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Thursday, April 02, 2020

Ramakrishnan Murthy Interview: ‘Hitting the perfect note, even for a fraction of second, is worth entire struggle’

Known for his absolute adherence to classical values and purity of music, Ramakrishnan Murthy is one of the top Carnatic vocalists today who is treated almost on par with his much celebrated seniors.

Written by G Pramod Kumar | Chennai | Updated: January 12, 2020 10:42:59 am
Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news Ramakrishnan Murthy. (Photo by S. Hema)

As a kid growing up in the US, when Ramakrishnan Murthy was sent to Padma Kutty – a very respected music reacher in southern California – to learn Carnatic music, he told her that he wasn’t too keen. Still, he was diligent in his classes and practised hard because he didn’t want to let down his mother and teacher. The practice became a part of his life, and even before he realised it, Carnatic music had taken over everything else. It became a passion that he couldn’t live without, and ultimately his profession too.

Ramakrishnan Murthy is one of the top Carnatic vocalists today, a young musician who is treated almost on par with his much celebrated seniors. He is noted for his absolute adherence to classical values and purity of music, virtuosity and a sprightly style that solely draws on the classical strengths of Carnatic music.

Murthy is also known for his pursuit of the perfect note, and hence is a singer who is often credited with having ‘shruti shuddham’. “When I sing, my deepest desire, or the ultimate goal, is to merge with the Tanpura. It’s a never-ending pursuit. It’s a maddening pursuit as well,” he says.

“Sometimes I feel what you are pursuing is so ideal that you have to learn how to find beauty in the path you take to achieve that. You will also have to come to terms with the reality that you will never achieve that. Nevertheless, the pursuit will continue,” he adds. “Whenever you hit the perfect note, however rare it’s, that fraction of a second of the purity of the note is worth the entire struggle.”

This intensity of articulation of the pursuit of the ideal in classical music shows why he is special. When people speak about his music, they do it with a certain respect. It has depth, gravitas and enticing classicism. He has a huge fan following in Chennai and elsewhere and his concerts are extremely well attended. In the 2019-20 Margazhi season, almost all his concerts received standing ovations.

He is highly imaginative and artistically daring, but prefers to explore the interminable musical possibilities within the classical confines of the Carnatic idiom. That also makes him a rare musician who offers a glimpse of the body of work of the past masters in all its glory. A Ramakrishnan Murthy concert is a peek into the past, a resurrection of the quintessential, old world Carnatic concert, but with remarkable contemporary appeal. Probably that’s why he attracts both younger and older audiences alike.

Ramakrishnan Murthy is not as ruminative or “serious” as he may seem on stage, but an appealingly thoughtful person. He is polite, but can be tough too as many in the audience would have learned this season. He may request people to stay back and listen when they start moving about during the percussion-solo, or even mildly admonish them when they start making an exit while he is still singing the “mangalam”, the closing piece of a concert. And that reflects his respect for the art form. Moreover, he is the same everywhere, notwithstanding the prestige of the platform.

Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news Murthy during one of his performances. (Photo by Rajappane Raju)

His clarity of thoughts on life and art is very precise and their articulation, quite deep and attractive. A conversation with him is as enlightening, pleasing and calming as his music is.

Excerpts from my recent conversation with him in Chennai.

The most common adjective that’s used to describe you is that you are a traditionalist. Is it a fair description?

See, the definition of tradition varies from person to person. Generally, the connotation associated with the word is that a traditionalist is somebody who’s fixated on old values. In that sense, it’s true about me. I have grown up listening to the masters and gurus who stood by certain values and I do try to live up to them.

At the same time, tradition also has a connotation of being very fixed and not being open to new ideas. In that sense, I am not a traditionalist. I am quite open to new thoughts and new ideas and I also don’t believe that all that’s old is gold. It’s upto us – according to our aesthetic sense, our values, and our musical upbringing – to decide what’s to be retained and what’s to be ignored. I definitely consider myself to be possessing both mindsets.

You have had many gurus and hence you may have imbibed from different styles of music and schools of thought besides the body of work of past masters. The general belief is that people who learn from different people tend to have an idiom that’s more vibrant and diverse. Do you agree with that?

