BBC’S Ashanti Omkar on 15-year media career to date

Ashanti Omkar shares her the story of her career, in this exclusive interview, for Glamourogue.

1. You have a Tamil roots, but you’ve been raised in Denmark, Nigeria and London. How would you describe the culture of each country?

Each has a beauty, but all the dwellers of these lands are human, and ultimately, that is a uniting factor for all the cultures I’ve experienced. As a child in Denmark, I remember the snow, and the smell of bacon and eggs, as we moved there after I was born in Sri Lanka, a hot country. In Nigeria, I spent my time straddling my own Tamil culture at home, with the culture of the land, both strong in family values, and beholding great food. Culture as a whole, is a sum total of the people we mingle with, the food, the arts, and the heritage we celebrate. Each culture, in that sense, has unique and wonderful aspects.

2. Growing up in different countries how hard was it for you to adapt to the people, culture, environment in each place?

I didn’t really find it hard, as I am the kind of person who just delves into opportunities that present themselves. I was very young when we moved to West Africa, and came to London before my teenage years, so adapting was not too difficult, especially as I already spoke fluent English, which has been my first language, in that sense. My parents are very friendly and sweet people, so they paved the way for me, in terms of friends they made, and children of those friends, who became my friends, in many instances, and they always got involved in the communities. The rest was about finding the best parts of these places, enjoying the simple pleasures, and seeking beauty in them.

3. Working for the BBC as a presenter of your own show, is a dream job. How did you feel when you got this offer?

Elated and blessed, especially as I had been championing the entertainment sphere of South India and Sri Lanka, as a core part of my work in media, through my writing, and podcasts, and even in some of the prior broadcast work that I had done on Pan-Indian cinema at the BBC, before getting my own radio show on the BBC Asian Network. Having made history, and now championing this region for the BBC, is a true honour, and I am delighted to have created 200 shows that have broadcast since launch!

4. Who inspires you?

My parents have always been very inspiring for me, and also my great Aunt, Balambigai Nadarajah, who was a broadcaster, playwright, composer, and multi instrumentalist, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where my Parents grew up. My Dad, Dr Yogachandran, an erstwhile Maths Professor has been instrumental in my linguistics, and communication skills, as well as music, as he not only played an eclectic range of music to me, growing up, but also showed me many of the nuances of South Indian Classical (Carnatic) music, which I learned with passion, from various gurus. I’ve also been inspired by those who have followed their hearts, and gone against the grain, to create new ground, everyone from AR Rahman to Kamal Haasan, to Aamir Khan, and ladies like Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi who worked as PepsiCo’s chief executive, actress and dancer Vyjayanthimala, and Michelle Obama. My husband Akin is also an inspiration to me, as he has supported my journey, and envisioned many of the things I have done in my career, even if I didn’t anticipate them.

5. With plenty of newcomers in the entertainment business, how do you keep up with trends and update yourself?

I love what I do, and do what I love, to quote a hash tag I often use. Every day that I get to be alive, is a day I can reflect upon this, and work at it. And by work, it does not feel like work, even when there are deadlines, or it is a challenging assignment, as I love every minute. I’ve always embraced technology, even back in 1997, I had created my first website, and it actually landed me my 2nd media role, as an entertainment editor for a British Asian newspaper called The Asian Post. As I trained in marketing and management, alongside technology, at university, and then working with many cutting edge fortune 500s, keeping up with trends was always second nature to me. I tend to find that it is more a habit, to stay up to date, and something I tend to be consistent with. For example, I try to keep up with popular culture, by watching many films, not just the ones I talk about on radio, but with a view of what I may vote for at the Critics’ Circle awards, and I also keep up to date with many TV shows, via streaming sites. I have no kids, so I have the time to focus on my work, and put my all into each task, and hope what I do, can inspire others too.

