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Who is Ashwin Srinivasan?

The flautist from Mumbai has found himself a spot on stage with Imogen Heap and Nitin Sawhney

Sharin Bhatti Jun 19, 2012
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Ashwin performing with Imogen Heap at Hard Rock Cafe, Delhi

Flautist and vocalist Ashwin Srinivasan first came under our radar at the indie music festival NH7 Weekender 2011 in Pune. Accompanying a sari-clad Imogen Heap on stage, Ashwin matched her eclectic song oration with a mellow raga on vocals. He followed it up with a melancholic Celtic flute piece that faded into Heap’s bongo-slapping on the song “Tidal,” from her 2009 album Ellipse. Ashwin was next seen performing alongside UK-based composer and producer Nitin Sawhney at the much hyped show at Blue Frog in Mumbai and a show at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi with Anoushka Shankar at a concert earlier this year. The flautist has just finished playing and co-composing for Mira Nair’s cinematic adaptation of the Mohsin Hamid novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist a month ago.

It’s surprising that it’s taken so long for the prolific flautist to find his place in the spotlight considering he has been collaborating with the likes of Sawhney for nearly 10 years dating back to his 2005 album Philtre. Ashwin featured on seven of the 12 tracks on Philtre. The flautist has also aided and matched Sawhney’s songwriting skills on several joint projects such as Brit playwright Tim Supple’s As You Like It, the score for Nair’s Namesake and the soundtrack for Deepa Mehta’s upcoming adaptation of Midnight’s Children. “It’s rare to find a bansuri player who understands harmony, chordal structures, jazz movements and deciphers them in Indian classical music in first take. Ashwin is like oxygen to my live act,” says Sawhney via email.

On his highest trough of creativity and exploration, Ashwin met the man who would give him his first real break ”“ Sanjay Leela Bhansali ”“ in 2002. “Composer Monty Sharma was working on the background score of Devdas and called me to fill in for Rakesh Chaurasia. Sanjay called me and told me that he cried listening to my tape after the audition. Things just steam rolled after that,” says the 33-year-old flautist. Since then, he has played for Bhansali’s Black and Saawariya, Nair’s Amelia, Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for Dhobi Ghat, and on albums by Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.

But it wasn’t until Ashwin met Sawhney that the flautist realized his true potential and moved on from being a session musician to a performer. The two first met during the making of the soundtrack for Bharatbala’s directorial debut Hari Om. “The film came and went, but Nitin took an instant liking to me. This was around 2002, pre electronica and we were both fiddling with nearly the same knobs and sounds.” Ashwin recalls playing his first international concert with Sawhney at the BBC Proms 2006 at the Royal Albert Hall, with a 60-piece orchestra featuring Anoushka Shankar and Imogen Heap as guest artists.

Ashwin with his son Atharv. Photo: Aneesh Bhasin

“It’s strange how things happened. When I met Nitin for the first time, I thought he sounded like he was a British bhangra artist. I had no clue who Imogen was till someone told me two years ago that she’s a Grammy winning artist. When I met them and worked with them in my initial years, they were just musicians for me,” Ashwin says. The flautist credits his confidence as a vocalist to Heap, who convinced him to sing on her 2009 album Ellipse. “I sang on the track ”˜Tidal,’ and she would just not let go. I was very hesitant in the beginning. But she gave me the push and I think it sounded brilliant,” says Ashwin.

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The over-eager and audio sensitive Heap only has praise for Ashwin. “When I was writing ”˜Tidal,’ it lacked that extra something and at the same time, I thought of Ashwin. I had met him with Nitin a few years ago and he had this fabulous voice. I got him to the studio and he just gave so much life to the song. He’s got such a beautiful voice that it makes me cry,” Heap said in one of her video blogs that she posted for Ellipse.

For the unassuming flautist, who has been recording and performing with notable artists for 12 long years, being a musician didn’t take a second guess. Ashwin grew up in Bengaluru. His mother, Parvathy Krishnamurthy, was a sitar player and father Srinivasan was a vocalist and a multi instrumentalist. “I was probably Atharv’s age when I started learning sitar,” says Ashwin looking at his son two-year- old Atharv sitting on his lap when we meet him in his Goregaon apartment. “There were LPs of Zakir Husain, K.L. Saigal and ABBA always playing in the house.” Ashwin swapped the sitar for the flute when he was six, after his father bought him a tin whistle. “I would play jingles and songs on the flute while running around the house. My favorite was ”˜Washing Powder Nirma,’” Ashwin recalls fondly.

Ashwin remembers training under the renowned flautist Venkatesh Godkhindi. “I was a three feet tall, eight-year-old skinny boy. And Guruji gave me a three-foot-long flute to learn on. That gave me the challenge and incentive to learn the instrument at that young age.” What followed were years of self-discovery and skill mastering. Ashwin negotiated his time between listening to Hariprasad Chaurasia’s concert CDs and playing them back note for note and performing them on stage, learning music theory and scale structures from his mother, picking up studio skills, writing music arrangements in a yellowing, fraying notebook, falling in love with girls and writing songs for them, learning ghazals and ragas from a Hariharan CD while in hospital when he suffered from typhoid and announcing his desire to be a professional musician at home.

Ashwin And The Bombay Project cover

“My parents reluctantly agreed and I moved to Mumbai when I was around 22 to learn the gayaki (performance) style of Indian classical music presentation from Dr. N Rajam. The Ministry of Human Resources gave me a scholarship to train under her. Now I just needed to find a way to support myself in Mumbai while I was learning from her,” says Ashwin, who became a session musician immediately. He even worked his flute through T-Series bhajan albums, Bhojpuri devotional music, jingles and background scores for TV commercials and performed with Dr. Rajam at classical concerts. This varied influences of Pedro Eustache (Yanni’s flautist), Naveen Kumar (A.R. Rahman’s longtime collaborator), R.D. Burman, Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan, Chick Corea, Derek Trucks, John McLaughlin, Zakir Husain and soundtrack geniuses like Hans Zimmer lent that necessary range to Ashwin, who quickly began experimenting with a range of world instrument like tin whistles, clarinets, Celtic and Chinese flutes. “I even learnt to make my own flutes using bamboos,” says Ashwin, who has applied for a patent for his self created bansuri. The flautist also formed a band called Soul Fuel, which died a premature death in 2002.

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The band, featuring Darshan Doshi on drums, Santosh Mulekar on piano, Abhilash Phukan on guitar and Manas Chowdhary on bass guitar, got together briefly to release a classical and jazz fusion album titled Ashwin and the Bombay Project in 2011. The eight-track album was released on Ashwin’s own indie label Atharv Music, named after his son.

Even while he takes us through his journey so far, Ashwin is already planning ahead. There’s a solo album in the works and a summer tour with Sawhney inU.S.A.“I’ve setup a little studio at home where I can jot down new ideas and experiment with new sounds. Hopefully, my son will follow me there someday,” says Ashwin.

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