Ravi and Anoushka Shankar: Cut from the same cloth

At this year's Grammys, two sisters were up for awards. Norah Jones won eight; Anoushka Shankar lost out. Their father, the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, is equally proud of them both, he tells Arifa Akbar
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The night of the Grammys was one to savour for Norah Jones. Clutching eight winning Grammys for her début jazz-influenced album, Come Away With Me, and with trembling lips, she thanked her mother, her songwriter, her boyfriend. Even her piano teacher received a mention. The one glaring omission was of the Indian side of her family, namely her father Ravi Shankar, who until six years ago, had been largely absent from her life.

Anoushka Shankar, 21, a precocious sitar talent classically trained by their father, lost out on her nomination for Best World Artist the same night. She sat in the crowd at the Madison Square Gardens ceremony and watched her older sister become this year's Grammy darling.

Reflecting back, Anoushka grimaces at the scrutiny that her family suffered subsequently. "I was amazed for her and I didn't care that I lost out so I was really angry when I heard all the crap afterwards. My sister thanked her whole family but it is as if the world expected her to give our father a gilded note. He was not mentioned personally because he had nothing to do with her on an album level," she says.

Norah was conceived during a nine-year relationship between Shankar and Sue Jones, an American dancer and producer. While her estrangement from her Indian father has been well documented – she lost contact with him after the age of eight and only regained it at 18 – Anoushka's fragmented contact with him is lesser known.

Shankar met Anoushka's mother, the Indian singer, Sukanya Rajan, in the Seventies, when both were stuck in previous marriages, although Shankar was separated from his first wife and had become embroiled with a dancer called Kamala.

After Anoushka was born, she lived with her mother in London, shuttling between their house in Willesden Green and a twice-yearly visit to her father's estate in Delhi until she was eight. Both parents finally divorced their previous partners, married and moved to California with Anoushka, where she met Norah for the first time at the age of 16. "I knew all my life I had a sister," Anoushka says, "and, although I met her only six years ago, we are incredibly close. We e-mail most days and chat all the time. For two people who have lived apart for most of their lives, its shocking how alike we are."

Shankar, 83, concurs: "In childhood photographs, they look identical, and as adults they have similar personalities." Speaking of his own childhood, he says it bears a marked parallel to the unconventional parenting his two daughters received. Born Robindra Shankar in Benares, United Province, India, he was the youngest of four sons to a Brahmin family. His father, Shyam, an eminent scholar and barrister, was absent for most of his childhood so he grew up, like Norah and Anoushka, in a matriarchal household. "I saw very little of my father when I was growing up, and I feel very sad that I then partly missed out on my daughters' childhood," he says.

Shankar, who calls his eldest daughter by her middle name, Geetali, which is translated from its Sanskrit to mean "musical bee", is happy to admit that her astonishing success has not come as a result of any personal grooming. "I was so proud of Geetali's success at the Grammys when I heard, but I cannot take any of the credit for her musical talents," he says.

Becoming Anoushka's sitar "guru" provided Shankar with an instant bond with her, but relations with Norah were rebuilt more haltingly. "It was odd for her to see me after eight years and it took some time. I am closer to Anoushka because I am with her most of the time."

Shankar airily dismisses the inaccurate reports of family schisms and brooding sibling rivalries, but Anoushka is not as conciliatory. While she has stoically navigated "professional comparisons" between herself and her father, she says the concept of "rivalry" between a classical sitar player and a jazz chanteuse is "just so silly".

"We do not do the same thing, so there is no room for comparison. It's wonderful to have the kind of success she's had but I never got into this business to become a pop star." Anoushka admits that her elder sister's mellow jazz is not her first musical preference. The sisters have each others' CDs in their collections but the youngest Shankar leans towards ambient, Brazilian and Flamenco sounds.

Dressed in glamorous kitten heels and sporting a star-shaped tattoo on the small of her back (Norah has a similar tattoo, also on the small of her back) Anoushka says she has been undergoing a simmering style of rebellion. "I would not say I sacrificed my childhood but part of me wants to go crazy. It could be the Gemini in me."

Daily sitar practice ranges from 30 minutes to six hours, depending onwhether there is a party night ahead. As the daughter of the godfather of psychedelic music, new-age trance music is fittingly her main passion besides classical sitar. In the final throes of the "Full Circle" tour with her father, she has been granted leave this summer by her record label, EMI, to simply "hang out" with other 21-year-olds. Growing up as "Ravi's daughter" has had its pressures and youthful rebellion has not been easy. She picked up her first sitar at the age of eight, but she was never pushed into becoming a professional performer. "I would clamber up on stage at other people's performances and my mother would have to get me off the stage," she says.

Shankar did not share Anoushka's natural stage confidence. His transition in playing from Eastern to Western audiences was initially hampered by nerves, despite later becoming established as a master composer and collaborating with Andre Previn, Yehudi Menuhin and Philip Glass, as well as tutoring George Harrison.

"I remember my first live performance to a Western audience was at the Monterey pop festival in 1967. It was a large young audience of hippies. I was so scared and found myself thinking, how can I play in front of people with long hair and beads and who all look stoned?" he chuckles.

Just as Shankar began life as a child star in his older brother's dance troupe, travelling around Europe from the age of 10, the same "child prodigy" status and nomadic lifestyle has been inherited by Anoushka.

She had made her concert debut at 13, and is now on her third album, having been on the road intensively across Asia, Europe and North America for the past few years. But she is robust and insists that an extra-ordinary life is made ordinary for those who have experienced nothing else.

"Although I didn't see very much of my father for some years, I didn't mind because that is all that I knew and I regarded it as normal. And when I saw him with famous people in our home and teaching musicians like George Harrison, that wasn't extra- ordinary either because that is all I knew. He just became Uncle George to me."

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