A new programme on BBC Asian Network is showcasing music from South India. Jo Frost talks to its presenter.
The multifarious sounds of South India and Sri Lanka are reverberating the airwaves of BBC Asian Network every Sunday since a new radio programme launched in October. Its mission is to give a much-needed boost to South Indian music and culture on British radio and the person tasked to do this is Ashanti Omkar.
Born in Sri Lanka, raised in Nigeria and Denmark, Omkar admits that while growing up she was “happily listening to Madonna and Michael Jackson when my dad made me learn how to read and write Tamil.” Studying Karnatic music is seen as a rite of passage for many South Indians. “It’s something most South Indian and Sri Lankan kids learn, either the veena, violin or vocals,” says Omkar. “The mainstay of South Indian music is Karnatic. It traverses the languages of the South, so you have composers who have written in Telagu, Tamil and Kannada and in Sanskrit as well.”
So has South Indian culture has been overlooked in the UK? “Absolutely,” she replies. “I’ve been championing South Indian music for a very long time. We are playing catch up in some way.”
Omkar sees her new show as a long-awaited opportunity to highlight the wealth and diversity of South Indian music. “The [radio] playlists are already incorporating different types of music, they’ve got Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu as well as Bengali shows. So the South was the last bastion, so to speak.”
A big component of the show will be music from cinema. “The film industry in the South is so big… Out of the 1,000 films that come out of India every year, maybe 500-600 are coming out of South India.” So expect not only Bollywood hits, but music from Kollywood (the Tamil film industry), Mollywood (Malayalam) and Tollywood (Telugu) too.
Live guests will also be a regular feature – Arjun, the popular British-Sri Lankan born singer-songwriter was Omkar’s first studio guest. In addition to all the film music and new releases, Omkar is keen to highlight the classical tradition too, with a weekly ‘Sunday Raga’ slot. “The first one I’ve picked ‘Vasantha’ – it’s a raga that is very pleasing to the ear, works well in Karnatic music as well as Tamil music. I’ve picked three songs from three different eras and we’re doing a little mix of these.”
The ever-effusive presenter is a prolific social media user – something the younger dynamic of BBC Asian Network are bound to appreciate. “Asian audiences seem to be very keen to use and embrace technology, which is wonderful. We will be tapping into texts and tweets and also get vox pops from people after film screenings.”
By the time this issue comes out, Omkar will have half a dozen programmes under her belt. We speak the week before her first show and she is understandably anxious about the live aspect of the show. “I’ve been rather nervous about using the decks. That’s been the biggest thing for me. A lot of the other presenters come from a DJ background, so they’re very used to doing all this. Whereas I come from writing and sitting behind a desk.”
RADIO The Ashanti Omkar Show is every Sunday from 2-4pm on the BBC Asian Network