You could look at it in two ways: one, that people with multiple gurus tend to create something original from an amalgamation of different styles, and two, that having so much exposure to many ideas could lead to confusion. It’s actually upto the student to decide how the introspection, amalgamation, and assimilation are done. As far as I am concerned, my path is my own. I have been fortunate to have learned from different musicians and the doyens of the past from their body of work, and am trying my best to make sense of all of that. I am trying to be honest to myself.

Does the work of contemporary musicians also influence you?

Yes of course. It’s important to be aware of what’s around me. I have been fortunate to grow up listening live to some of the masters of today who incidentally were on the cusp of stardom 15-20 years ago. I guess everything we hear around us influences us. So, the answer is Yes.

By your own admission, two of your major influences have been your teachers R K Shriram Kumar and Delhi P Sunder Rajan, but both of them are violinists. Do you ever miss a vocal trainer?

Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news Murthy with his teacher R K Shriram Kumar.

Both of them are trained vocalists and it just happens that in the public eye they are professional violinists. I feel extremely blessed that I have learned, and am still learning, from both of them.

Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news A young Ramakrishnan Murthy with Delhi P Sunder Rajan.

In one of your interviews, you have said that you were not very keen to pursue music when you were introduced to Carnatic music and sent for classes as a kid. You learned because there was parental pressure. But now you are among top in your generation. Can you look back and describe how that transformation happened?

Quite simple actually. At the age of six or seven when I told my teacher that I was not keen on music and that I was doing it because my parents wanted me to, I didn’t fuss. If I had resisted, my parents certainly wouldn’t have pushed me beyond a point. By nature, I wasn’t rebellious. I listened to my teacher and my mother and practised. Since my mother and my teacher adhered to very high standards for everything, I practised diligently. The rigour of practice involved so much time and effort. At that age when you are not thinking about it, but just doing it, it becomes a part of you. And since it became a huge part of me, I naturally became interested in it, and finally it became a passion as well as my profession. I guess that’s how the transformation happened.


So, generally you must have been a good student as well. How was your regular education?

(Laughs) I was okay. As my interest in music developed, my interest in other things waned. My parents were from an academic background and therefore there was indeed an emphasis on education.

Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news A young Ramakrishnan Murthy practising Carnatic music.

Your story resembles that of people who may not have been instinctively interested in art, but rigorous practice made them successful artists. On the other hand, there are many who were prodigious in their childhood, but faded away later in life.

See, I believe that everybody is blessed with some kind of talent. but that is not enough. Even for the most prodigious talent, there has to be some honest work to develop it further. Talent definitely sets you up, but you have to put in a lot of effort to make it work. In other words, It’s fortuitous to be talented, but only hard work will take you to your destiny.

I also believe that talent is a form of divinity. Otherwise, where is it coming from?

You have mentioned that you wanted to sing outside the core audiences of Carnatic music. It’s a strange art-form in which younger people sing to a much older audience that has been stagnant for years. Do you think this form can cross over to other demographics? If it does, it also means a bigger market, more money and a better life for musicians.

There are many aspects to this question (smiles). Let’s put aside the financial part. What I meant by core audience is not just in Chennai, but throughout the world. “We have to first acknowledge that any art form is universal in its appeal and that if it’s practised in its purest form in an honest manner, it’s great enough to be appreciated by a large number of people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

However, the general impression about Carnatic music is that it’s for old people, it’s not cool, it’s traditional and it’s not liberal because majority of the practitioners of this art form are looked upon as conservative, close-minded and exclusive. I will have to grudgingly admit that it is somewhat an honest categorisation. It’s indeed important to look at things as they are. It’s also our duty as musicians of the current generation to actively work to dispel that notion by speaking, acting, and behaving in a way that reflects open-mindedness and inclusion. Everyone should be able to happily enjoy our art form without having to think t or feel that they are out of place or don’t belong. Our art is for all, beyond any type of social barrier.

There’s also this notion that one needs a certain emotional maturity to appreciate classical arts, which is somewhat true. Usually, the emotional maturity to appreciate things that are not for instant gratification comes at a later stage in life for most people. That’s why you see larger number of older people in the audience. But, there’s nothing that’s uncool about this music.

Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news “The general impression about Carnatic music is that it’s for old people, it’s not cool, it’s traditional and it’s not liberal because majority of the practitioners of this art form are looked upon as conservative, close-minded and exclusive. I will have to grudgingly admit that it is somewhat an honest categorisation.” (Photo by Rajappane Raju)

With regard to making carnatic music more appealing to younger and more diverse audiences, I think many young musicians that we see crossing genres could serve as a gateway for others to come in. I am not saying everybody has to dabble in things like fusion, but we must not behave and project our art in a way that makes it seem unreachable to a lot of people.

This apparent conservatism is a block. Even some of the young musicians don’t present themselves as contemporary artistes.

These pre-conceived notions take a long time to change. Most of our phenomenal musicians of the past happened to be very religious and that image might still be persisting in the minds of the general public and also some practitioners. I mean, because of those lasting images, people may believe that that is how a carnatic musician is supposed to look or dress. Nowadays, everything you say and don’t say, do and don’t do is perceived as a statement, and it is important to be mindful of that. There is absolutely nothing wrong in being or looking religious; it’s just that one should be aware that choosing to be and look a certain way causes people to form opinions about oneself, which could not necessarily be true. You are actually projecting who you are by the subtlest of your actions. Maybe people didn’t think like that in the past and hence the artistes weren’t too conscious of how they appeared or behaved.

A classic example of this would be my guru Shriramkumar Sir. He wears the sacred ash on his forehead liberally and that could make people to think of him as a close-minded, conservative and regressive person. Only those fortunate to get to know him closely, such as myself, would know that he is anything but those adjectives. He is broad-minded, forward-thinking, open, progressive and most importantly, compassionate towards all people. My point is, that external appearance of people may project a certain personality or character which may or may not be true. It is important to be mindful that we, as public figures, open ourselves out to people forming opinions about us without really knowing the truth.

The beauty of Carnatic music is manodharma, the art of improvisation. However, some have regimented even that. Improvisation itself has become predictable. In the case of some artistes, it has become quite formulaic. How do you react to that?

There’s a certain rigour required to get to the point where you can improvise without any limitation. And that rigour is life-long. You have to keep at it all the time. Maybe, at some point in your musical journey, you will feel that sense of freedom. If you are able to experience that even a few times, I would say you are lucky. As musicians, we rely so much on what has been done before us, and therefore how much of what we do can be called original? Not much actually, but the beauty of us exploring even what’s already existing comes across as original.

Probably, you are right about the formulaic thing. From the format to the pieces we plan, most of it is pretty formulaic. And maybe both musicians and rasikas are happy with that, probably because of the conditioning over the years. But if we can be open-minded to people with a different perspective of things, it will be better. In those days, they said Maha Vidwan Balamurali Krishna was avant-garde. In a different way, MD Ramanathan was also avant-garde, right? If we can be more open minded to accept such thinking, we would be able to enjoy much more, and perceive more beauty in our art form.

Music is ultimately a reflection of one’s personality and life experiences. The music of people who have been highly regimented in their life is likely to be regimented and rigid. For them, it will be very tough to break free unless a wholesale change of attitude happens.

The point is, whatever environment you grow up in, you become a result of that. And it obviously affects your art as well. If your environment has been open, you art too will reflect it because art comes from within.

As you said, it’s also about reaching a high level of skills where you feel free to do what you want to do.

Yes, you just can’t start off thinking I am going to do whatever I feel like. Only if your grammar and foundation are strong, only if they are like your second nature, and only if you have assimilated them at a very deep level, you can start singing at will. Once you reach that stage, whatever you wish to express will come out naturally. At that stage, the music will transcend the grammar.

You are right, the real stalwarts of Carnatic music are not the people who broke away early from tradition but those who mastered it so well. Even now, the people who are doing genre-bending work have a deep understanding of the art and possess very high level of skills

Yes, the feeling of freedom they feel is beautiful. Whether one agrees with it or not, that somebody is comfortable with what he/she has assimilated and hence has been able to produce the music he/she wants is beautiful. It doesn’t matter if others appreciate it or not. Reaching that level of freedom, however, is not easy.

