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The Sandeep Narayan Interview: ‘I want my concert to be as genuine and as real as possible’

Carnatic classical vocalist Sandeep Narayan believes in contemporary values even while practising what’s considered a conservative art. Curious to know who was the star-musician who trained him and shaped his perspectives in art and life? Read this engaging conversation.

Written by G Pramod Kumar | Chennai |
Updated: January 4, 2020 9:33:28 am
Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express Carnatic classical vocalist Sandeep Narayan performs at a concert. (Express Photo: Ramanathan Iyer)

Taking a kid out of school in the US in his formative years and sending him to Chennai to learn Carnatic music was quite an unorthodox idea in the 1990s. Nobody had done it before, but the Narayans in Los Angeles were such lovers of Carnatic music that they thought their talented son must not miss the advantage that kids of his age enjoyed in Chennai.

Their son was just 11 years old and was naturally inclined towards music because all he heard at home since his early childhood was Carnatic music. He had been learning Carnatic music since the age of four from his mother Shubha Narayan, who herself had a well-known musical pedigree. But as the young boy became too playful, his parents thought he should learn formally from a different guru. They asked Chennai-based flute maestro N Ramani, who was teaching Sandeep’s elder brother flute, if he could help. Ramani, after considerable thought, suggested that the boy come to India and learn from Calcutta KS Krishnamurthi, a well-known musicologist and a much sought-after teacher of senior performers.

For Krishnamurti, the request was a little unusual because he hadn’t taught any NRIs, let alone a kid, except probably those from families that had permanently shifted to India. He gave it a try because of Ramani, was impressed with the boy’s early training and acumen, and allowed him to learn under him.

The boy stayed in India for about 18 months with his mother and underwent quite a rigorous training under Krishnamurti that was filled with classes, concerts and relentless practice. When he went back to the US, he had a sound foundation, a much stronger affinity towards classical music, and a deep desire to make it big in Carnatic music. He continued to train under Krishnamurthi through his recordings and direct classes in Chennai during summer and winter vacations.

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Unfortunately for the boy, Krishnamurti died in three years and he was left with no teacher of similar caliber. But this time, the family didn’t have to search for another guru, because the boy, now in his teens, had already set his eyes on a new guru, who was already a star in his own right and a senior disciple of Krishnamurti. The boy, still based in the US and making biannual trips to India learned from his new guru for the next 15 years, and is now one of the few contemporary Carnatic musicians who has imbibed a style that is unique to his own guru. The training with the new guru was life-altering and the boy shifted permanently to Chennai in 2006 after finishing his undergraduate studies. He is now one of the top stars of the younger generation of Carnatic musicians and the first ever Indian-American kid who made Carnatic music a career in India.

This is the story of Sandeep Narayan, the cool dude of Carnatic music who is known for a style that’s rich in classicism, expressions, and improvisation. He is a prime-time singer in Chennai’s Sabhas including the Madras Music Academy and is a much sought after classical performer in other Indian cities too. He is also one of the younger generation classical musicians that are capable of taking the art to the new generation and cross-over audiences.

Sandeep, gifted with an attractive voice that’s flexible and capable of effortlessly moving across octaves and noted for his deeply expressive style, is a delightful performer that attracts impressive connoisseurs of classical music from all age groups both in Chennai and elsewhere. He is quite adept at all aspects of classical singing and his style is rich in well-sculpted gamakas, brigas and attractive musical sounds that make Carnatic music appealing even to the lay people. The inherent laya of his singing, both in slow and high speeds, gives a certain clarity, poise and a pleasing gait to his music. His well-honed classical techniques and informed exposure to other forms of music and arts make his improvisations charming and convincing, whether it’s in raga singing, neraval (improvisation of singing a refrain from the main composition), kalpanaswaras (in which the singer engages in an imaginative presentation of the notes of the raga) and most importantly, the Raga Tanam Pallavi (RTP), that benchmarks the technical and creative versatility of a Carnatic singer.

Sandeep is a recipient of many regional and national honours. He has been a best concert performer at the Music Academy and the recipient of many titles such as the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar of the Sangeet Natak Akademi last year.

