC Singers, an extraordinary cast of opera singers including Hurrell, Alok Kumar, Keel Watson, Michel de Souza, Njabulo Madlala, Indian classical instruments including the sitar, shennai, tabla, mridangam and ghatam, and Aakash Odedra providing choreography and dancers.

If this opera helps a new generation to discover my father’s music, that would be wonderful – not just for the pleasure of it, but also to become aware of his role in musical history. He was so singular in what he achieved and the people he touched, it had a ripple effect in popular culture. His desire was always to share his culture, and that influenced every collaboration he had. He taught Yehudi Menuhin, he taught George Harrison, he taught John Coltrane and Philip Glass, among so many others. After learning about Indian classical music’s raga and rhythmic structure Glass went on develop the style that’s now known as minimalism. He and my father made an album together in 1990 and I am performing it for the first time it at the BBC Proms this summer. So that too is a lovely full circle.

My father and I played music together since my very first lessons when I was seven. We performed together on stage for 20 years, and now when I return to the classical Indian music he taught me, I strongly feel a connection with him that’s still alive even after his passing. There is a sense in which I’ve had a bereavement, but I still get to interact with my father through the music. Not many people are so fortunate. And when I’m watching the premiere of Sukanya, I will hear his voice again.

Anoushka Shankar

The GuardianTramp

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