Music runs in her blood. Flautist Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar can and does derive inspiration from her well-known mother, Neela, and aunt Kunjumani. K. Satyamurty says after an interview with her that the Sikkil Sisters are a legend in the world of Carnatic music. Mala was among the musicians to be featured at last year's Bangalore Habba.

Flair for flute

"Learning the f lute came naturally to me and lessons began at an early age... When I was studying at Rosary Matriculation School in Chennai, I began playing at inter-school competitions and winning prizes," she recalls.

By the time Mala was 17, she was considered ready for a public concert before a discerning audience, and this took place in 1980 at Krishna Gana Sabha. "I was just a bit nervous," she adds.

But every concert is like appearing in an examination for a musician she says; she regularly performs in Bangalore too.

"You need to gauge the occasion and the audience and be prepared to change your planned repertoire sometimes. The musician cannot always sing or play his or her own favourite ragas but go with the audience," she explains. Her own favourites are Mohanakalyani and Karaharapriya, both popular because of their soothing tempo.

Her musical career took off after her marriage to Chandrasekhar, grandnephew of M.S. Subbulakshmi. "Like my mother and aunt, MS too encouraged me a lot ... I may have been inspired by them but have evolved my own style," says Mala.

Debut at the right time

Her debut coincided with the evolution of the violin-flute-veena ensemble, first conceived by Lalgudi Jayaraman. This experiment in combining the best instruments played at classical concerts proved to be a success.

More concerts outside Chennai and, later, overseas and teaching music were the next phases in Mala's musical journey. Recently back from a music festival in the U.S., she is struck by how Indian classical music has found ready acceptance in the West.

Educating the listener

She makes it a point to explain each song and raga before playing it and the audience listens attentively.

Some are chamber concerts with no acoustic systems and before select audiences of a few hundred music lovers. She finds it easy to strike a rapport with them.

While ready to play to any type of audience and be innovative, she says: "Fusion music is not my thing... pure classical music is enough to captivate even people not much exposed to it. Our music has more dimensions than western classical music and people in the West appreciate that. It is really not necessary to mix two different strains of music," says Mala.

She has several students abroad to whom she sends lessons on audiotape and keenly follows their progress. One of them is soon to have his debut concert in the U.K. and she has accepted the invitation to attend the event.

Appreciative audience

Are the young beginning to appreciate classical music more because of, or in spite of, being exposed to all schools of popular music? Many among the audience at her concerts in Bangalore have been young people, showing every sign of enjoyment.

Mala has certain professional goals. "I want to play pure Carnatic music, gayaki style with no gimmicks. My responsibility is to keep learning more songs to keep the interest of the audience going. Music involves `bhakti,' and eventually I want to become like MS, dedicated to bhakti and pure music," she says with sincerity.

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