What makes him a little unique is also the fact that he is not an old-style conservative Carnatic singer. Probably, you can call him a contemporary conservative, which means that he believes in contemporary values even while practising what’s considered a conservative art. And musicians like him, demonstrate that even an age old art such as Carnatic music can be quite contemporary and forward looking.

Curious to know who was the star-musician who trained him and shaped his perspectives in art and life? Read this engaging conversation.

Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express Sandeep Narayan receives SNA Yuva Puraskar from the Manipur Governor Najma Heptullah in 2019.

Let me start from the beginning. You were a trailblazer as the first Indian-American kid who chose to pursue Carnatic music as a career in India. How did it happen and what do you feel when you look back? Did you have to undergo a lot of lifestyle adjustments?

At that time, I probably didn’t know what to do and it was kind of an experiment that eventually worked. I certainly knew that I wanted to be in Carnatic music and it could be done only in Chennai. In terms of lifestyle adjustment, I didn’t have a problem because music was more important than anything else: to learn music, go to concerts and eventually perform. Those were the goals. In fact, I don’t agree with people when they say that the standard of living is any less here, because it depends on what you are looking for and what your values are. I can argue that the standard of living is actually better here. You get many things that make your life happier here, more easily. For instance, if I want to have a cup of chai, I don’t need to drive to Starbucks, I can walk a few feet to any tea kadai (shop)! I also have wonderful friends here. Frankly, I am quite happy.

Was it easy adjusting with an Indian guru in a system of music which appears quite conservative even today?

My first guru in Chennai, KSK Mama (KS Krishnamurti), was not very orthodox and we got along very well. It was funny that there was this 11-year-old kid with a very strong American accent who wanted to learn music from a senior vidwan. He was a little skeptical, but after hearing me sing, he was happy. After our first class, he told me that he would start teaching me at a higher level because he thought I was more capable than children of my age. Something definitely clicked between us.

You had been coming to India since 1996 to learn under Calcutta Krishnamurti and on his passing, you shifted to another guru and learned under him for a long time till you became quite independent. Can you describe your evolution as a musician in Chennai?

KSK Mama encouraged me to explore manodharma quite early. Up till that point, I had done very little improvisational music such as alapana, neraval, swaras etc. He also taught me many new ragas and gave a different direction and depth to my musical pursuit.

In 1999, when he passed away, I had to learn from somebody else and the only person I had in mind was Sanjay Subrahmanyan. I knew him even before I went to KSK Mama because our family had met him during his concert tour of the US in 1995. Even as a kid, I was a huge fan of his and had been following him religiously since 1996-97. Whenever I was in Chennai, I used to go to his concerts and sit in the front row. He was also learning from KSK Mama along with other well known artistes such as Sudha Raghunathan and P Unnikrishnan, among others. I was really star struck and also thought that it was cool that I was learning from the same guru from whom Sanjay Subrahmanyan was also learning.

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So when my guru was no more, I asked Sanjay if he could teach me. I was absolutely certain about my choice, but he was a bit hesitant because he thought after learning from KSK Mama, who was very senior and much older, that I should continue with somebody of that generation. But for me, Sanjay was the perfect fit. I got along so well with him and my parents also liked that.

With me and Sanjay, it was a no-brainer. We used to talk about sports, movies, other styles of music, etc.

Do you still learn from him?

I used to learn from him regularly till about 2014-15. Gradually classes became less frequent due to my increasing travel and his already-busy travel schedule. He also wanted me to learn and expand on my own. I am more independent now with my learning, but I do consult him with any music queries that I have from time to time. For example, two years back I messaged him if I could learn a couple of songs and he obliged immediately. Even today, if I have something to clarify in music, I go to him.

As you know, people find a lot of influence of Sanjay in your music, including some gestures, sound mannerisms, sangathis etc.

Yes, I know (laughs). But those who follow Sanjay’s and my music have also noticed how and when I’ve diverged from Sanjay Sir’s style. Those who listen in passing, and know I am his student, will of course make that association and comment on any similarities, real or perceived.

The other influence is also his approach to the concert itself. There’s a certain level of professionalism that he has and it has rubbed off on me as well for which I am very thankful to him. He is respectful of other artistes, organisations, and the audience. He has told me: “Don’t ever think that the audience is stupid. Don’t ever take them for granted.” That’s one thing that I always remember and try to stick to in my concerts. His level of focus and seriousness is awe-inspiring: he owns that hall, the entire space, when he is in a concert.

Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express It’s better to call vocalist Sandeep Narayan a contemporary conservative, which means that he believes in contemporary values even while practising what’s considered a conservative art. (Express Photo: Rajappane Raju)

Sanjay’s style is a lot about innovation. How innovative are you on stage?

I may go to a concert thinking that I am going to sing something, in particular, that day, but It doesn’t always work like that. Instead, something else may happen. See, there’s a lot of music in your head as you sit on that concert stage because of your constant listening and learning – from popular to classical – and suddenly something pops up in your head. When such things happen, I do like to explore that. That’s certainly one thing that I got from my gurus and other artistes. If something comes in your head, explore that. Don’t say no. See what you can do with it within the confines of our structure so that it doesn’t become something else. Carnatic concert is not a film music concert, neither is it a fusion concert, but within its framework, there is still possibility for creativity. That’s how I like to approach it.

You had been known to relentlessly practise for hours together in your early years. Now that you are busy with concerts and tours, how do you handle it?

During my recent US tour, a lot of kids asked me how much one should practise to reach a certain level. My answer to that was that there’s no formula. There was never a formula for me. And it is definitely about quality over quantity. You have to just keep working hard and have the confidence in yourself that things will click one day. When I was living in the US, practice was much more difficult with school, college etc. At college, even finding a location was a problem because I was sharing an apartment with three others. But in those days, I listened to a lot of music to make up for that, and when I went home every month, I would practise for 2-3 hours every day. When I moved to Chennai, there weren’t so many issues and I was able to to practise at least 2-3 hours in the morning and another 2-3 hours in the afternoon or evening on a regular basis. I also used to go to concerts almost every single day no matter who the artiste was. In other words, I filled all my time with music at that point. A lot of it was repetition.

Repetition is how science works. You repeat, you perfect, isn’t it?

Yes, something students today should keep in mind is that they shouldn’t just learn a song and then move on to the next. One thing that was drilled into my head early on was that you have to sing a song a hundred times. That’s what the best artistes, especially of yesteryear, knew and did. Somewhere in the middle it got forgotten with many aspiring musicians. And I admit that sometimes even I am a victim of that attitude: I think I have learned a song, I have sung it a few times and now I want to sing it in a concert as soon as possible. It may work that day and I may be safe, but when I sing the same song after one month, two months or six months, that day’s version and the first version would be miles apart. When you sing a song the first time, you are just reciting it, but when you practise it so many times over a period, it can become your song. You are not reciting something memorised anymore, it is part of you. I see that even today. Repetition is one thing I have realised over the years as so important. I sing varnams over and over again. Different speeds, with different gamakam exploration, different things like that.

Now with concerts and travel-schedules I haven’t been able to practise that much, but I try to set aside at least one or two hours a day. On travel days, the practice will be like a concert recap: what to sing and what to avoid because I wouldn’t want to repeat the songs and ragas I would have sung at the same venue earlier. For instance, this time when I was going to the Chembai festival in Guruvayoor, I suddenly realised that I haven’t sung Rasavilasa (Swathi Thirunal song in raga Kamboji) in a very long time. So during the car ride from Coimbatore airport to Guruvayoor, I was listening to a recording of it and trying to refresh my memory. In the end, I didn’t end up singing it because there was a request for a different song, but I am happy it is back in my memory and I plan to sing it again soon.

Carnatic musicians are known to employ different voice techniques to perfect their singing, sometimes even with the help of voice specialists. Do you have any?

What I have realised is that our music itself has so many in-built exercises. Even the basic things such as the sarali-varisai and janta-varisai are exercises in themselves. Unfortunately, they have been labelled as the beginner’s stepping stone to learning a varnam and when you finish with that you move to swara jathis and geetham and tend not to look back. But those things are timeless. They are such good exercises that have been laid out for us. It’s sitting right there in your first geetham books. I sometimes sing those in different ragas and at different speeds, while maintaining the clarity. That itself is such an amazing voice exercise. It has become a fun challenge for me.

Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express Sandeep Narayan performs at a concert in Chennai’s Kapali Temple in 2019.

