Musician Rasika Shekar talks about playing the bamboo flute, performing internationally and playback singing in Bollywood
If only the ‘chaotic nature of human mind’ could be as beautiful as flautist and vocalist Rasika Shekar’s newest single, Uproar, which the musician says depicts the relationship between self and world, perceptions, etc! The instrumental track, a collaboration with three international musicians on drums, bass, and piano, “amalgamates a few styles that I’ve been influenced by over the years. The rhythmic approach to the composition in general springs from the Carnatic classical framework and includes improvisation,” like the performer who specialises in bamboo flute says.
Born in Dubai and raised in New Jersey, USA, Rasika learnt Carnatic music from her aunt and grandmother but is the only flautist in the family. “Violin was the first instrument that I played and now it’s flute and me. Different worlds opened up in just the flute. I once mentioned it to my mum that the flute is a cool instrument and she found me a tutor,” recalls Rasika. At the time, 14 years of age, she was too young to think about where it would lead her musically but subsequently attending classical concerts helped her strengthen her Carnatic music foundation and by the time she turned 19, her gamut expanded. “Hindustani music came in. I started listening to ghazals and they really did it for me. I realised that I needed to have more understanding of Hindustani technique to be able to sing it. So, I would listen to Ustad Rashid Khan for hours together, picking up ragas,” she says. Rasika then moved to Mumbai to learn from Hindustani classical vocalist Pt Shrikant Waikar.
Mumbai introduced to Rasika a new world of music that had in it jazz, blues, pop, Bollywood, and so on. “My mind opened up here. It was Loy Mendonsa who got me hooked to jazz,” she says of the time she debuted as a singer in Bollywood for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s composition Lambuda Kakka in Dekh Indian Circus (2012). Thus started her stint as the female lead vocalist for SEL’s concerts. “At one such concert, I had an approximately one-minute-long flute feature, which was the surprise element of the show. People found that fascinating and it helped me because there aren’t many female flautists,” she says. For Rasika, playing the flute is self-exploration. “The way you hear it, there is vocal connect to the flautist. The thought process in both is the same — get into the tone, sound, and the texture. It’s an ocean that you dive deeper into,” she smiles.
Other than SEL, Rasika has also toured with Ustad Ghulam Ali as a vocalist. “You dream about things. One day you’re listening to his ghazals and then you are touring with him. It feels unreal,” she smiles. “Initially, I used to sit far away from him, tongue-tied and in awe. As time passed, I found out what a magnetic personality he has. He is super funny, sweet, casual, makes you feel comfortable, and you end up bonding with him. He shares stories like how Noor Jehan would approach a song and other stories of old-time greats. He is a legend himself but so down to earth that it’s inspiring,” she avers.
Along with performing internationally, like in the USA, Spain, and other parts of Europe (she also played with John McLaughlin at Berklee college), Rasika has been singing in Bollywood. She has lent her voice to Hulla Re (2 States), Daiyya Maiyya (Kill Dill), Sau Aasoon (Katti Batti), etc. She says, “Bollywood is so diverse in itself. You can really experiment. I’m discovering myself and my voice here.” The singer, who’s a chemical engineer, also holds a Master’s Degree from Berklee College of Music where she has studied Flamenco and jazz music. “As a vocalist and flautist, I use the depth of my own classical Indian training as a tool to navigate these genres effectively—how one can use this and find a midway between different types of music,” she says, calling herself a nomad who goes where music takes her.