Skip to main content
Rakesh Chaurasia and Shashank Subramanium

In Conversation with Rakesh Chaurasia and Shashank Subramanyam

Enthralling audiences worldwide, Grammy Award-winning Rakesh Chaurasia and internationally-acclaimed artist Shashank Subramanyan are two of the worlds greatest living flautists within the Indian Classical tradition. Ahead of their concert on Saturday 17 February (presented by the Asian Arts Agency), we caught up with them to find out more about their thriving musical partnership, the place of the Indian Classical tradition within the wider global context and more.

How does your partnership influence your performance and connection with the music?

Shashank Subramanyam: Firstly, we like each other. We’ve always been very explorative and ready to give in to each other’s musical ideas and therefore, we always come together very well in concerts because we share that bonding and it’s not something that is very complicated in nature. The musical presentation is pretty complicated but our friendship is beyond the stage. And that always translates to the music.

Rakesh Chaurasia: I’ve seen a lot of artists at work and you don’t just bring two artists together and expect them to work—they can even be two great artists. The understanding is very important among the two artists and that can make the whole concert sound totally different. To each understand the delicate planes of what we want to do rather than jumping on each other. So that understanding before sitting on the stage is really important—that bonding as Shashank says. It means that we don’t have to prepare ourselves for what we need to do—it happens.

SS: Often, it also comes down to how comfortable you are with yourself as an artist. If you are comfortable with yourself as an artist, it can be very easy to blend with anyone because you’re not worried about how you will sound or how you will be seen. I think that’s a big thing—between us, we’re just not worried about what others think or how we compare. We are very sure about what we would like to present and how we would like it to be. We are always open to changes and we’re always flexible. Each of us also likes to learn the other tradition and incorporate aspects of each other’s tradition as possible.

RC: In short, I can say that makes life very comfortable and easy both on- and off-stage. Touring also makes a difference with your understanding of each other. We don’t just go back to our respective houses—we also go for food, go to bars and enjoy our life.

Indian classical flute performance can be both spiritual and therapeutic. In your opinion, what effect can music have on both performer and audience member both within the performance setting and after they leave?

SS: Indian music has such a range of emotions that it depicts. It often depends on which segment of the concert you are looking into. The first section is often very therapeutic but the whole performance should be seen as an experience. The North Indian Flute playing has a lot of fantastic elements that are very different from South Indian flute playing, beginning with the instruments that we play, the way we approach the instrument, the way we blow into it—everything is so different. So, it certainly brings onto the table many different emotions and many different facets in a concert. For me, when listening to the fastest movement, it’s still therapeutic but it can also depend on how the listener responds to it.

RC: The music itself is inherently therapeutic and meditative. But we also have to see what kind of audience we are playing to. And it’s our duty to satisfy each and every possibility of the audience members’ mindsets and what they’re wanting to get from it. I’ve seen people go into a trance when the tabla comes in with the heartbeat. The music generally is what we call ‘music for soul’—the flute is the voice and the tabla is the heartbeat.

How are your technique and performances are informed by a detailed study of vocal technique and how does this influence you and your relationship with the instrument?

RC: I try to sing through my flute or through my instrument. The flute is also very close to the voice and within Indian Classical tradition the voice is central with words, sentences and phrases. We don’t have words but we try to replicate that technique.

SS: Most instruments in the history of Indian Classical music were assisting the voice. Later on, because the instrumentalists were very strong on their own, they were able to handle solo performances. But flute is like hardware and you need software, too. So, in Indian Classical music, and in my genre of music which is South Indian Classical, I do have to learn vocal music. We have thousands of compositions that have lyrics and even the movement and the phrases have a particular way of presenting—and all of this has to be learned through the voice. But later on, over the course of our journey with the instrument, we do incorporate a lot of instrumental technique and move away from vocal tradition. But what is often considered to be ‘authentic’ is this vocal style so if someone sounds very similar to the human voice, they are considered to be a great musician. This is why it’s very important to learn vocal technique within our tradition.

RC: And then be as close to this as possible.

SS: We are always trying to bring out the beauty of our instrument in the concerts. But we try to be as close to the human voice as possible so the audience can hear the words through the instrument.

How do you view the importance of Indian Classical flute music within the global context?

RC: What we want to present globally is a message of friendship.

SS: For me, bringing attention to the South Indian tradition—especially the flute playing and techniques—have always been the focus for me and taking my genre’s improvisation and abilities and making it more adaptable and mingling it with other traditions from around the world. As a musician, we would like to speak the language of peace and we would like to take the glory of our music everywhere in the world and that’s our primary intention.

Rakesh is blessed with an uncle who has taken the Hindustani music tradition and the flute playing to literally all corners of the world. So, for me and for my childhood, it was always a dream and wish that I will take the South Indian tradition of flute playing as far and wide as possible. I’m not sure I’m still able to achieve what Rakesh and Rakesh’s uncle have achieved in terms of the spread of the flute tradition of North India around the world, but for me, that has been my major goal in my life. 

India is also blessed with two different sides of the classical tradition so if there’s one country in the world that can say we have two systems of classical music, it’s India. So, when Rakesh and myself perform, this is what we try to portray—to bring together the North and South Indian classical traditions in the third front and present an Indian system of music. We have so much to offer between these two traditions, whether it’s a Raga, improvisation, instrumental technique, or even how we communicate with our percussionists. It’s about giving a glimpse of India to the audience and presenting the best of Indian music.

Although it’s already quite popular around the world, you can’t say it’s as popular as jazz or the Western classical tradition. It’s about taking the glory of Indian music to the world. A lot of musicians out there hardly know anything about Indian music, even though they have heard a lot of it.

Well, we can’t wait to experience it later this month. As we move into the New Year, what can we expect from you both and what does the future hold for you?

RC: Always be greedy for a good audience and a good venue—a good place to keep playing—and that we continue to do. We keep trying our best and we’ll keep practicing. We are also blessed because the beauty of the flute is that it’s an instrument that can blend with absolutely anything and in any genre of music. It blends with Jazz and even Rock. We’ve both played with full symphony orchestras and it’s amazing because it’s only seven notes but there’s so much you can do with it. And, as it’s full improvisational, whatever mood we have on that day comes out—nothing is fixed. That improvisation demands so much practice so that each concert is distinctly different from one another.

SS: For me, every year is different—I hope it’s different! Rakesh this year has a lot to look forward to with his Grammy nominations. There are also many projects in the pipeline. This year I’m hoping to play more with my jazz ensemble in Europe and other places and we’ll be producing some recordings alongside that. I’ll also be looking forward to trying to reach more and more venues across the world and presenting our music.

Can you tell us a little more about the music you’ll be playing here at St George’s Bristol? What can our audiences expect?

RS: A classical performance with a lot of light and magic from vocal genres but with balance and depth. We’ll be looking at the audience and tailoring the performance to them and try our best to present whatever they want us to do.

SS: what we’ll be doing is presenting the very best from our two traditions of classical music and our instrument of the flute. We also have a fantastic tabla player. The audience will be able to see a variety of things—from very serious elements in a raga to very playful elements in folk melodies. It’s more of a journey than a performance.

Book your tickets now to see Rakesh and Shashank perform live at St George’s Bristol.

Words by Louise Goodger