Even the Varnams are such good exercises. The speed goes slow to fast, the tune often ranging from very low to very high, and we are doing swaram, sahithyam, etc. all in that. So, the voice exercises actually come with our music. We just have to explore and utilise them properly.

But I have also discussed with trained professionals on the types of warm up and cool down exercises that can help maintain your voice. We usually don’t think cool down is necessary, but it’s like any other muscle and any other workout in a gym, and similarly that discipline and practice is required in both.

Nowadays, there’s a lot of demand for variety and hence an artiste needs to constantly expand his/her repertoire. Does it put pressure on you?

Perhaps decades ago, one could sing the same set of songs over and over again in city after city, and also polish those songs in the process. Today, however, with the advent of social media and digital platforms, you can’t do this so much. If I sing a song or raga in one place, everybody in other cities would come to know almost immediately. If I repeat it in another city soon, they would say I am singing the same songs everywhere, and comment that maybe I do not know anything else! So, singing new songs more frequently has become somewhat of a necessity. The downside is that if you are constantly singing new stuff, you can’t get deeper into the songs you want to master. So, it can definitely be a lot of pressure. As I mentioned earlier, one should ideally sing a song several times before presenting it publicly, which can also put a strain on the voice when constantly trying to update the repertoire for every concert.

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My approach is to bring a freshness even in old songs, in addition to singing new ones. It’s not just for the audience, but for myself as well. If I sing something today that I sang 20 years ago and if it still sounds the same, it means as a musician I haven’t grown. Though artistes could probably have gotten away with singing a song more often than today, I have also noticed that the greatest of artistes didn’t just find something that worked and kept doing the same thing. Instead, they all mostly kept on evolving. You see such change and maturity in their music over the years.

But the past masters didn’t have this kind of pressure to expand their repertoire

I don’t know for sure what pressures the past masters had or didn’t have. But I suspect that it may be true and that’s why they were able to sing some of their trademark songs which became their hits that we associate with them. Let’s not forget that they did introduce new songs and raga. I was introduced to some Hindustani ragas such as Durga and Gavathi through GN Balasubramaniam’s music. Sometimes they made the raga famous and sometimes the raga made them famous. But there was dynamism even in this approach. The song may be the same, but they brought such new ideas to the swara singing, the neraval etc. As you know, people even refer to those songs by their recording-dates. “Artist X sang an unforgettable Song Y in the year Z.” Why do people do that? Because even if the song or raga is the same, the rendition is not. If you feel that after four concerts an artiste sounds the same, you may not feel like listening to him/her any more. Successful artistes of yesteryear and today have always avoided falling into that trap. They bring something different with every performance.

Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express Sandeep Narayan performs at a concert in Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, in 2013.

A lot of past masters that people idolise now hadn’t been given due recognition during their times. Do you follow any of their work?

There were some artistes who we often feel were under-appreciated during their time compared to their actual competence and contribution. People always talk about MD Ramanathan as an example of that. I feel that Thanjavur S Kalyanaraman was also like that. And although Madurai Somasundaram did have quite a bit of success in his time, he still does not seem to go down in the history books on par with some of his peers of the time for whatever reason. In 2019 we celebrated his birth centenary, “Somu 100”, in many places, but before this you would hardly hear people discussing his name and his music in recent years. I find that quite odd.

Isn’t strange that people speak about Kalyanaraman more now?

Today he is a cult hero. I think basically he was ahead of his time. In fact, I hear a lot of interesting anecdotes about “SKR” from his disciples, family members, and friends who knew him personally. One of them is how he did a lot of research in voice techniques to improve his own abilities. Because of these techniques, he could maintain precision in sruthi and laya. In fact, I was told he used to sit alone at night when everything was quiet and do his voice exercises. He also had explored the dwi-madhyama panchama varjya ragas, something that was a concept nobody had really explored much, and was an expert on vivadhi ragas. People look at his body of work with a lot of awe today. Or at least, I certainly do.

Whenever I am asked who is the one person I wish I could have met and spent some time with, he is always the one that comes to my mind.

Since you come from a different socio-cultural milieu and are exposed to other forms of arts and music in the world, does it influence your music?

