‘Bollywood is such a waste of time’

‘You make a song, it gets rejected, you have to make 10 more.’

IMAGE: Rakesh Chaurasia and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Photograph: Kind courtesy Rakesh Chaurasia

Rakesh Chaurasia made history when he won two Grammys with Ustad Zakir Hussain, Edgar Mayer and Bela Fleck for As We Speak (Best Contemporary Instrumental Album), and Pashto (Best Global Music Performance).

In the second part of a fascinating two-part interview, Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya asks Rakeshji — whose uncle and guru Pandit Hari Chaurasia was one half of the memorable composer duo Shiv-Hari — whether he would interested in composing songs for Hindi films.

“Having played in Bollywood for the last 30 years, I find the process time-consuming. It’s such a waste of time,” the flautist says.

Three times Grammy winner Ricky Kej called this the ‘Year of India at Grammys’. Would you agree?

Believe it or not, that was my first thought when our names were announced: That I had achieved something big for my country through my music.

The reason this award is so valued is because you can’t get your society, your city, or XYZ to vote for you.

Only members of the Recording Academy, who are musicians themselves, are allowed to vote, and then, I’m told, there’s a third body that decides the winners.

The envelope is only opened only on stage and the winners announced.

That’s why the Grammys are always a surprise.

IMAGE: Rakesh Chaurasia with Ricky Kej and Pankaj Tripathi at the Gateway of India. Photograph: Kind courtesy Rakesh Chaurasia/Instagram

Ricky Kej and you, along with Pankaj Tripathi, performed at the Gateway of India during the Mumbai Festival 2024 to celebrate the city’s unsung heroes.

Yes, Pankajji had done a film, Main Atal Hoon, on our late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajyapee and knew his poems.

Ricky and I played and he recited these poems in between.

It was just a 30-minute performance, but we thought, let’s do it because the Gateway of India is celebrating its centenary year and is an iconic venue and the ambience was great.

It turned out to be interesting for the audience.

Now that you have won two Grammys, many more opportunities will open up. Is there something you have always desired that you can pursue?

I’ve never thought about this. All these years, my thoughts were just limited to reaching Zakirbhai (tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain) and a larger audience.

Babuji (his guru and uncle, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia) has taken this instrument to such heights, and maintained the level, that my focus has only been on carrying the Chaurasia legacy forward by becoming a very good performer.

When I used to accompany him, I cherished Babuji‘s audience whom he left spellbound.

My endeavour too has been to meet the expectations of all those who come to listen to me.

Their appreciation and applause are my biggest rewards.

As far as collaborations go, I’m open to everything.

I want to take the music of the flute further into the world.

IMAGE: Rakesh Chaurasia at the Grammys. Photograph: Kind courtesy Rakesh Chaurasia

Yes, you have been a part of many collaborations, including the Grammy winning album As We Speak.

My guru has done everything possible in the field of music and has never stopped me from experimenting.

There are people who believe that classical musicians should not experiment.

Why not? It’s not as if we are standing in a pizza shop and selling something, our experiments are in the field of music.

If you worry about what people will say and set boundaries, your thoughts don’t broaden.

Worse comes to worse, you will fall on your face.

Aur agar kuch achcha ho gaya (But if something works), then you win a Grammy!

Had we not experimented with As We Speak, I would have missed this golden opportunity.

Have you ever thought of composing for Hindi films?

Not really because having played in Bollywood for the last 30 years, I find the process time-consuming.

You make a song, it gets rejected, you have to make 10 more.

It’s such a waste of time.

I’d rather compose for my own fusion albums.

Even Shiv-Hari (flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma) only composed for Yashji‘s (producer-director Yash Chopra) films.

Their focus was classical music and performance.

They were not ready to negotiate on that.

Even Yashji made just one film a year and told them they could take all the time they wanted.

But they left after composing for a few films, maybe because it was affecting their performance.

It’s far better to just play and return home.

In the West, they are far more professional. Would you be open to a documentary on your life or a series where the camera follows you for a week maybe?

Oh yes, I’d love that.

IMAGE: Rakesh Chaurasia runs the Half Marathon. Photograph: Kind courtesy Rakesh Chaurasia/Instagram

Apart from music, what are you passionate about?

I’m health conscious, I like going to the gym, swimming and playing sport.

I’ve run the Half Marathon.

I enjoy watching action movies with my family whenever possible.

James Bond films, with lots of action.

Drama puts me to sleep.

At a time when there is so much debate about religion, your albums, Divine Call, Call of Shiva, Call of Krishna, are steeped in spirituality.

Classical music itself is steeped in spirituality, more so the flute which is the instrument of Krishna.

My goal is to take Indian music to every corner of the world, to show people how rich our music is, culturally and so attached to divinity.

But your fusion albums have been hugely popular like Inner Peace.

The idea for that came from a good friend of mine, Chandu Mittani. He lives in Leicester City and has a music label, Sona Rupa,

He pointed out that there is a huge audience in the UK for such albums.

People who drive to work and want to listen to something peaceful, which will calm their minds, so they won’t jump a red light.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if there would be takers for such a different sound, but he was sure it would be work and told me to trust him.

He didn’t want tabla and tanpura, so I collaborated with pianist Anupam Chatterjee on Inner Peace – Music for Mind Body and Soul.

The 2013 devotional and spiritual album was a huge success and we then recorded Eternal Music on popular demand.

IMAGE: Rakesh Chaurasia at a concert. Photograph: Kind courtesy Rakesh Chaurasia/Instagram

Do you think there is a bigger audience for classical music in the West as compared to India?

No, we have a very informed and erudite audience in our country who know what they are coming for.

And they come in large numbers.

During the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav or at the Diwali fests, there is an audience of 15,000 to 20,000 early in the morning, at around 5.30-6.30 am.

The good thing is that India has such a huge population, there is an audience for every genre of music.

In the West too, they enjoy our music.

The difference is that when you understand too much, you become a critic and wait for someone to err and falter.

But in Europe, people are not there to judge you, they just listen to you quietly and often you see a tear in their eye because they feel for the music.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

I’ve always followed by my guru’s advice that just keep working, things will happen on their own.

I was only focussed on making myself perfect so I could reach my goal of becoming a full-fledged classical musician and a performer.

I never imagined that the destination would bring me two Grammy awards.

In music there are no endings.

I’m young, there’s a long way still to go in music.