As Ashanti Omkar celebrates her 25th show on the BBC Asian Network, Momtaz Begum-Hossain finds out more about the channel’s South Indian ambassador
If you want to know where to find the best Appam (hoppers) in London then Ashanti is your lady. Whatever the borough, whereever the high street, she has a natural radar for locating where to find the finest South Indian cuisine. I know this because I follow the BBC Asian Network’s newest presenter’s Twitter account and that combined with her Instagram are an essential guide to good food. But being able to recommend great places to eat is only one of the many strings to Ashanti’s bows. On paper she is a role model for Asian women everywhere – her list of successes (ranging from a flourishing corporate career to working as a journalist, compére, consultant, PR and curator) is quite simply outstanding, while in person, she even more warm, genuine and inspiring than you hope she will be.
Ashanti (aged 3) always showed an interest in music!
Born in Peradeniya, Kandy, Sri Lanka, Ashanti’s father was a Mathematics lecturer whose career led him to posts abroad. Ashanti moved to Denmark as a baby and spent her childhood aged from five to 12 years living in Nigeria, before settling in London. But is was in Nigeria where she first developed a passion for Indian movies, something which has been instrumental in shaping her career. She reveals: ‘During the weekends I would find someone who had a videoplayer and we’d all sit down and watch Indian films. I could understand what was happening and very much enjoyed the stories and worlds they showed me, even though some were very deep. South Indian films especially have never shied away from social realism, often much more than mainstream Bollywood films. But as well as my appreciation for film I was also a hyperactive child so at the age of seven I was sent to music lessons.’
Music and movies became salvation for Ashanti and after graduating from The University of London, she began working in marketing for high wealth fortune 500 companies, but alongside the corporate nature of her job, she still kept her passions alive. Ashanti explains: ‘In 2003 I attended an Urban Music Seminar. I was a fan of urban music and RnB and at the time Juggy D, Rishi Rich and Jay Sean were beginning to make an impact on the British music scene. I could see a connection that Asian music had a lot in common with urban music but I unsure what to do about it. At that event I met the Editor of a reggae magazine called Gargamel and after speaking with her about my interest in Asian urban music, she offered me a column! It was called ‘The Asian Connection’ and gave me my first taste of journalism.’
Surrounded by her portfolio of published work (Image: Akin Aworan)
And so started the beginning of an incredible media career spanning over a decade that saw Ashanti have thousands of print pages published. The first of which was an interview that changed her life. Ashanti got in touch with Indian reggae artist Apache Indian and her Editor loved it so much, the pages were extended giving her a major feature in an influential magazine. Remaining ahead of the game, Ashanti was also one of the first Asians to take up blogging and as her exposure to the industry increased so did her kudos. She interviewed major artists like A. R. Rahman and then newcomers like Nihal and Raghav. Much of her success was down to her ability to network, make connections and always staying true to her passions: film, music and food.
Fast forward to today and she is now the host of the BBC Asian Network’s first ever South Indian focussed show. The programme represents seven South Indian languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu, Konkani and Sinhalese and Ashanti’s job is to ensure all listeners feel included . Music is the key. Ashanti enthuses: ‘We play around 21 songs every show and my producers and I try and ensure all seven languages are covered – we also throw in some English language numbers!’
Ashanti with guest Amy Jackson
As well as songs, Ashanti’s guests all have a connection to South India and have so far included Sri Lankan singer Arjun, actress Amy Jackson, Telugu chef Kanthi Kiran, a reunion with Apache Indian as well as one of her biggest scoops yet: recording a major interview with composer A. R. Rahman on his birthday. Ashanti explains: ‘A. R. Rahman rarely does any publicity so speaking with him on his birthday on Skype for my show was a real pleasure. Normally if you pre-record an interview you may only use a snippet but because it was such an exclusive, most of the interview was broadcast, I was nervous about that but also so honoured.’
Celebrating music and entertainment news from the South Indian and Sri Lankan communities, Ashanti’s show is a testament to her own drive, passion and persistence to raise awareness of and showcase a side of Indian culture that is so prevalent but until now had gone largely unrecognised in mainstream British culture. The radio show was something she was keen to do for some time – previously she had hosted 63 episodes of a similar show for DesiHits.com called Southside and was keen to bring the show to a bigger platform after the show’s podcasts stopped being made - then all of a sudden it happened and before she knew it, Ashanti was in a studio, behind a microphone and presenting a show on an internationally respected radio station.
As for what’s next, Ashanti has just reached a milestone show, her 25th in as many weeks and as her fan following continues to grow and her confidence on the airwaves develops it’s safe to say we will be seeing a lot more of this incredible Southern Belle.
Listen to The Ashanti Omkar Show every Sunday afternoon from 2pm-4pm on The BBC Asian Network.
You can also listen back Ashanti Omkar here, with clips of interviews, and listen back links - each show gets 4 weeks of listen-back via the BBC iPlayer or online.