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Bay Area-based Indian vocalist Ananya Ashok is also a well-versed veena player. Winner of several awards, she has performed in various venues in the US, India, Singapore, and the UAE, and also on Indian national television.
In the second edition of the “Beats and Strings” column, she talks to India Currents’ Anuj Chakrapani about her musical influences, her advice to up-and-coming artists, and what we can expect during the Fall concert season. She also reveals an interesting nugget about the role India Currents played in her musical journey.
IC: Most artists of your caliber start training at a very young age. You actually started formal vocal training only at the age of eighteen. Yet, you have had a meteoric rise to the top. How did you accomplish that?
AA: My family and my teachers saw potential in me and encouraged me constantly to perform in front of others at small events/gatherings, and eventually full-fledged concerts.
Life is strange in that way. You never know what will change the course of your future. At eighteen, I started formally learning vocal music from Smt Anuradha Sridhar with the intention of aiding my veena learning from Sri Srikanth Chary. But in doing that, I feel as though I was taken on this grand adventure, which I am still on today.
Upon moving to India, my career as a performer truly took shape. With advanced training from the legendary Sri TN Seshagopalan, I gained confidence and a deeper understanding of the nuances of kacheri performance.
IC: Aspiring vocal artists are often told to learn an instrument in addition to learning vocals. Can you elaborate?
AA: Personally, learning the veena has helped me to truly “see” the music as I perform it.
What I mean by that is when you learn an instrument, you develop the skill of visualizing nuances of music in terms of the notes behind lyrics and complex musical phrases. I often find that my vocal and instrumental practice are creative aids to each other and it’s always exciting to see the exchange of ideas.
I was fortunate to have my gurus help me see the intricacies and find joy in them. While I encourage vocalists to learn an instrument, I can’t say it is always necessary. The most important lesson in music, and any profession for that matter, is listening. It’s an art on its own and improves with each time you are truly present in your learning.
IC: You also learnt Hindustani vocal music (you’re a 3-in-1 artist!) for a few years. Which specific aspects of Hindustani helped you with your Carnatic vocal singing?
AA: I actually was able to find my Hindustani vocal guru through an ad in India Currents! I was already a great admirer of Smt. Kala Ramnath’s music prior to being her student, and loved Hindustani music.
My father, Ashok Subramaniam (a musician and teacher himself) exposed me to so many great Hindustani artists alongside Carnatic music. What always fascinated me was the style of this genre of music, and the importance Hindustani artists place on perfect pitch. I like to think I am a better singer because of the techniques I learned in Hindustani music.
IC: How would you describe your style of singing (bANI)?
AA: This is a difficult question for me, as I have often wondered the same!
Formally, I would say I learn under the Lalgudi and Seshagopalan bANI. For several years, I almost listened to nobody else other than my gurus, and these two great legends. However, over the years, I developed a wide palette in listening to numerous artists from other bANIs. Today, my sound is mainly a collection of the unique aspects of artists that I have been inspired by over the years.
IC: If you were to name three things that aspiring artists have to pay close attention to when they are performing on stage, what would they be?
AA: Firstly, I always like to know my audience, and where I am performing. I have found that this helps with connecting with the crowd I’m performing for.
Next, I try to pay attention to diction. This is because when a person listens to music, they primarily connect with two things: music and lyrics. When the lyrics are understandable, the music becomes more enjoyable and, at times, even relatable.
Lastly, this may sound cheesy, but I believe this is understated advice: Enjoy yourself! There will come a day when you will have performed for the last time. So with that in mind, enjoy each and every concert and try to be as present as possible.
IC: Finally, with the Fall concert season lining up, could you give us a peek into where you would be performing?
AA: I will be performing at Sri Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the 20th of August for Sri Annamacharya Aradhana. The concert will showcase kritis by the Saint composer.
In September, I am back in Pennsylvania to perform at State College, and then I will be performing in Simi Valley, CA for Hamsadhwani Music Academy in October before heading to India for this year’s December music season.