I have always listened to a lot of western pop, rock, R&B, Hip Hop etc. Even today, I do. My Spotify playlists are some mix of US and UK based artistes as well as Indian. Listening to non-Carnatic styles of music is often a release or relief for me. Carnatic music always gets me into deep focus and has my brain constantly on. The only way for me to switch it off or go away from that for a break, is to listen to other styles. But I don’t know how much of that has influenced my Carnatic music. I don’t think I can bring rap or Hip Hop into carnatic (laughs)!

But there could be elements in popular music or other forms that could enrich or add colour to your classical music

I would say probably old film songs tend to lend themselves easier to Carnatic music particularly if they are raga based. Or different rhythmic patterns from other styles. They may not be traditional, but we can bring them in to our music a lot easier. Usually a little bit from Jazz because there are a lot of parallels. I don’t think rock music lends itself to Carnatic too much, without entering into the genre of “fusion.”

I find Jazz to be the western, or rather American, equivalent of Carnatic music. Both are similar music of improvisation. I often wonder why people don’t try Jazz techniques in Carnatic music because it would make concerts more colourful even without losing its classicism or seriousness

Yes you are right, Jazz is the closest to Carnatic. Because of the common term “classical” everybody compares south Indian or north Indian classical music with western classical by default. But if you look at the technicalities and concert presentation, Jazz is more similar to Carnatic music. For instance, while they have a refrain, we have a line from a song or a pallavi in raga-tanam-pallavi. Pallavi is the same as taking a refrain like in Jazz and doing an improvisation over and over again. Tanam meanwhile is similar to scatting. We are just taking a couple of syllables that don’t have any lyrical meaning and are mixing melody and rhythm together.

Another parallel is the level of skills you need

Even in terms of training it’s very similar to Carnatic music. Their skills or training may be on how to sing, play the piano, saxophone or drums. It’s a technical training. And they listen a lot. Jazz artistes are constantly playing or listening to something. Once they master the technical skills, after a certain point their creativity comes in because they are also listening a lot. They have the technical expertise to do whatever is in their head. That message from the brain to your voice or fingers is taken care of because of your technical skills. It’s the same thing in Carnatic as well.

Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express A still from MadRasana’s Gopala Gokula Music video shoot.

But it’s strange that Jazz musicians came from poor backgrounds whereas Carnatic has a different socio-cultural profile which is sometimes accused of even being exclusive

Probably that has something to do with how the culture evolved in a community. Yes, the demographics are very contrasting, whereas the training, the style and the way we come up with ideas are so similar. Like a parallel structure. From almost the beginning.

But in Carnatic, isn’t there some form of regimentation even in improvisation because it’s controlled by an old conservative system?

Well, I would say there are still some rules even in Jazz: they have a rhythmic cycle going on and although they don’t follow a raga as we do, they have a mode or a scale. There are certain notes that come in this mode, the order of the notes may not be very strict, and once in a while they will bring in a foreign note just for the contrast but they go back. They mostly follow their scales, which is similar to what we do. Yes, you are right though. In Carnatic music I find there are some people who try to impose a lot of rules.

Sometimes even a little imperfection sounds good, isn’t it?

I don’t believe in the right and wrong kind of approach. It is more like a good and bad. And this can be judged based on an artist’s experience and maturity. For example, there is an identity for a raga. You don’t need to hear all the notes of the scale to know it is a Todi or a Sankarabharanam. From one phrase you can know what raga it is. How do you identify a raga even if I haven’t sung all the notes? And where’s this right and wrong coming from? Music presentation should be about the aesthetics and the connection it creates. I personally don’t like the imposition of such “rules” for every little thing.

Past singers such as Madurai Somu and contemporary musicians such as Sanjay Subrahmanyan have a lot of unconventional elements in their music that make them a genre by themselves. Aren’t you inspired to do something similar?

They both are definitely very inspiring artistes for me. But I don’t want to consciously do something unconventional just for the sake of having my own genre. Maybe one day I will look back and see that I did unconventional things, but I would like that to all be natural and come at the right time on its own. Maybe that will result in a different genre, as you say. A lot of the time I just like to listen to something and appreciate its beauty, rather than dissect it and decide if it is conventional or if it has entered a new space. The new spaces will form organically as I grow, and as my music matures even more.