6. Who have you ways wanted to have a coffee and chat with?

Honestly, I’ve been very blessed to make the chatting part of things, my career, in the last 15 years. Even prior to that, I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting Ilayaraja in Chennai, at his lovely home, and have had the chance to do the same with AR Rahman, before my media career. I would be keen to sit down for tea with Superstar Rajinikanth at his Poes Garden residence, have lunch with Oprah Winfrey, or enjoy discussing music and life, with Will Smith.

7. Tell us about your special love for food, as your social media is filled with great looking dishes.

London has become a gastronomic centre, in the last decade or so, and I’ve become a big fan of the food scene. I used to cook at university, out of necessity, and I’d experiment with different flavours, but took a big hiatus from the kitchen, for a long time. I had a big surgery, battling endometriosis, a few years ago, and a dear friend, Chef Suhanya Naganathar, rekindled my love for cooking while I was convalescing. She not only stressed the importance of knowing what ingredients are in the food we eat, but also encouraged me to get back into cooking. Her sister, her and I ran a supper club called Virundhu (feast), which we then changed to Saapaadu (food), before she moved to Sri Lanka and we stopped doing these. She, alongside some chefs and lovely Instagrammers, got me deep into my love for different cuisines, and flavours. My Mother even to date, tries out different spices and textures within her amazing cooking, which I continue to enjoy. Travelling to many parts of the world, has allowed me to experience many delicious cuisines also.

8. What are your views on women empowerment?

We are making great strides as women, and have come a long way from the dark ages, but we have a long long way to go. The fight for equality continues, and we need to continue to foster bold women, who see that they are beautiful in their brains, and not vacuous, in this day and age where numbers seem to matter more than content. Quality over quantity is essential, and while it is important to look as good as one possibly can, what important people care about, is what is in the mind of a woman. Being fearless, taking risks, and wanting to pave one’s own path, will win a woman respect, which is, in my humble opinion, a key marker of a life well lived.

9. Even in the 21st century there are people out there who don’t agree with women being in the media and entertainment business. Have you ever faced this prejudice?

I have not, though the truth is that narrow-mindedness is prevalent in many societies. I’m frankly surprised to encounter this question, as women have been in films nearly from the beginning of the industry. Many TV and radio presenters have been women, and have been super successful at it. So this notion of people “not agreeing” to a profession, sounds ludicrous to me. I don’t think that we can add a layer of gender to any industry, in this day and age. If a woman can be a Doctor, why should she not be in the media industry? Both roles wield long hours, and endurance, so why is one seen as prestigious, and the other not? The same goes for corporate jobs – to do anything of worth, takes hard work, and to do it well, takes diligence, whether it is media, accountancy, IT, or law.

10. Share some of your cherished celebrity interview moments.

There are so many. For me, every interview is special. My first ever interview was with Apache Indian, back in 2003, that was a wonderful memory, especially when he spoke about working with AR Rahman, for the film Love Birds, with the song No Problem. Speaking to Mani Ratnam was a wonderful chance to tap into his genius mind, and also reminisce on his early work, which I grew up watching. Every interview with double Grammy and double Oscar winner AR Rahman, has been eye opening. I spoke to Sridevi on the phone, just before she boarded the plane to Toronto, for the premiere of her comeback film, English Vinglish – she was a childhood heroine of mine, and she was so humble. Talking to Kamal Haasan was wonderful, as he was my childhood hero, and he had done his research on me and my show, plus he sang a Carnatic piece he had learned from the legendary Balamurali Krishna, which was enthralling. Speaking to the Khans of Indian cinema, Aamir, Shahrukh, Irrfan, Salman and Saif, has always been a pleasure. I had given Priyanka Chopra her first UK cover back in 2006, when I worked at Asian Woman Magazine, and had spoken to her over the phone for this, while she was shooting in a remote location. Deepika Padukone has always been inspirational to speak to, and to work with, and the same goes for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. I recently had a chat with Kajol, who is an actress I really admire, and she was delightful.

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