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Hitting the high note

Just 23, but this professional flautist is sure of where she's headed



Ashwini Subramanya: `My mind was always on music.' -- Photo: K. Gopinathan

FOR MANY years Ashwini Subramanya just didn't get what all the fuss was about. Her family was constantly encouraging her to learn music, they were all music lovers and practitioners; her sister a violinist, but Ashwini wasn't particularly keen on it.

Then, when she was about eight, she began noticing a particular house en route to her school. It was a house where flute lessons were held and strains of the student's practising easily reached her ears. "It was so soothing, so peaceful," she remembers, "I really wanted to learn the instrument." So she began her music lessons with the flautist and soon it became something of an obsession. "I didn't take academics seriously," she says, frankly. "I studied before my exams and I was average. My mind was always on my music." With both parents committed to rigorous jobs and a sister eight years older, Ashwini spent much of her time on her own, in her little room, which became a sanctuary for her music. Everything in the room is centred around her music: the stacks of audio tapes, the cassette player, the flutes, the ample mat for her riaz.

Early talent

When she was 10, she won a 12-year scholarship for music, the first indication that it would become more than a childhood pastime and develop into a serious career option. She reckons it was by her P.U. course that she knew she wanted to be a flautist by profession. The combination of a scientist father and her own disciplined bent of mind resulted in Ashwini choosing to do her undergraduate degree at a mainstream college rather than study fulltime under her guru. And she didn't choose just any old course; she opted for the killer Physics-Chemistry-Mathematics combination.

Around the same time, she won a prestigious Ministry of Human Resources Development scholarship and N. Ramani, a guru she had always wanted to study under, took her on. He taught his disciples in Chennai, so she travelled to Chennai every weekend.

This made college a different experience for the young flautist. She would wake up at seven, practise her flute as Nagamani Srinath sang, then head straight for college, attend her classes, help out at a music library nearby, go to rehearse for inter collegiate events and then return home late evening.

"I never used to get along with anyone in my class in college," she admits. Her peers spent agonising hours over what clothes to wear or where to hang out, but Ashwini's priorities were clearly focussed around her music.

Frequent recordings and concerts meant she had the freedom to spend her own money. "I would tell my classmates `don't waste your money on this or that', and they would be surprised about how I knew how to handle my money. It was different for me, I didn't have to ask my parents," she says.

Apart from her weekend trips to Chennai and her daily practise sessions every morning, Ashwini's thirst for knowledge about music was satiated through a nearby library, started by someone who loved music but wasn't a professional. "I felt that as a professional musician, I had to contribute all I could," she explains, and so she would drop by frequently, arranging and rearranging books and reading all she could get her hands on. "I would always ask people: "How can I know more about music?' and they would recommend me to some obscure Sanskrit texts, but here in the library, I could read about music in magazines and books that I understood."

The staff at the library also encouraged her to begin writing and as a first assignment, she interviewed young artistes about their music, simultaneously developing an ability to communicate with lay people while exploring through the musicians' lives some of her own personal angst.

Her sister, though a proficient violinist, is not a professional, and Ashwini says her parents did, for a long time, encourage her to take up an M.Sc. "But they know that once I have something in my mind, I'll do it," she laughs, and so she has a free hand with her music now.

Carnatic solo

Her aim is to get recognised as a solo Carnatic flautist, since it's classical music that she says has the power to address every aspect of life through its notes. "Jazz... Western classical... they just don't feel the same... Do you feel the same peace when you hear them?" she presses. When trying out new compositions, she tests them first on a familiar audience: the residents of an old age home she has long been frequenting. "They give honest feedback," she explains. "If they don't like something they don't hesitate to say `Ashwini, what are you doing?'"

Being without a godfather in a crowded industry could be an intimidating venture for some people, but Ashwini has a close friend oversee her contracts and help her choose projects, even sitting amongst the audience to gauge their response. And there is her own firm head and strong positivism. She calls it "a sense of peace — from my music."

Ashwini can be contacted on: studioash@rediffmail.com

HEMANGINI GUPTA

Daily Bread is a weekly column that features people who've chosen offbeat professions. Our guest list has included the likes of scuba divers, perfume makers and suave farmers.

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