Even if you haven’t heard of Gingger Shankar, you’ve likely already heard her music. Her compositions have been the sonic backdrop to momentous films such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Shankar stands out because of the diversity of her work — she has scored everything from big budget films, like Charlie Wilson’s War, to small independent films, such as Brahmin Bulls, with a South Asian American storyline, to her most recent work, Project Syria, an immersive journalism experience that debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Shankar also stands out because of her musical pedigree — she is the grandniece of musical icon, sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar and granddaughter of famed Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar. Gingger was born in Los Angeles but also spent part of her youth in India, training at the prestigious Kalakshetra arts academy in Chennai. When her projects aren’t taking her all over the globe, she still considers Los Angeles home.
Gingger Shankar talks with The Aerogram about how growing up surrounded by music and musical icons was both daunting and inspiring, but ultimately helped her find her own unique musical voice, and shares insights into her work as a film composer.
People talk about having music in their blood, but in your case, it’s truly the case, given your granduncle Ravi Shankar, your grandmother Lakshmi Shankar, and your parents — singer Vijayashree Subramaniam and violinist L. Subramaniam. What was it like growing up surrounded by music and the arts? Did you feel destined for music?
I was raised in a family of musicians. I grew up with music around me. It was part of my every day life. I was learning music and dance from the time I was very young and was always going to concerts. I don’t think I realized how much it was ingrained in me until I was an adult. Now looking back, I realize how lucky I was! Running around the studio as a kid. Playing in the halls during sound checks. Always being around music, shows, musicians. It definitely shaped who I am as an artist today.
My mother is probably the biggest influence in my life, personally and musically. She would play me everything from M.S. Subbulakshmi to The Beatles. I learned violin from my grandmother and I learned to sing from my mother and grandmother.
As I became a teenager, music became my career. I don’t think I ever made a choice. It was very natural and something I always wanted to do. I love it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Your granduncle and grandmother were pioneers in not only bringing Indian music to the West but in the early art of fusion music, or blending these musical traditions. As a composer and musician, what elements of their approach to music inspire you?
I think what inspires me most about their music and artistry is how they found their own voices. At the beginning, being in a family of such accomplished musicians was overwhelming, to say the least. Everywhere you turn, someone is talented and doing extremely well. For a while, I couldn’t figure out whom I wanted to be like. As an adult, I’ve realized that I find the most enjoyment finding my own voice and own style of music.
Ravi Shankar composed for several films, from Indian classics, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy to Western films, including Gandhi, on which he collaborated with your grandmother Lakshmi Shankar. How did you first get involved in scoring and orchestrating music for films?
I was always inspired by my family’s work in the film world. I remember when my father worked with Mira Nair on Salaam Bombay. That is one of my favorite film scores. We used to run around the studio while they worked and I remember hearing how he wrote the music and finally seeing it all come together.
But I didn’t really aspire to be a film composer. I got into it by accident through The Passion of the Christ, which was my entrance into composing film music. The music supervisor had used a piece of music with my voice and double violin and so what started as one piece ended up being one third of the score. I loved working on the film. Having the opportunity to have that much artistic freedom and being inspired by scenes and creating with them was a brand new learning experience.
I have worked on mainstream and indie films since then. I definitely found my voice in film. I love the touring and recording side of being an artist, but films definitely give me the opportunity to compose all styles of music.
Your film-scoring projects run the gamut from indie films, like Brahmin Bulls, to action noirs, like Monsoon Shootout, to films that take on serious social issues, like Katiyabaaz. How do you approach composing for a specific film project? Take us through how it typically comes together.
Every film has been so different. There have been times when I have read a script and fallen in love with it. Other times, I’ve been brought on right before the mix.
Monsoon Shootout was an interesting one, because I met Amit while I was in Bombay. We watched the film together and then I scored it all in LA and we Skyped through the process. I never heard the final mix until we were in Cannes! For Katiyabaaz, I wrote all the music in LA and then we recorded a lot of musicians in India.
My process is usually that I write themes for the characters and then from there I build out the entire score. Depending on the type of film, instruments can vary completely! Monsoon Shootout was lots of percussion, strings and piano. Katiyabaaz was moorsing, santoor, tabla, sarangi, western strings.
For example, with Brahmin Bulls, how did you go about composing for that film which centers on the strained relationship between an Indian American father and his adult son?
