Music review: Anoushka Shankar, Sydney Festival

Anoushka Shankar and her band delighted in reworking Hindustani music for an appreciative crowd.
Anoushka Shankar. Woman sitting playing sitar against a black background.

It’s been 25 years since Anoushka Shankar, the absolute queen of sitar, released her self-titled debut album. Since then, she has released a further seven albums, received nine Grammy nominations and worked alongside the likes of George Harrison, Elton John and Sting. She has carved out a veritable niche in the music industry, taking the Hindustani music from her culture and repackaging it for global audiences. Following in the footsteps of her father, Ravi Shankar, but never standing in his shadow, Shankar has developed her own sound by incorporating elements of jazz, funk and rock into her set list.

Her recent concert at the Sydney Opera House, her first Antipodean performance in over six years, saw her accompanied by a four-piece English band. This band included percussionist Pirashanna Thevararajah, Arun Ghosh on clarinet, Sarathy Korwar on drums and Tom Farmer picking up the double bass.

The night began with Shankar jamming to some tracks from her most recent EP, the admittedly clumsily titled Chapter I: Forever, for Now. After a couple songs, this reviewer began to worry whether the audience was ever going to get an interaction with Shankar, as her aloof and distant performance style seemed reminiscent of how people talk of attending Bob Dylan concerts. This thought, however, was quickly wiped out as Shankar then rattled off steady banter with the audience in a casual and comfortable tone. While performing, she vacillated between focused precision, and a boppy enthusiasm that saw her smile and nod with her band during moments of improvisation. She was truly a master at work.

The evening continued with a range of sounds and spectres, such as the vibrant and fluffy ‘Daydreaming’, the electric ‘Say Your Prayers’ and the sombre, yet lilting ‘Reunion’ – the latter being an ode to victims of the international refugee crisis, which also ended the 75-minute concert. The highlight of the night was clearly the thrilling and crowd-pleasing ‘Fire Night’. The piece was originally composed by Ravi Shankar as a straight-up jazz track, but later reworked to include sitar and a solo section for each band member.

Read: Opera review: Il Tabarro, Sydney Festival

Shankar’s latest concert performance was exceptionally well-received, with the packed crowd of Sydney Opera House’s 2500-seat Concert Hall giving the band a well-deserved standing ovation.

Anoushka Shankar played for one night only on 12 January 2024 at Sydney Opera House for Sydney Festival.

Matthew Collins is a writer, director, and occasional actor whose works extends through literature, theatre, film, politics, gallery work, and critical writings. He is currently studying a Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership at UNSW. You can find him on Instagram @thematthewcollins