Flautist Navin Iyer on working with his mentor A.R. Rahman, his collaborative album and his experiments with unusual flutes

It’s what you might call a quintessential Chennai music success story — boy begins learning Carnatic music at the age of three-and-a-half; has his flute arangetram in his teens presided over by acclaimed vocalist, Balamuralikrishna; does jingles with his childhood friend (music director G.V. Prakash) when he is just out of school ; is ‘discovered’ by the movie industry at Saarang, where he does a hat-trick as best instrumentalist three years running while studying engineering; and turns down a job with Infosys to end up working with none other than A.R. Rahman.

Meet Navin Iyer, who at 24 is one of the most in-demand flautists in the film music industry, having recorded for over 500 movies in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi.

“I think I’m the youngest musician in the cine industry — not counting singers,” says the young flautist (and self-taught saxophonist) as we meet at his brand new personal studio in the heart of Mylapore.

Life is hectic since, as he explains, he’s one of a handful of flute ‘session artistes’ in the country. “Being a session artiste is another skill altogether,” he says, lounging behind the studio computer in an old pair of jeans and faded T-shirt. “The music director will demand a particular feel for a song, which you have to deliver; at the same time, you have to be able to add your own creativity and compose on the spot. You should be able to change gears between the two immediately.”

Recordings may last just a few minutes — his flute piece for ‘Akkam Pakkam’ from Kireedam took just four (“sometimes things just fall into place”) — or up to two hours for background scores, which generally take longer. “You need to watch the movie scene to get in sync with it,” he says, comparing the process to being ‘in a relationship’. “Unless you spend time with it, talk to it, you won’t get the exact feel.”

One movie scene is etched in his memory for good — the one in Rang De Basanti, his first recording for Rahman. “He just called me and said ‘can you come?’” he recalls, still sounding awed. “My flute comes in the background score of the scene after Madhavan’s character dies… it was a very emotional scene, very emotional for me too!”

Since then, he’s played for a number of Rahman’s projects, including the big one, Slumdog Millionaire. “The morning of the recording for Slumdog…I’d actually overslept, but luckily made it in time,” he says, adding with a laugh, “And then, my God, the Oscar!”

He travels quite a bit for recordings, and sometimes, music directors travel to him, such as Vishal of Vishal-Shekhar who came down to Chennai just to record the flute track for Aakhon mein teri from Om Shanti Om, because he liked Navin’s ‘ideas and style’ .

“Earlier, music directors would have the entire score written and cine musicians played according to that,” comments Navin. “Now music directors are more open; they enjoy it when we give our inputs. It adds a new dimension to a song.”

Gone also are the days when session artistes had to come together at one time to record a song; today, with the magic of track technology, individual artistes can play their parts when they have time and “ping pong on to the next recording,” he says. “Right now, for example, I’m practising during the day for my concert tour with Earthsync, so I’m often recording through the night.”

The day we meet, he’d been at Malayalam music director Ouseppachan’s studio at T. Nagar recording till 4 a.m., had gotten a couple of hours of sleep, hit the gym (“it keeps you kicking”), and fit in our interview before a practice session at 10 a.m. That’s the way he likes it — busy, with plenty of variety. At his studio is a specially-made glass flute which he’s been experimenting with. Next up is one made of clay, another of marble and a saxophone of bamboo.

Ready to roll out is a collaborative album, ‘Three 4 the Music’, with mridangist D.A. Srinivas and violinist Raghavendra Rao that connects Carnatic music with everything from blues and jazz to Irish folk music (which translates as karaharapriyaragam, he tells me). And for the future, he wants to compose his own music.

“I want to explore, expand my horizons and focus on my versatility,” he says. “I don’t want to get stuck in a small circle of experience.”

Trivia

Navin Iyer has collaborated with Vikku Vinayakram, Bombay Jayashri, Kadri Gopalnath and T.V. Gopalakrishnan on one hand, and U.K. percussionist James Asher, Earthsync and numerous DJs on the other.

He sometimes does up to seven cine recordings a day.

He sang on the title track of the National Award-winning Ore Kadal, but his name is misspelled on the CD cover as ‘Navin Nayar’.

The first thing he does upon visiting a new country is buy a flute from the region. He has over a hundred world flutes.