How important is your connect with the audience?

It’s extremely important to me. If I am singing in a hall that is dark, I will ask the organisers to switch on the lights because I don’t want to sing to a black wall. I want to see the people, their eyes, their reactions, everything. For me, I feed off that so much. If I don’t feel they are with me or they are not reacting positively, I change my course on the spot. It’s a conversation. The audience is responding and communicating back to me in their own way. Without the audience, whom are we singing for? They are an integral part of the concert experience. When I have a very receptive audience, I feel that I can sing anything. I feel like superman on those days. If I don’t get any response back, I may even start doubting myself.

Do you use the connect with the audience as a technique to get their feedback?

I think in the first couple of songs itself you get to locate the pockets in the audience that are really responsive to what you are doing. My eyes and my focus will tend to go back to them naturally. I don’t do it consciously, but it happens instinctively. Sometimes, instinctively you look at them for an extra second for their validation of what you are singing as well, because they have been silently giving me that feedback up to that point.

Are audiences in Chennai responsive?

Oh yes, absolutely. You should remember that in Chennai, the audience is exposed to so much music, so the average rasika in Chennai is quite educated in Carnatic music. There’s a reason why everybody comes here from all over the world. Why did I move from LA to Chennai? To make a name here is really the challenge. Audiences here are very discerning, but will give you honest feedback.

Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express Sandeep Narayan says one can get away with certain things like borderline gimmicks in some places, but in Chennai you have to be careful because the audiences have seen it all. (Express Photo: Rajappane Raju)

How generous are they in giving feedback?

You can get away with certain things like borderline gimmicks in some places, but in Chennai you have to be careful because the audiences have seen it all. I can say, “I have toured the world and sung for all audiences,” but Chennai will respond “I don’t care where you have gone, you have to sing for me now.” (laughs)

It’s humbling in a lot of ways. Getting a positive reaction from a Chennai audience means a lot. And they do respond, they give it where it’s due. If you try to do something to get their appreciation, they will see through that. But if you and your music are genuine, they will respond. You may be surprised when they appreciate something when you didn’t expect it. It can be a reality check.

It’s the beauty of the Chennai-ecosystem because that’s what sustains this Carnatic tradition. Isn’t it?

Yes. The ecosystem is not just about the artistes, but also the audience. Without them, we may not push our music to higher levels as much. I always tell students and artistes who live outside of Chennai to come here and see what people of their age group or peers are doing musically.

Good fit is being successful in Chennai and elsewhere, right?

That is the ideal balance. Here, you really hone your skills. Meanwhile, performing in other places will teach you how to present differently for different audiences. Both are necessary for being a successful performer.

Does the challenge of improvisation make you vulnerable on stage?

I feel that one should be a little vulnerable on stage. I feel sad if an artist feels that what he or she is going to present on stage has to be perfect. The moment you start to do that, you are not exploring and expanding your musical creativity as much as you are capable of. Now, you are more worried about the commercial package. You are trying to maintain a brand or name you have established. There has to be a balance between the standard that you have established while still exploring the creativity. That means you have to be vulnerable to some extent in front of the audience.

When I get onto the stage, there’s a certain part of me that’s confident and says, “Okay this is my comfort zone.” But if I am only going to do what I know is safe and already tested, then how am I going to go to the next level as an artiste? The vulnerability I am referring to is about opening yourself to the audience and saying, hey I am trying something and let’s see together how it goes. That’s also part of the conversation I spoke about earlier.

Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express Sandeep Narayan performs at a concert at Kuthiramaligai, Thiruvananthapuram, in 2015.

In one of our US tour concerts, I was trying a complicated korvai that I had sufficiently practised, but it was not just working while I was on stage. It didn’t work once, twice and the third time I thought okay it would happen, but it didn’t. At that moment, something in my brain was switching off. If I had gotten a minute of silence to think and work it out I would have been able to handle it; but the talam was going on, the audience were watching and there was no time to think. Finally, I finished with a different korvai. But when the mridangam artiste started played the solo, he played the korvai correctly. I immediately joined and sang it with him. Then I announced to the audience that it was what I was trying to sing. I also said that if I hadn’t gotten it, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep that night! (laughs)

These imperfections make concerts memorable, don’t they?

