December 6 2015
SOUTH INDIAN and Bollywood film expert Ashanti Omkar recently marked a year of broadcasting her Sunday afternoon BBC Asian Network Show.
Dedicated mostly to South Indian and Sri Lankan music, the 2-4pm weekly radio show, is the first English language broadcast of its scope – certainly in the UK, and possibly even further afield.
She routinely interviews some of the biggest stars from South India and Sri Lanka and while much of her show is about music, it also covers film, and more general aspects of the culture, especially its food.
After a short break, Omkar returns to the hot seat today and we caught up with the broadcaster – who is also the Bollywood expert for BBC London and BBC West Midlands and is also an entertainment and film consultant too.
She left the corporate world, following her degree in marketing and management with computer science at Royal Holloway, University of London, to pursue a career in the media…
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): What have been the highlights of the show for you as a broadcaster over the year gone?
Ashanti Omkar (AO): The best moments are many, especially when I was able to add original English songs written and performed by musicians of the diaspora, to the 20-23 songs I play per show, and covering nine languages (English, Tamil, Malayalam, Tulu, Konkani, Kannada, Telugu, Sanskrit, Sinhalese).
When Mark Strippel (head of the BBC Asian Network and the executive who commissioned the show) said “go make history”, ahead of my first broadcast, I was nervous, yet excited beyond belief, to be able to showcase such a wide array of music, never before showcased at the BBC, and actually, this show is totally unique, worldwide, as the attempt has never been made before, to broadcast a show delivered in English language, which covers the broad spectrum of South India and Sri Lanka, and the diaspora. To make the show flow sonically, was a challenge that really excited me.
The highlights have included having an exclusive chat with the BAFTA, Golden Globe, double Grammy and double Oscar winner, AR Rahman, as my first show of 2015, to having British Liverpudlian actress and beauty queen, Amy Jackson live in the studio, on show 2, as she is big in Tamil cinema! I’ve also loved the broad amount of talent showcased, from the world of music, such as South Indian Classical singer Emmanuelle Martin, who is Caucasian French, and trained by the best in India.
I also had the director of “Baahubali”, SS Rajamouli, over the line from India, a week before the release of what is India’s most expensive film to date, which has broken all kinds of worldwide box office records, taking nearly £2 million on just opening day, outside India, and nearly £5 million in India alone. Twitter went frenzy when this interview happened, and we enjoyed it thoroughly, as we also had one of the key actors from the film, dial in from Hyderabad, India, on the weekend of release.
ACV: What do you feel is the purpose of the show in broad terms?
AO: To keep making people smile, by giving them a mix of education with entertainment. I also would like to help to break down barriers and empower artists – by providing them with a platform for them to express themselves. In our culture, we have this idea of a “guru from afar” – people that inspire your life, spiritually, who are teachers that you may never meet, but those who you can grow and learn from, just by watching their strides.
ACV: How did the show come about more precisely?
AO: Mark Strippel had a very clear idea of the different communities in the UK, and what the BBC Music team felt was missing in the sound of the station.
My work had always included a pan-Indian focus, from film to music, which is also reflected on my social media, and they felt that I would be the right person.
I had quite a lot of insight into South India, and Sri Lanka, having travelled extensively in the region and going to places like Colombo and Peradeniya (where I was born, when my father was a lecturer there – he hails from Jaffna, but was raised in Colombo), as well as spending time in Chennai, and Bengaluru since 2001.
I had also travelled through Kerala in 2005, and had experienced other places where South Indian and Sri Lankan culture thrived, such as in Singapore, Malaysia, and Toronto, Canada.
Chennai became like a second home to me, in many ways, culturally; and I found I could fit in, as I have spoken Tamil since I was about 13.
We met and discussed the scope of the show and I did a successful pilot in Autumn 2014 and I was on the airwaves for Diwali 2014, and just over a year later, the show is into year 2!
ACV: How is the show put together? How do you decide what music will be played for example?
AO: The BBC Asian Network is not only a UK national radio station, on DAB, Satellite and on BBC iPlayer, but it can also be streamed from the world over, online.
This meant that catering to the demographic, with a great musical curation, was the key aspect of the show, alongside its guests.