Brahmin Bulls is by far one of my favorite scores that I’ve worked on. I was originally asked to meet Mahesh (director, Mahesh Pailoor) because it was an ‘Indian’ story and an Indian filmmaker, which made me roll my eyes a bit. But then I watched it and loved it. Brahmin Bulls captured the pull of being born in the US and yet figuring out the ties to traditions and parents so well.
Mahesh was very clear that he didn’t want an Indian score, but wanted influences of it for the father’s (Roshan Seth) character. It was my first film where I got to write music for a quartet, orchestrate big cues with strings and also work with some of my incredibly talented friends: Kamaljeet Ahluwalia did beautiful santoor solos and Rob Amjarv provided otherworldly guitars in different ragas. The combination of that with all the western strings and the double violin was really exciting. We captured the strained relationship with hints of the Indian instrumentation that came in for the father and then pulling back to the cello and guitars for the son (Sendhil Ramamurthy).
As a film composer, what is your goal for a film score? What impact do you want the film’s music to have on its audience?
My biggest idols have always been John Williams (Jaws, E.T., Schindler’s List) and Bernard Herrmann (Pyscho, Vertigo, North by Northwest). John Williams for every theme song I remember — Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, ET, Harry Potter. You just have to listen to the music and you’re transported to the movie. I don’t think anyone has ever been able to do that like him. And Bernard Herrmann for setting up a film before it even starts. When you hear the strings in the opening credits of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, you are there even before the first scene starts. It creates such an intense feeling.
I think film scoring has changed a bit since then. I definitely love heightening the experience of a scene. The hardest trick is to heighten it and not manipulate the audience or give anything away.
You were at Sundance just a few weeks ago where you were part of the premiere of Project Syria, an immersive journalism experience, which uses aspects of journalism, documentary filmmaking, and virtual reality technology. Tell us more about it. Did your composing process differ compared to conventional films?
Nonny de la Peña created this powerful virtual reality piece, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It tells the story of war-torn Syria and the children in the refugee camps that are the victims. You wear virtual reality goggles and you are transported to Syria.
The composing process was so different from any film I’ve worked on. Because it was being built on the computer, I never had any clips to compose from. Instead, I went down to USC where they were working and listened to their discussions. I saw what a few of the characters would look like, but all I had was an email with basic timings. We recorded two Syrian girls in LA to recreate a girl singing and the children in the food banks. Then I scored the music according to the timings and script.
I was finally able to experience Project Syria at Sundance last month. Nonny is someone who I loved working with, because as more and more people are using all these new technologies, she is using them to deal with important issues.
You were selected for the Sundance Institute’s Composer’s Lab. What was that experience like and how has it impacted your work?
The Sundance Institute has been so supportive of my work and because of the composer’s lab, I met so many mentors that I went on to work with — James Newton Howard (Charlie Wilson’s War), Osvaldo Golijov (Ainadamar opera), George S. Clinton, etc.
When they decided to put together an artist board, I was thrilled to be a part of it. It has been really awe-inspiring. I get to sit in a room with artists who I admire and talk about films, music and how to reach new artists.
What are some upcoming films that you were particularly impressed by at Sundance?
I was only there for the opening weekend, so I saw the opening night film, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which was incredible. I have been a fan of Nina Simone for a long time, but this documentary covered so many things I never knew about her, including how involved she really was with the civil rights movement. As an artist and a woman, I was so inspired watching it. It also makes you realize that we haven’t really come that far.
You’re also working on a film about your grandmother, Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar and Vijayashree, who was her daughter and your mother. Tell us about this project.
The title of the project is Nari and it is the unsung story of the lives of my grandmother, Lakshmi, and my mother, Viji Shankar, two extraordinary artists who helped bring Indian music to the West in the 1970s through their close collaborations with Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. In Sanskrit, “Nari” means both “woman” and “sacrifice.” Growing up, I was never really aware of the scope of their work. They were so humble and never really talked about it.
My collaborators are Dave Liang (producer of the electronic group The Shanghai Restoration Project) and Sun Yunfan, an incredible artist. It will be a live multi-media project and a record. We have remixed my mother’s recordings from when she was nineteen and created a new electronic album. We draw inspiration from the lives, images, and voices of my grandmother and mother. The visuals will be a combination of film, archival footage, old photographs and concert posters, animation, and fine art.
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Learn more about Gingger Shankar’s musical projects on her web site.
Kavita Das worked in the social change sector for 15 years on issues ranging from homelessness to health disparities to most recently, racial justice. She now writes about cross-cultural issues and is working on a biography about Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar. Find her on Twitter @kavitamix.