The bansuri is one of the most deceptive musical instrument. The simple looking piece of bamboo produces some saccharine lased melodies. But it is not as easy as its looks. There is a specific approach to the learning of this wind instrument. You learn to produce the sound first, as it is the base and also the most difficult part. On a bansuri you have to produce the sound unlike other instrument where you press a key or pluck a string and sound is produced.
“On the other side, it is the easiest instrument to maintain and the only one which is totally natural. It has no major physical exertion. If you suffer from asthma, playing the bansuri is like doing ‘pranayam’. Once you have produced the sound, the next step is easier,” said ace bansuri exponent Ashwin Srinivasan.
The young maestro was introduced to the instrument by his father when he was just 6 years old. On a trip to Sabrimala, his father picked up a local steel flute for him. Though it has rusted now, it is still Ashwin’s prized possession. Though he was already learning the sitar from his mother, the bansuri caught his attention. The fact that he could play it in any posture he wanted, unlike the sitar which demands a definitive posture, drew him to it. At a point in life, he was learning both the instruments simultaneously. The sitar learning happened with his mother while the bansuri was self-taught.
“I was quite proficient at the sitar. I know the grammar of the sitar and can still play it to save my life. Someday I want to go back to it but not as a professional.” smiled Ashwin.
Growing up, Ashwin heard all genres of music being played at home. Right from Indian classical, blues, jazz, pop to even Bollywood. Though Carnatic has a major presence in Southern India, he was inclined towards Hindustani classical.
“Something about Hindustani classical music attracted me. I cannot pin point. Maybe it is the ‘therao’ which attracted me, as I am an introvert. Even when I would riyaaz with my mother or discuss music, somehow we never spoke about Carnatic music, though she has a great knowledge of the genre,” recalled Ashwin.
Learning the bansuri from the maestros
The young bansuri player has learnt under Shri Venkatesh Godkhindi and Shri Pundalik Shenoy in Bangalore. Ashwin then proceeded to learn under legendary violinist, Padmabhushan Dr Smt. N Rajam who is a pioneer in the gayaki (vocal) technique.
As Ashwin was introduced to the bansuri at quite a young age, his guru ensured that his learning was fun. He would hold the same ‘sur’ for 45 seconds and ask Ashwin to do the same. After failing initially, Ashwin went on from 7 seconds to 14 seconds in just a week. But breaching the ’45 seconds’ timeline became a challenge for young Ashwin.
“I achieved that in a year. But that was a personal achievement. It has nothing to do with technical prowess. I personally feel that holding on to a ‘sur’ for a long time on the stage is a gimmick,” said Ashwin.
“For me the aesthetical part appeals more. I hate gimmicks. I am not a part of the industry that believes in gimmicks. Many of our seniors believe in showmanship but I refuse to follow it. No disrespect to them. When money drives your motivation, music suffers. Maybe that is why I perform at fewer concerts.”
Classical music concerts, International movies and ensembles
One cannot judge the young maestro with the number of concerts he performs at. Ashwin has performed at some of the most prestigious classical music concerts like the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Smriti Mahotsav, Panchakshari Gavai Mahotsav and Akashvani Sangeet Samelan. He has collaborated with artists like Nitin Sawheny, Anoushka Shankar, Imogen Heap and worked on international movies like The Namesake, Mowgli, Queen of Katwe, Midnight’s Children et al. Ashwin is also a part of some of the biggest ensembles in the country including that of A R Rahman.
Working in an ensemble requires the artist to blend in with the rest and move away from his individuality. The whole point of an ensemble is to react to each other’s musicality.
“For that you have to think as a music producer when on stage. You cannot overpower others but if they do, you do not need to stop them. When you think as a producer it helps you understand if what you are about to do, will make sense in the bigger picture,” asserted the bansuri maestro.
Ashwin has also produced music for theater, arranged music for albums and also released a live studio album, ‘Ashwin and the Bombay Project’. While working on a project he draws inspiration from the words of arguably India’s best drummer, Ranjit Barot.
“Ranjit bhai says we are sophisticated thieves. We pick up nuances, interesting things during our observations and it gets stored in our memory somewhere. We use these memories, consciously or sub consciously, in our medium of expressions,” quipped Ashwin.
The musical Avakai
During the conversation, one part that clearly stood out was Ashwin’s old school of thought leaning. Nodding his head in agreement, Ashwin explained that his thought process did not limit his expressions or the style of expressing. Despite playing one of the most humble instrument, he is open to some technological adaptions.
“There is an idiom, ‘Anything in excess is bad’. Too much of technology is bad and there is no debate on this. At the same time you have to explore possibilities and that is the true spirit of innovation. If technology helps you to explore, use it to your advantage. But do not become a slave,” Ashwin pointed out.
Old school of thought and simple food is what defines Ashwin Srinivasan. He is a self-confessed fan of the famous Avakai pickle from Andra Pradesh and claims he can eat it with a sack full of rice.
So what is Ashwin’s Avakai in music? The answer is as simple as the man himself.
“My Avakai is that I am able to play music and I can react emotionally to it.”