The key was to focus on the UK film release schedule, in terms of content – basically, the music from films out now, or films about to release. This includes films in Tamil and Malayalam, which form the core of what UK cinemas show. Telugu and Kannada films are not shown in the cinema, but the diaspora exists, so it is about hand picking music that reflects what is popular, but also fits the show’s unique “flow” of music, which is to suit the Sunday afternoon audience.
Sri Lanka produces very few films a year, unlike South India, which produces over 600 films out of the 1,000 that come out from India, in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada, as well as languages like Tulu, and Konkani.
But Sri Lanka has a very well read diaspora, with a lot of talent, the world over. A lot of music comes from artistes of the diaspora, and from different parts of Sri Lanka, such as Kandy, or Puttalam, Batticaloa, and of course, Colombo (with many talented Sinhalese artistes also).
The Jaffna Tamil diaspora are also very mobilised, in terms of creating their own cinema, and music, and doing a lot of cross world collaborations.
Every show also has a guest, mainly from the musical arena, but I’ve had a few chefs, including a Michelin starred one, and quite a few movie makers, as well as actors and actresses, who I’ve had live in the studio, or pre-recorded, but also those we’ve connected to, in Chennai and Malaysia, who have had new films or albums, or in some instances, special singles, releasing.
ACV: What has been the reaction to the show ?
AO: A lot of feedback comes from social media, both public and private, as well as meeting with listeners, at events. I was surprised and very pleased, for instance, at the Milapfest Indian Classical Music awards, when four young people approached me as the ceremony ended, and wanted selfies, and told me how they not only listen in and love the show, but how they’ve also got their families tuning in, every Sunday.
It’s been heartening to have such a lot of support from the communities, like the Kerala Link in the UK, the World Tamil Organisation, UK, as well as the Kannadigaru. They are all pleased that the BBC is catering to their demographics, and have sown immense support. I had one well known singer from India telling me that there was no such show that unified South India, in India, and that this was the only one, in the world, especially as it covers films, film music, as well as giving support to the independent and Classical music scenes, which remain very under-represented in media in general.
ACV: As something of a champion of South India and Sri Lanka, do you think there is much an appreciation of South Indian/ Sr Lankan culture in the UK and wider afield?
AO: I believe that the visibility is growing day by day. Soho has a place for Appams aka Hoppers, and there are many talents from the diaspora, on the rise, from Amy Jackson, who has been a part of South Indian cinema for a while, Sendhil Ramanurthy, Mindy Kaling (half Tamil), and Aziz Ansari – American Tamils making waves on TV, the likes of Shah Rukh Khan (his mother is from Hyderabad) and Priyanka Chopra, both half South Indian, ruling the box office, Mangalorean Tulu speaking beauty, Aishwariya Rai Bachchan stealing headlines, and Deepika Padukone, who was raised in Bangalore, to Konkani Parents, giving back to back hit films.
Double Grammy and Oscar winner AR Rahman continues to make music that the world is noticing, from South Indian cinema to Bollywood and Hollywood, Dr L Subramaniam is taking his brand of classical music to the world, maestro Ilayaraja hits his 1000th soundtrack, and UK musicians like Dr Jyotsna Srikanth are putting on their own London based festivals.
Diaspora talents like comedian Dayan Shan has been taking over social media with his unique world view, as well as British homegrown musicians like T Pirashanna who works closely with Anoushka Shankar (who is also half South Indian), music producer Charles Bosco, who recently worked with Anirudh Ravichander, as well as AR Rahman, British Sri Lankan singer Arjun who signed with T Series in India, as well as heartthrob singer Inno Genga, who was part of an iTunes India number one album, with young Chennai composer, Leon James (beating the big Bollywood releases that week, may I add).
ACV: Have you seen changes in the way people in the UK react to South Indian and/or Sri Lankan culture?
AO: Nowadays, when I tell people that I was born in Sri Lanka, very few ask where it is, and more often than not, they have actually visited the island, or have tried the food, and will share their stories fondly.
I believe that shows like this one will continue to showcase the best of the South, and I have a lot of people who are not from the region listen to my show. They enjoy the very different music, which has a more classical and folk base, with strong rhythms (Carnatic music which is from the South of India, not only has an infinite number of scales, leading to interesting melodies, but also has 35 basic rhythmic structures).
I come from a musical family, and studied the Classical form since the age of seven, and even presented some of it in my GCSE in music. It is a part of my show that is very close to my heart.
And of course the show is accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection and can engage with what we are doing through any form of social media…
Ashanti Omkar twitter