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Sandeep Narayan - Everything else is secondary to music
28 January, 2013

Your interest in Carnatic music...............How did all this begin? 

It all began with my dear mother Shubha Narayan – who became my role model - who even now runs   a music school in L.A. (Los Angeles) teaching about 30 to 40 students. She had learnt from Madurai Krishnan sir and Rajam Iyer sir.  I too showed a lot of interest in music and my parents were convinced that I was  going to pick up music, but my first exposure was only through my mother. Both my brothers were in to music, one plays the flute and the other the mridangam (Nikhil and Nirmal) and there was always music playing in our house. In fact my grand parents too knew music and were great connoisseurs but never thought of rising to the level of  performing artistes. 

With all this you had taken up a course in Society and Law? Why so? Not fine arts....? 

I never wanted to become a full-time scholar of music but wanted to become a full-time performer. I never wanted to study music in the academic sense. I thought I would be better off learning from  advanced gurus. And moreover over there in the United States, they tend to objectify the music system as a kind of a black and white category. You know it is not. Again all this would cater to a Western music syllabus which was not what I had wanted. And basically I wanted a degree and that was the reason I took up this socio-legal degree from the University of California (Santa Barbara). 

Were your parents at least suspicious about your queer moves, I mean a full-fledged music career? 

Well... No. Initially, I was taken to KSK sir by Sri N Ramani, the flutist, who is very close to our family. KSK accepted me as his disciple rather reluctantly, as only seniors like Sanjay or Unnikrishnan came under him. Later, after a couple of classes, KSK got convinced about my potential. I had  learnt from KSK sir for about 3 years and they were not surprised when they (my parents) met with my proposal for a career in music. They never questioned my seriousness and never cast doubts about my intentions. They thought I could experiment for about 2 years and after that I held my ground. My parents only feel reassured right now as things have started picking up admirably over the past two years. 

Here I have to mention how well KSK stoked my interest. He would throw 100 things at me, musical insights, and I would possibly take some 10 of these. All of these though, would get registered but would never get processed at that hour. My Mom who was my constant companion during the classes, would acquire the remaining 90 and would enlighten me about these at the right time when I got old enough or mature enough. Also KSK had tailor-made classes to suit my needs. 

Honestly did you find Sanjay or did he locate you? 

It was in 1995-96 that Guru Sanjay Subramaniam, who was on a US tour had come home for dinner. I liked the way he talked and moved with people. I was just 10 at that time. Earlier some time back KSK sir had given me two recordings, one of GNB and the other of Sanjay and this Sanjay tape I would have almost worn it out by the number of times I had listened to it. It had Vallabha Nayakasya in it. Sanjay had created a complete obsession in my mind. I started attending his concerts like mad. Then in 1999, KSK sir passed away. Again we sought the help of Ramani sir. I was particular in learning from Sanjay. We took the journey. Ramani raised the question. “Sanjay himself is young and one does not know whether he would be willing to teach.” Sanjay agreed. It all started then - my coming during the summer holidays to Chennai to learn from him.  I have been learning from Sanjay for the past 13 years. 

Are there any restrictions on listening to the concerts of other musicians? Some put a bar on this, don't they? 

Not at all. Disciples are asked mainly to listen to yester-year musicians. This season I had many concerts and on other days Sanjay sir had concerts. Otherwise I make it a point to attend all concerts, irrespective of the names involved. I do a lot of listening now and at home something keeps playing always. The point is some poor concerts, if they are, provide feedback on what I should not do. And for Sanjay no amount of listening was enough for a person who is growing. 

Coming to lyrics how do you manage as you, it appears are not familiar with any Indian language? 

Wait! I understand Tamil fully. I picked it up during my many visits to India, especially to TamilNadu. In fact I learnt all my Tamil, to read and to write, from a neighbour of mine, an auntie. It happened during the day and lasted for about an hour per day and it was fun. And that made me speak Tamil fluently. The lyrics of Papanasam Sivan or Arunachala Kavi or Bharathiyar, I read and fully understand before rendering them. At least their basic meaning, I mean. With regard to other languages, this is an oral tradition  and I follow what has been taught to me. And my teachers do correct me when there is an error. This moondru suzi na or whether it is la or lla, they correct me if I make a mistake. People comment “Ivan padarache ellam sariya irukku but pesarodhu vera maadhiri irukke!” This happens they say, when I make announcements about the raga or the krithi. But I make enormous efforts to verify and double check with others, with a clear conscience. 

You have said elsewhere that this NRI tag attached to your name is a bit irksome? Can you explain the reasons behind this contention? 

It is irksome for the negative connotation it tends to provide. Some sabhas think that anyone who arrives in India from abroad is not serious about their art. And they have a lot of money around them. I am of a kind who has  an American mentality of a person who wished to be financially independent once he graduates or attains a certain age - to the extent possible. Some temple concerts or some  sabha concerts, concerts at schools, I am ready to do and have done for free. I therefore want to break that barrier, the NRI barrier, for this reason mainly. In fact, a senior highly esteemed musician insisted on my mentioning this NRI prominently in my CV as I have become a trend-setter, as an NRI musician who is 100% serious about his music. “You have opened the door for many”. It was very nice of him to have said that. 

How do you react to the criticism that you are an imitation of Sanjay – nothing more , nothing less? 

I told you that I have been learning from him for over  13 years now and his influence on me is bound to be considerable. His psyche has become part of mine. I do not however, consciously imitate him. That much I am fully aware of. 99.9% of the people who utter this say it as a compliment as they are all die-hard fans of Sanjay. They mean it in a good way and I for one treat it as an observation more than a critical comment. Naturally things would develop for the better over the years and I hope to evolve as a musician, manners and mannerisms included. One-to-one classes have become less these days and merely being with him for hours, days, is as good as learning from him. 

There is no ambiguity over this one fact. I am a 100% his student and he would be proud to call me his 100% student. Our relationship is at that level. 

Anything further..................... 

The first four years of this experiment were very crucial. Yes. Music was progressing but not my musical career. Now it is fine. It is not all that easy, getting on to the stage as a performer. 

I have worked on other projects with artistes such as Pete Lockett, V. Umashankar, and V. Selvaganesh. Pete is a world-renowned expert on the Konnakkol, a Briton. 

Regarding the adjustment of  lifestyle, I have been back and forth to India and it has never come as a cultural shock to me – I mean this transition. India is hot, it has pollution and mosquitoes in plenty. But... But...It has music. That outweighs all else. 

Young guys often ask me. How could you leave an atmosphere like the one in the States to the one prevailing in India. There is music here has been my constant answer. 

People often say, that they are at a far away place, in Australia, or England and in the USA. How can I progress in this kind of music, they ask? My answer – If an individual chooses to do a certain thing and applies himself with unstinting focus, accomplishments are bound to happen. It has for me. 

I have a good group of friends and am interested in movies and politics too. I have sung all over India, especially all over TamilNadu. 

There is no short-cut. Practice systematically, 3 hours or more per day. This has lead me to discover a new-found confidence which has made me ready for a concert even tomorrow. 

And the way in which Sanjay prepares himself for his concerts even on this day, even in spite of his long experience... Oh!... No relaxing, by any means. We have been seeing it over the years. No one need to push him. He pushes himself on. That defines his work ethics and his commitment. 

Best to all! 




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