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On an innovative journey

SAVITHA GAUTAM

Flautist Shashank is keen on testing new grounds. Besides playing with fusion bands, he hopes to form one of his own.


I feel we must emulate our seniors rather than copy them.


Photo: R. Ravindran

DREAMS APLENTY: Shashank.

Antique stone carvings line the staircase. A dog can be heard barking inside the house even as Shashank opens the ornate Chettinad door and warmly ushers you inside. You step in and are lost in the grandeur of the huge living room. An ancient chest-of-drawers, large Thanjavur paintings, tall brass lamps, Chettinad pillars, a carved wooden swing, brass, iron and stone knick knacks… it’s a treasure trove of artefacts. “My father Subramaniam and deals in antiques,” says Shashank. “So do I.” But more than antiques, what makes this young man tick is his prowess at playing the flute. For the child prodigy, who has many firsts to his credit comes yet another feather in his cap. Maverick guitarist John McLaughlin’s ‘Floating Point,’ in which Shashank has played, has been nominated for a Grammy in Best Contemporary Jazz Album category.

For Shashank, music has been a way of life for over 25 years. His first memory of music is of accompanying his father during the latter’s concert tours. “A biochemistry professor, my father was also an amateur flautist and I would go with him everywhere, imbibing everything as I went along,” recalls the 30-year-old, who was born in Rudrapatnam, Karnataka, and brought up in Bangalore and Chennai.

“Bangalore provided the strong base for my music. I vividly remember meeting the legendary Doreswamy Iyengar. He was part of the jury for the Karnataka Government music scholarship. Thanks to him, I got the scholarship which was meant for 14-year-olds. I was just five!” His first public performance followed a couple of years later when “I played at a wedding in Hotel Kanchi!” His first official stage performance was in Adelaide, Australia.

One person who showed Shashank the right musical path was the flute wizard Mali.

Mali’s advice

“He would come to Bangalore often. My father took me to meet him once. Mali was nursing a shoulder injury then. I still remember… he was lying on the cot. He asked me to sit near him and play. Even though I had rehearsed a couple of kritis for a few days, I was a little nervous. He heard me in silence. Then, he took up the flute and played snatches of various ragas for the next two hours!” Shashank says that the meeting changed everything for him, musically and otherwise. “His advice to me? ‘Do not listen to other flautists and do not attend flute concerts. That way you can create your individual style.’” Shashank adds, “I feel we must emulate our seniors rather than copy them.” That’s what led the flautist to learn from vocalists R.K. Srikantan and K.V. Narayanaswamy. What’s more, he has been training in Hindustani for the past four years under Pandit Jasraj. “I wanted to expand my knowledge base. Also, I find Carnatic music is more vocal-centric, with emphasis on lyrics, and there are not many compositions for instrumentalists. In Hindustani, there are compositions written specially for instruments.”

As we talk, Shashank’s one-and-a-half year old daughter Swara runs into his arms. At once, the professional flautist metamorphs into a loving and proud father. “She has an ear for music. She is already able to recognise ragas.” Well, it’s in her genes. Shashank’s wife Shirisha, a Bharatanatyam dancer, walks in and apologises for the happy interruption.

Back to music. Shashank says it was Chennai that truly helped him blossom into a fine flautist, with a style and technique truly his own. His multi flute transposed fingering technique and the dual octave productions are his hallmarks and have been extensively written about. In response, he says, “It was never a conscious effort. I would experiment with blowing and fingering to get as close to the human voice as possible.” The artist uses a variety of flutes to suit each octave. “However, I must add that I have not done any major alterations to my instrument.”

You can’t help asking him about his ‘record’ – he’s the youngest artist to perform at the Music Academy’s Sadas concert. He laughs, “It happened by accident. It was in 1989 and I was 12. T.T. Vasu, the then Academy president, had heard me play a few days earlier and was quite impressed. The artist who was supposed to play at the Sadas could not make it. So Vasu sir asked me to play. I was too happy to oblige. I still remember seeing Semmangudi mama, T. N. Seshagopalan and M.S. Subbulakshmi sitting in the front row. To think that I could not even make it to the Junior slot that year even though I had tried!”

Of late, he has been on a fusion trip. Besides working with John McLaughlin, he has released an album with Pete Lockett and Henrik Andersen called ‘Ror… The Touch.’ (produced by India Beat and available in India). “They are all amazing musicians.”

His dream? “To form a fusion band, something on the lines of Shakti. And also popularise Carnatic music in the North. Just like we South Indians are able to appreciate Hindustani, I want people in the North to discover the richness of Carnatic music.” Performing in places such as Jalandhar, Pathankot, Ludhiana and Amritsar, is Shashank’s first step in that direction.

***

Grammy-bound

Shashank has fond memories of John McLaughlin and recording ‘Floating Point.’ “I was introduced to McLaughlin by Zakir Husain here in Chennai, when tha band played ‘Remember Shakti’. Zakir told John that he must work with me. That’s how I got to play on that album. One thing about John… he’s an amazing guitarist but he’s an even better human being. There’s a lot to learn from him.”

John McLaughlin spent over six months in Chennai to make the jazz-fusion ‘Floating Point’ getting together an ensemble that, like the music, mixes East and West. So the band has Ranjit Barot, Louis Banks, Naveen, Shashank, Sivamani, Shankar Mahadevan, Debashish Bhattacharya and Niladri Kumar. The electric bass phenomenon Hadrien Feraud and saxophonist George Brooks make up for the Western component. The strong Indian flavour is but natural in the tracks with names such as ‘Raju’ and ‘Abbaji’, a tribute to tabla maestro Allah Rakha.

Will it win the Grammy? Come February and we will know.

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