Since we are talking about improvisation, I wanted to ask you something that I ask everybody else: when an idea strikes you on stage, how far will you go to pursue it? Will you let go of it if it appears a little risky? The word I want to use is creative vulnerability. Some say that that a sense of vulnerability on stage is a good idea because it produces great music.

For me at least, that vulnerability is hard to come by. If and when it happens, I think you have to be in the moment, realise that something special is happening and go with it. It’s important to acknowledge it than pushing it aside because it may not happen again – I mean that particular moment. At that point, no rules apply because you have actually reached a transcendent moment where the rules don’t matter anymore. Vulnerability is not something that one can actively pursue. One is blessed if and when that moment happens.

Sometimes what I think as one of those moments of vulnerability could seem very pedestrian to a listener. Similarly, a very normal thing for me may seem something remarkable for others. So, it’s also a question of perception. But in general, it’s important to accept the moments of vulnerability when they happen.

How much do you plan before a concert?

I usually have a general plan, but like to keep it broad enough so that I can adjust and make changes on the spot depending on the context and situation. If I am going on stage and winging it, it’s not going to have enough variety. If you are not spending enough time thinking about what you are going to do on stage, you are not going to get original ideas. So, I do think ahead of the concert and will have a general idea of what I want to present. It will also reduce difficult situations, However, planning every step in a concert will curtail my freedom. Therefore, I do have a plan, but not something that goes so much into the specifics.

What are some of the ragas and compositions that always fascinate you and surprise you even if you are familiar with them?

The compositions of the Trinity is a constant source of inspiration. When we say something is timeless, we sometimes take that word for granted. But it’s a powerful word. There are very few things that actually fit that description and I would say that the Trinity compositions do that.

They have survived for many centuries, and still today form the bulk of what we present in concerts. Every time I delve into a composition or I try to learn it, or listen to it rendered by somebody else, I find myself in bliss. That bliss of listening to their musical contribution is really the reason why I am in music. It keeps me going every day. The Trinity is a class part. There are also many beautiful compositions by other great masters as well and I have derived so much happiness and astonishment from exploring them.

A general complaint about Carnatic music is that its repertoire lacks contemporary character. Many say that its content doesn’t include contemporary realities and a wider range of emotions other than bhakthi.

It’s good that you brought this up. I strongly believe that one doesn’t need to be a religious person – or a Hindu so to speak – to appreciate the meaning of the Carnatic compositions. If you take Thyagaraja Swami for example, the object of the emotion may be the god, but the emotions by themselves are very human and relatable. If you look beyond the literal meaning, there’s so much more than what is apparent.

Even regarding the concept of bhakthi, I think it doesn’t necessarily need to be directed at a god. For example, if you are passionate about your work, that’s bhakthi to me. Same with other emotions as well. The things that we attribute to the divine are simply our perception. Why do we have human forms for gods? Because it’s something that’s easy for us to understand. So at the end of if, everything is human.

About the contemporary compositions that you asked, I am very open to singing anything and everything, but with the caveat that it should match the lyrical and musical standards of the Trinity and other great composers. It should also match the joy I have experienced singing them. Such a filter automatically eliminates a lot of things. It’s not the subject matter that matters to me, but the quality and experience.

Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news “One doesn’t need to be a religious person – or a Hindu so to speak – to appreciate the meaning of the Carnatic compositions.” (Photo by Rajappane Raju)

Even when you look at a composition that’s considered “basic” – say something like Vathapi – you would be amazed by the kind of prosody used in there, and how the poetic structure works for that composition. Then there’s the musical aspect. If somebody can meet that standard of compositions – which people such as Subbaraya Shastri, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar or Papanasam Sivan have done – or even come close to that, I will be humbled to sing them.

I think that’s also one of the USPs of your concerts – your adherence to high standards of classicism. You clearly pay so much attention, don’t you?

I really cannot claim credit for any of it. It’s our duty as musicians to introspect on the treasure that has been handed down to us and share it with other people in a responsible way. That’s all.

Have you put aside things – say ragas or compositions – that looked difficult or less explored? I am asking this because I hear that some ragas are facing extinction because of non-use.

