As he effortlessly renders out one tune after another, jumping between the time zones of Swati Mutyam to Bombay and Dangal, the awe-inspired Yo! Vizag team interacts with Naveen Kumar, the internationally acclaimed flute maestro.
The phrase, ‘Music is transcendental’, is perhaps lame compared to what audiences have expressed after any of Naveen Kumar’s performances. His flute converses directly with the soul. Having created a legacy with his music, it is a matter of pride to know that this son of Vizag soil has attained what many only dream to. From making a name for himself in the Indian film industry to proving his proficiency for Hollywood soundtracks and from being a humble flautist to being a wind artist, he has gone on to sing and direct music while working with global greats. Meet Naveen Kumar, the artist who paints on the canvas of our souls with his flute.
‘My guru told me that I wouldn’t be able to play the flute and sing. He asked me to abandon the flute and take up the violin instead.’
Inspired by his father who already loved playing various instruments, music happened very early for Naveen. The flute enticed this young lad, and encouraged by his father, he started performing at school. CBM School was a haven for him, as it marked the start of his flute collection too, when his Head Mistress presented him with two flutes. If the school stage was the first step, All India Radio, Vizag was the next one. He was still in the ninth grade when he gave his first radio concert. His mother enrolled him for classical music to hone the budding talent. ‘My guru told me that I wouldn’t be able to play the flute and sing. He asked me to abandon the flute and take up the violin instead.’ Though Naveen agreed to do so and started learning under the guru, he never actually abandoned the flute.
As luck would have it, one of his flute renderings on the radio was heard by the guru. ‘I had lied to him, and he asked me to leave immediately.’ Undeterred, Naveen Kumar went on to master the flute on his own and attended the AU College of Fine Arts for learning vocal Carnatic classical music. His parents encouraged him by starting the Jyothi orchestra right at home. He would play the flute, sing and even compose musical notes. ‘Those were the 80s and I knew nothing about recording,’ he explains. However, his father had bought him a tape-recorder, a prized possession. He would superimpose the flute on that music. Later when the DX7 synthesiser model came into the market, he would imitate the glides on his flute as well.
‘Thrilled and eager to share it with Illayaraja, I showed it first to a colleague who just ripped the thin sheet apart.’
Naveen was only seventeen, experimenting with his limited flutes, when All India Radio authorities suggested that he try his luck in the cine field. A family LTC tour in 1984, took him to Chennai, where he was introduced to Illayaraja. ‘That’s when I got my first break.’ It was around then that his father had also gifted him a book, ‘The Flute’, by Prof. Samba Murty. Marvelling at the many kinds out there, Naveen started experimenting. ‘I made the Chinese traditional flute that uses thin parchment. After many experiments, I realised that using onion peel in place of the parchment gave the best effects. Thrilled and eager to share it with Illayaraja, I showed it first to a colleague who just ripped the thin sheet apart.’ Not one to lose heart, Naveen Kumar quickly procured another onion and readied the flute in no time. He showed it to Illayaraja, who was so impressed that he gave him his first film ‘My Dear Kuttichathan.’
‘I had a case that held my money and many different flutes. All that got destroyed one day in a studio fire.’
But how difficult was it for him to balance music and education. ‘I was never a very great student academically, so when Raja asked me about my studies, I said I wanted to be here in the industry itself.’ Allowing him to pursue his passion, his parents backed his decision. His flute collection had also started to grow. ‘I had a case that held my money and many different flutes. All that got destroyed one day in a studio fire’, Naveen shares emotionally, the pain still raw within him. He came home a dejected man that day and told his mother that his world had ended and his career was over. ‘I still remember my mother telling me to trust in God, then everything else.’ Barring that one setback, from that point on, Naveen’s career graph only went up. Today he is the proud owner of over 300 branded flutes of international prominence.
‘Flute is my love, and I would often talk to the flute.’
Talking about his connection with the city he shares his many memories with Vizag. ‘Flute is my love, and I would often talk to the flute,’ he says revealing that he would often go to the Church to play alone or to the hilltop. As he grew older his schedule became busy, balancing college and night shows that would pay him Rs. 5000 a month. He recollects how his parents would come for those shows too and how his brother would accompany him on the tabla. He went on to create the signature Naveen flute when he perceived how the music notes from his flute caused the strings of a guitar to vibrate.
WORKING WITH GREATS
‘I knew him just as a keyboard player, and the bit he gave me, sounded like a jingle.’
Naveen Kumar has worked with some of the world’s best musicians to weave magic with his flute. ‘I would get goosebumps listening to Ilayaraja play. At times, I would forget to play my part too.’ Talking about his association with AR Rahman he shares, ‘I met Dilip Kumar when he asked me to play a small piece. I knew him just as a keyboard player, and what he gave me, sounded like a jingle’ he laughs. ‘It was this tune that was featured in Roja and when I saw him getting a National Award, I was in awe. My collaboration with AR Rahman’s music together created some wonderful tunes for films like Premikudu, Thiruda Thiruda, Bombay and many others which became musical hits.’ Naveen went on to work with MM Keeravani, Mani Sarma, Devi Sri Prasad, Sajid Wajid, Salim Sulaiman and many other directors.
‘I went to Malaysia to perform live and as soon as my name was announced for the Bombay theme, the hall erupted with applause.’
His international tours began with AR Rahman too; with the Bombay theme thrusting Naveen into the limelight. ‘It’s a cherished memory. I went to Malaysia to perform live and as soon as my name was announced for the Bombay theme, the hall erupted with applause. I had just gotten to know how popular the theme had really become.’ Added to that were SP Balasubramaniam’s words of appreciation, ‘See Naveen your theme has won so much acclaim.’ Besides these, he has played at the Commonwealth Games 2010, before the then President of India Shri. Pranab Mukherjee. In 2014, he accompanied the London Philharmonic Symphony orchestra.
His tunes have also featured in Hindi films like Mohenjo Daro, Dangal, Jab We Met and others. In Hollywood, he has played for the Jungle Book too. Talking of another cherished memory he shares about an opportunity at Birmingham that came while he was doing Bombay Dreams, a Bollywood-themed musical. ‘I had purchased a suit, shoes and was very excited. But I didn’t get a visa at the last minute.’ It was disappointing, but a few years later in 2005 he remembers having moved to Mumbai, and being caught up in floods. ‘A similar opportunity came by the very next day and this time on my wife’s insistence I went even though the city was flooded. What’s more, I wore the same suit and shoes as planned.’
THE NEXT STEP
‘One has to be highly creative and extremely competitive.’
‘Cinema field is like walking on a sword, it’s very competitive. One has to be highly creative and extremely competitive’ he shares adding that if a child has the innate ability, things will come naturally to them. ‘Sky is the limit for every human being, and if there’s a goal and a passion, there’s no stopping a person.’ Talking about his plans for the future, Naveen shares that every new day is a new experience for him, and while as a mere human he has limited control, it is the hand of God that guides him.
Today, this Vizag-based musician has reached a zenith that many aspire to do, but few attain. A reserved person who believes that from talent and the right product stem fame and popularity, he has truly attained a lot. From a flautist to a multi-instrumentalist, to being the inventor of nine flutes, he has created a niche for himself as a wind artist. A resident of Mumbai, where he lives with his wife Kiran and two children, he says that a career in vocal would have perhaps been more lucrative, but it was the flute that came to him naturally. ‘Just like our expressions change when we speak, it reflects similarly in the flute too.’ But he did go on to sing 20 songs in Tamil. Attributing his success to God he says, ‘I’m surviving because of God’s grace and my family’s support.’
Here’s one of his recent performances that will leave you spellbound: