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The firangi flautist
Anjali Jhangiani | Tuesday, 12 July 2016 AT 08:49 PM IST
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American flautist Nash Naubert talks about his passion for Indian classical music and why he never thinks of bending the boundaries

In a crisp kurta-pyjama, with a dupatta thrown over his shoulder, Nash Naubert took a seat next to his wife, Gaysil, and his beloved flute case at Westin Pune. A disciple of the legendary Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nash, who is originally from Seattle, talks about his journey into Indian classical music:

He’s had a childhood filled with trips all over the US and abroad because his mum was a flight attendant. This sparked an interest in different cultures at a young age, and the calling for music followed subsequently.

“I’ve always been drawn to woodwind instruments. The first instrument I started playing was the Australian didgeridoo. It is a long pipe-like rhythmical instrument, with which I could produce different sounds,” says Nash. This founded the base for his fascination with the flute.

“The bamboo has a soothing tone and the complexity of Indian classical music also attracted me, which is why I was inclined towards the flute,” he adds.

Nash’s interest in Indian classical music pulled him to India when he was 21. He travelled to learn without any intentions and big dreams. “I started taking casual lessons, kept moving about from place to place, and set two hours a day aside to practise the flute. I studied the bansuri under professor Prahlad Nath at Benaras Hindu University and when I wasn’t practising the flute, I was studying Hindi, for a year,” says Nash, adding that he found Varanasi to be a fantastic city with so much history, making a great place to wet his feet and imbibe the Indian culture as a foreigner.

In 2003, when Chaurasia opened his Vrindaban Gurukul, Nash jumped at the opportunity to learn under him. Another flautist friend, who knew about his passion, introduced Nash to the legendary flautist. “I was petrified to meet Hari-ji. It took me a long time to warm up and speak to him. But I soon realised that he’s an approachable and simple person,” recalls Nash.

But bagging a spot as one of his shishyas isn’t an easy job. Nash had to work hard, day and night, to prove his passion. “Hari-ji’s very selective about his students. But when it comes to foreigners, he understands that it’s a big leap for us to come into this genre of music, which is very different from our culture. Though he was accepting towards me because he realised I’m dedicated and was keeping up with the other prolific Indian students,” says Nash.

He studied at the gurukul for six years, practising 8-10 hours a day. “I even slept with my flute. My riyaz and sadhana was very intensive with Hari-ji. I learnt everything that I could from him before I left the gurukul to figure out the unsolved puzzles of Indian classical music on my own,” says Nash.

Nash has other inspirations too. “Hari-ji’s style is hard to match because he’s technically perfect. His is not the gayaki (singing) style as it is more instrument (flute) based and there are jumps from note to note with wide gaps. People think vocal music is superior, but I differ from that opinion. I feel each instrument has its own quality. I have a rhythmic style, which is also inspired by singer Tulika and her father Nikhil Ghosh who is an internationally acclaimed tabla maestro. Since the flute is  limited to only one-and-a-half octaves, there’s only so much you can do in terms of range and pitch, but to compensate, you can incorporate rhythmic styles. I find it quite similar to the didgeridoo,” says Nash.

A foreigner taking to Indian classical music as seriously as Indian musicians do is something that Nash has always had to answer since he started playing. “I don’t know what other musicians think when I meet them. But when they hear me play, they know I am as serious as them and are ready to perform along with me,” says Nash.

He claims to have no intentions of bending the boundaries of Indian classical music. “I don’t want to innovate, it is amazing as it is. Classical music is meant to be timeless, and it is my passion. I hope to get a chance to perform at The Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav and Pune Festival this year,” says Nash.

Always standing by his side and giving him positive criticism is his wife, who is a ballerina. “I like his alaap, and always tell him to extend it. His fingerwork on the flute is great to watch too,” Gaysil beams at him. The two were neighbours during their training days in Mumbai and were introduced to each other by a common friend. An American flautist and an Indian ballerina — a unity of East and West.

The author can be reached on Twitter at Anjali Jhangiani @purplesaga

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