I think that as an artist if you are constantly feeling the need to explore, you are in a good space. Definitely there are things that I have not done yet: so many compositions that I haven’t sung, so many composers that i haven’t explored, and so many ragas that I haven’t sung to the fullest of my ability or rather desire. I hope to do that in my lifetime (laughs). I know that it won’t be completely possible in a single lifetime because there’s so much out there. I am eagerly looking forward to exploring more to the fullest of my ability.

Specifically, are there things that you wanted to do, but haven’t done yet?

There are some old ragas that I haven’t explored which also answer your question about some ragas facing extinction. For example, Vidushi Dr S Sowmya sang a pallavi in Ghanta at the Music Academy last year, which became a thing of legend. I have learned a couple of compositions in that raga, but haven’t really looked at it in so much detail as I would like to. Manji is another raga. Or even a common raga like Durbar that some contemporary musicians have explored quite a bit, but I haven’t heard a pallavi or tanam. Or a tanam in Paras. There are many ragas like that.

Besides the grammar and skills, the amount of material you have to master in Carnatic music is mind-boggling. It’s a lot, isn’t it?

My sister is a medical student and I have seen the number of books and volume of study materials she has to read and internalise. It’s the same in music or any other field as well. There’s so much material that’s been given to us and it’s upto to us how to utilise it.

Of late, prominent Carnatic singers pay a lot of attention to Vivadi ragas. Do you have a good Vivadi repertoire?

I really enjoy singing Vivadi ragas, but so far I haven’t had a chance to explore a lot of those in detail. It’s also something that I am looking forward to. The great Tanjore S Kalyanaraman has explored them so much. I hope to take a page out of his book.

What’s the source for rare bodies of work? Do you have access to some private recordings, manuscripts etc?

Those private recordings are now widely available online. What’s available there is mammoth. There are recordings on Youtube that I have never seen in any people’s private collections.Then, there are also private collections that the world hasn’t seen yet. Actually, there are so many unsung heroes to whom I want to pay my own homage some day for giving me this wealth. Otherwise, how would I know what Semmangudi Srinivas Iyer has done? Or how would I know what GNB Sir has done? He had died 24 years before I was even born.

Do other forms of arts and music influence you?

I think the way other art forms influence my music is at a more subtle way. It also has to do something with my personality. For instance, although I was brought up completely in an environment of Carnatic music, I do love listening to Hindustani. But it may not directly reflect in my concert presentation.

Another type of music that I found interesting was the compositions of Ilayaraja. When I started performing in Kerala, it involved a lot of late-night, long-distance drives after the concerts. Many drivers at that hour of the night played Ilayaraja’s music in their cars and I found myself instantly calming down just by listening to that. Although I don’t have much knowledge about Ilayaraja’s works till date, I do know that it evokes a certain response in me that makes me want to keep listening. I love his music, but his influence on the presentation of my music will be much more subtle. I also like listening to western orchestral music. That also may not directly influence my work, but may shape the liberalness of my thinking.

As I said, Carnatic music is what I grew up with. It’s applicable to any part of my life, any time of the day, but I say this with a lot of trepidation because I don’t want to sound very parochial. It’s really life-sustaining for me. It’s been the thing with me in my happiest moments and also in my darkest moments. In other words, whatever has been my life-situation, Carnatic music been a constant. Therefore, although I seek enjoyment and happiness from other things, Carnatic gives me everything I need.

If you hadn’t been put into Carnatic music, would you have come into this at all?

I don’t know. We don’t have answers for “what ifs” in life. They just remain open-ended.

So, do you thank your mother for that?

Oh yes, every day. I might not tell her every day, but I am eternally thankful to her. It’s a privilege to interact with a great cultural heritage that we have been endowed with.

Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news “Although I was brought up completely in an environment of Carnatic music, I do love listening to Hindustani. But it may not directly reflect in my concert presentation.” (Photo by Rajappane Raju)

Despite its world-class character, sophistication, and beauty, Carnatic music is still confined to a very minuscule population. Isn’t there a way to reach out to more people?

