Fusion introduces Indian Music to the World: Violinist Nandini Shankar

Fusion introduces Indian Music to the World: Violinist Nandini Shankar

Violin players in the Hindustani tradition are rare and are linked closely to the family of esteemed artist Dr N Rajam. Nandini Shankar, her granddaughter, is part of a legacy which includes India’s classical musical tradition and to the coming together of the East and West through music that has both contemporary appeal and yet is rooted in ancient sounds.

Nandini plays the violin in the Hindustani Gayaki style, pioneered by her grandmother and subsequently played by her mother. She is also part of several bands including the first ever all-women Indian classical band conceptualised by vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty. She is also part of a fusion band formed by her mother Dr Sangeeta Shankar aimed at giving a new sound to popular tunes. In thi interview she talks about the intersection of the two modes of music India offers to the world.

No two artists of Indian music sound the same even while playing the same raga or song. What does this say about nature of Indian music and the possibilities it offers?

Indian music is deeply rooted in improvisation - and hence the possibilities are infinite. It gives the opportunity for musicians to make any piece of music their own. I think that's beautiful.

Playing the violin in Hindustani music was pioneered by your grandmother and followed down three generations. How has it added to the music soundscape? How is the violin gayaki style you play different from conventional instrumental music? 

My grandmother's pioneering work in developing the Gayaki Ang has been path-breaking in the world of Hindustani violin. It has unparalleled emotive power and depth. I am truly blessed to carry forward this legacy.

In Hindustani classical music, there are two styles - vocal and instrumental. Ragas are unfolded differently in both styles. The gayaki style that we play follows the vocal style of improvisation and expansion of a Raga. The technique allows us to emote as deeply as a singing voice, even on the violin. It is the perfect instrument for that really; being bowed and fretless. It is completely different from the Western Classical style too. Audiences in the West are amazed and often moved to tears when they listen to this style!

How is the Indian fusion scene changing with the burst of digitalisation and sound technologies. Do Indian bands and the music they create hold appeal for international audiences 

Indian fusion is rapidly developing and becoming the go-to genre for the youth, especially with the advent of social media and streaming apps. It has become a vehicle for youngsters to reconnect with their culture and tradition. Advanced sound technology and different styles of music production make the music more accessible to the masses. Indians all over the world greatly appreciate fusion! It also becomes easy to introduce Indian music to a foreign ear through this genre, since they can relate with the common elements they find in the music they listen to on a daily basis.

How can we make India a music destination like it is for yoga and Ayurveda? Does the absence of international standard concert halls make it difficult to attract non-Indian musicians here?

Just like Yoga, Indian Classical music, too, has its roots in spirituality. It has the power to take the listener to a higher dimension. The world is a much smaller place now (thanks to the internet) and a lot of non-Indian musicians are taking to Indian music, more than ever before. I personally feel that basic courses in Indian music should be conducted everywhere - that will not only help develop a taste for our music among global audiences, but also keep our culture thriving. International standard concert halls would definitely be welcome too.

Are we looking at a true opening up, a democratization of the music scene post pandemic with artists reaching out to audiences worldwide more seamlessly?

 I can already feel everything opening up, and I look forward to it. After over 2.5 years, everyone is yearning for more live music.

Are Indians ready for the music video culture transitioning from CDs?

Music distribution formats have changed very rapidly in India over the last few decades. Every Indian has a mobile phone today. So yes, I think we are ready.

How do artists create integrated music when listening tastes and demands are so varied. Do we have bands that cut across cultural and regional diversity the way some popular Asian and Western bands have?

The key here is integrity. An artist can only be consistent when they create music that truly speaks to them. Following the ever-changing tastes and demands of the audience puts tremendous pressure and does not allow for free creative expression. If an excellent artist is truly passionate about that musically, it will happen. It is only a matter of time.

How do you see your career as a multi dimensional artist shaping in the future.  What are the things you are looking forward to doing solo and in collaborations with other artists?

 I am happy to be doing something that I love, and anything that is musically beautiful is welcome! There's a very exciting project that I have been working on for the past two years, and I can't wait to share it soon with all of you.