Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Sundance ’16: Nari

You could say Gingger Shankar’s mother and grandmother were born to be musicians. They hailed from a musical family, but they were hardly groomed to perform. In fact, the women were expected to sacrifice their careers to care for their husbands and children. Shankar pays tribute to her illustrious but frustrated ancestors in the New Frontiers multimedia program Nari, featuring a short film directed by Sun Yunfan (trailer here), which was staged at Festival Base Camp during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Gingger Shankar is the daughter of Dr. L. Subramanium, arguably the best known classical Indian musician currently touring the world today. However, Shankar makes it readily apparent their relationship is somewhat strained. She was expected to conform to her family’s wishes and forgo a promising music career, just as her mother had—but Shankar was less compliant. (Presumably, her great uncle Ravi Shankar was more progressive, since by adopting her mother’s maiden name, she obviously invokes his memory.)

Shankar’s grandmother Lakshmi was once quite famous in India. She had numerous bestselling records and performed in a ballet written by Nehru. Shankar even had a starring role in a vintage Bollywood musical, stills from which tantalizingly appear throughout the Nari short film and accompanying slide show. In contrast, her daughter Viji never had a fair chance to realize a fraction of her potential. Although she was recruited for a special George Harrison touring showcase, viewers get the sense that was seen as sort of a family franchise. After years away from the music business, Shankar’s mother started planning her debut solo album, but she only provisionally recorded half the songs before succumbing to cancer.

While there are some striking animated sequences in Sun’s short film, the main attraction of Nari is the live concert element. Gingger Shankar’s music is incredibly distinctive, blending classical Indian traditions with hip hop and electronica, but in a way that sounds organic rather than contrived. Clearly, she regularly listens to a wide array of influences and bakes them all into her rhythmically forceful music.

Although playing to pre-recorded tracks can be problematic, it makes sense when Shankar and her trio play accompany her late mother’s surviving vocal tracks (which have been duly remixed to fit her conceptions). The melodic and harmonic diversity of her set is also impressive. There are a lot of hummable tunes in Nari, as well as some virtuoso playing.

As we are told, Nari means both “woman” and “sacrifice” in Sanskrit, which might be a little too on-the-nose. Still, it hardly matters because the music so readily transports listeners to an elevated state of mind. It is too bad a restored print of Lakshmi Shankar’s film did not also screen in conjunction with Nari, because the included visuals definitely leave the audience intrigued. Nevertheless, the music is really the thing and it is terrific. Highly recommended, Nari is a tourable show that ought to have a long life on the road after bringing the Base Camp crowd to their feet at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.