My humble opinion is that we shouldn’t dilute our art form just for the sake of bringing people in. Only when people see that some attempts at dilution are unsuccessful, they will realise the value of pure art. Musicians should have the freedom to explore what they want. It’s upto them to decide if their art stands the test of time as well as our attention span.

As I said earlier, everything depends on how we project ourselves and our art. If we do our job well, more people will be drawn towards it.

Many people don’t even know about this art because it happens in closed spaces.

It’s changing slowly but surely with the advent of social media. Though we have miles to go, music is surely becoming a bit more accessible now.

But, how the tickets for the Margazhi season are handled leaves a lot to be desired. If there is a more coordinated promotion and sale of tickets that ensures easy and equitable access to the venues, more people might listen to Carnatic music.

From an artist’s perspective, it gives you a high when somebody tells you that your show is sold out, but when you sit on stage and see 100 seats vacant, it’s heart-breaking. Then you hear about people waiting outside and unable to get in. These things have to change.

Who are the past masters whose influence has been extremely strong for you?

When I was ten the or so, the first tape I heard was that of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer with TN Krishnan and Vellore Ramabhadran. Since then, he has been my life-force. It’s more than just the music; the idea of Semmangudi itself has been something so integral to my entire upbringing. It’s really hard to say in words what his impact on me has been.

From your Instagram posts I see that you also have interest in social issues such as environment. How clued in are you about the social reality around us? Does it reflect in your music because we live in turbulent times now. For instance, TM Krishna speaks about it, but I know that some people feel it, but keeps it inside them.

See, when you express your opinions, you have to have a certain grit and a tolerance because any opinion that you express – however sincere it is – will be questioned in ways that you wouldn’t like. You should have the wherewithal to deal with that. I certainly have my opinions and the points I made about being a responsible musician pertains to non-musical aspects of life as well.

I have been associated with some great people who have shown me the way and there are certain things that I have learned in life in a hard way. Those things have shaped me. Being a musician, whether the audience is small or big, you are a public figure of some relevance. And the fact is that you will be held to a higher standard. If it’s in your interest to act more responsibly even if you don’t want to, why not? Ultimately being responsible is a good thing, isn’t it?

Do the things that happen around us – say poverty, inequality, communal turbulence etc – affect you because an artist cannot live in isolation?

Yes. There are so many things that bother me to my very core. But like you said, I think being outspoken about this and expressing your opinions in whatever manner you want causes a certain reaction from everybody. There might also be some people who will be looking for opportunities to get at you using whatever you say or do. Actually, it takes a lot of grit and courage to still express your opinions, which I do admire in some people. But ultimately I have to confess that I haven’t reached that level – musically – where I have the capacity to withstand the distraction. So, I choose to express my opinions in a closed group.

My question was fundamentally if the things around you affect you?

Undoubtedly they do. We are all reflections of our society. We are living in society and we are part of society. Naturally everything that happens around us will have an impact on us. And on a larger perspective, it will have an effect on your art too. I can definitely say that for myself.

Maybe some day we will see compositions from you arising out of that disturbance or angst.

Never say never!

Going back a little to your University days, you had said that given a chance you would have learned humanities, although you are a computer science graduate. People tend to associate Carnatic music with science and mathematics because the more successful once are mathematically oriented.

A big part of my music is my fascination with the past masters and my interest in their way of life. The cultural milieu that they grew up in and performed. That’s something of very deep interest to me. I take special interest in my audio and my photo collections and I love to pick the brains of the elder people in our midst and talk to them about how society was back then. I love my grandparents speaking how life was when they were growing up. It’s absolutely fascinating. Also about their favourite singers, records, if they have seen in flesh and blood the masters that I idolise and the like. Even in school I remember being very interested in history. Later on, I also realised that I love literature and the English language.

Do you read?

Yes, I started reading a bit more now. I love American historical fiction because I can relate to it a bit more since I was raised there. Quite recently I immensely enjoyed reading Hemingway. I think literature is another thing I want to pursue. I have also developed a real liking for writing. I love writing and I am still trying to figure out to say things that don’t necessarily create a distraction for me. I plan to do a little more.

I have heard some of your interviews and was surprised to see that you are not as introverted as you may seem.

Introverted is a kind way of saying it (laughs) compared to what I have heard from other people. I am a little serious on stage, I don’t smile too much. It comes out of a seriousness of my art and also my way of focussing on my art because I don’t want to make mistakes. However, on the insistence of my parents (especially my father, whom I absolutely revere) and other well-wishers, I am trying not to take myself too seriously and smile much more on stage (smiles).

You have spoken about your love for Chennai and how badly you wanted to settle down here so early in life. What is it about Chennai that attracted you so much?

I really don’t know. In a weird way, it could be because of my listening to Semmangudi. I was so fascinated with his voice, that sound.

But didn’t all this difficult objective conditions of life put you off, particularly when you were in your teens?

The strange thing is that I have started noticing all this only now. Back then, my vision of India and Chennai was so enticing – it was literally like heaven for me. I couldn’t see the conditions that you have referred to. Honestly, I didn’t notice the traffic, pollution, noise, etc because I was just waiting to come back to India and indulge myself in music and more music. Now I realise that I might have been closeted and too close to my surroundings because of my obsession with Carnatic music.

When you were growing up in the US what was the socio-cultural milieu like?

Only Indian. Padma Aunty, my teacher, was our sun. We were orbiting around her. That’s how I grew up. My upbringing as a student of music was largely influenced by the people I grew up with because their friends and my friends, as kids, were all focussed on music. And here, I would like to name some people that mattered to me a lot when I was young.

Ramakrishnan Murthy, Ramakrishnan Murthy carnatic music, Ramakrishnan Murthy singer, Ramakrishnan Murthy parents, Ramakrishnan Murthy instagram, classical music, carnatic music, indian express news Murthy with his music teacher Padma Kutty.

Vani Ramamurthi and her two brothers, Arun Ramamurthi and Siva Ramamurthi. Both are violinists and they also learned from Delhi Sundararajan. Sandeep Narayan, older than me, but my first inspiration. He shifted from the US to Chennai for good to pursue Carnatic music six years before me. Aditya Prakash, who shuttles between here and the US, and mridangist Shubha Chandramouli who played with me for many concerts. Nirmal Narayan, who is Sandeep’s older brother and also a mridangam player. And Sandeep’s eldest brother, Nikhil Narayan, who played the flute and learned from N Ramani sir. Anirudh Venkatesh, vocalist, and Arjun Narayanan, mridangist continue to be good buddies of mine and we used to practise together frequently. As a kid I used to idolise all of them. Sandeep’s parents, Shubha and KS Narayan were well known in the music circles in the US. Subha aunty is also a well known teacher in southern California area. They were also very supportive of me.

I also want to mention here the seminal influence that the flautist and University of Southern California (USC) Business Professor KR Subrahmanyan had on me. He continues to be a trusted mentor. His coaching really shaped my musical thinking and vision in my formative years.

You are supposedly one of the very few Carnatic singers who has Sruthi Sudham, the one with perfect pitch.

When I sing, my deepest desire, or the ultimate goal, is to merge with the Tanpura. It’s a never ending pursuit. It’s a maddening pursuit as well.

The keyword, as you have mentioned, here is “supposedly” (laughs). I go through so many imperfections in my singing.

Sometimes I feel that what you are pursuing is so ideal that you have to learn how to find beauty in the path you take to achieve that, and you will have to come to terms with the reality that you will never achieve that. It’s difficult because you are trying so hard for something that you want so badly. Nevertheless, the pursuit will continue. Whenever you hit the perfect note, however rare it’s, that fraction of a second of the purity of the note, is worth the entire struggle. If you keep getting that bliss at least occasionally, it’s worth it.

Other personal interests, hobbies?

I am a huge fan of basketball. The game gives me a lot of satisfaction. I think it’s a very beautiful game. I very closely follow NBA, watch all the games, sometimes more than I should (laughs) That’s been a lifelong passion that I have grown up with.

Going to a basket and shooting with a ball is very therapeutic. I should do it more often. The shooting motion – shooting the ball with the flick of the wrist – is very calming for me. It makes me forget a lot of things.

More from this series | The Sandeep Narayan Interview: ‘I want my concert to be as genuine and as real as possible’

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