I think so, but I don’t want such things to happen frequently. If something naturally and organically happens, it’s fine. Something off-the-plan happened and I was transparent. I think that’s the vulnerability that we talked about. I want my concert to be as genuine as possible.

How do you plan for a concert?

I try not to repeat the ragas and compositions that I have sung at that place in the recent past, but you can’t avoid repetition sometimes if you want to include a ghana raga, as there are only a limited number of those. And usually, if I avoid them in a concert, people will naturally ask why there was no Bhairavi, Thodi, or Kamboji etc. And they are right too. Probably, to avoid repetition, I will sing a different composition, or use a ghana raga in a Pallavi one day, and as the main another day etc.

The second thing is to get a variety of composers and talams. And also variety of ragas in terms of contrast. You have to take the listener on that journey with you and hence you give some variety.

It also depends where I am singing. In Tamil Nadu, I sing one or two Tamil songs, in Karnataka, one or two Kannada songs and in Kerala one or two Swathi Thirunal songs. Mix known songs and add one or two rare ones. We have to constantly balance. That’s how I approach a concert. Do I change the list after getting on stage? Yes, all the time. After reaching the venue and seeing the audience, I sometimes think my plan won’t work well and hence make game-time changes!

When people come to you with requests during the concert, do they disrupt your scheme of things?

If I get a request before hand, it is easier to incorporate it into my concert plan. Sometimes these requests also align with your thinking. Sometimes they don’t but I don’t mind. In any case, I try my best to fulfil most requests I receive during concerts. After all, it’s our job to sing what the audience wants.

Some singers are adding new compositions in their repertoires to contemporise their concert? Say, for exampling adding modern poetry as a composition or a Pallavi.

I am probably not doing it actively because there’s so much already out there. Maybe this is something I would do more consciously down the road when I feel the time is right.

What’s your approach to exploration of ragas?

There’s usually a skeleton for commonly heard ragas and it’s our job to fill it up creatively. The ghana ragas offer a lot of scope in that respect. And in most ragas, there’s always established sangathis you can fall back on if a new path you take isn’t working. When I sing those ragas I feel confident to explore and experiment more, while returning to the time tested patterns and transitions.

Then there are ragas with little to no framework and template because they are hardly ever sung. This is the other extreme. Here, your freedom comes from the fact that there is little prior exploration. When I sing such ragas, I may try to do a lot of new things, because who’s going to come and tell me I didn’t sing it properly? There is no idea of what is “proper” and accepted in this instance.

Carnatic music, Carnatic classical, Sandeep Narayan, vocalist sandeep narayan, music academy award, Indian classical music, Indian ragas, indian express Sandeep Narayan receives an Award at Music Academy.

How do you handle the rarely sung ragas? How do you develop them with limited compositions and references?

I guess, as my musical maturity grows, different things pop in my head. For instance, in a seldom-heard raga such as Deepali, except for a few sangathis and a scale, not much has been established. In such cases, I can grab a note and decide that’s my landing point. Usually, nobody will say it’s wrong. But you take an older and well known raga-like Devamanohari – and change the landing note, it will sound awkward because it’s already set in in the minds of listeners a certain way. In such cases, the raga identity begins to morph into something else.

But some of these rare ragas are Hindustani. Can’t you use Hindustani references?

You can, but their gamakas are different. The raga approach is different. You can imitate Hindustani to some extent- say you can make Pantuvarali sound like Basant or Puriya Dhanashree. The same notes, when sung in Hindustani style, will sound different.

Do you do it sometimes?

Yes, I do. I like it (laughs). It’s a personal preference.

This reminds me of a recording of a Pallavi by TN Seshagopalan in which he is singing parallel phrases between the Carnatic Bhairavi and Sindhu Bhairavi (which is like the Hindustani Bhairavi). Those things are really cool to me, but you have to be careful that you are not straying into the notes that are common with other ragas. It’s not an easy thing.

You are quite an expressive singer. How do you emote? For instance, do you need to feel the devotion personally to make a devotional song work?

Not in all of them, but in some I do. Many times, the meaning of the song will help you bring out the emotion. Sometimes, the emotion is there in the raga itself. Sometimes it could be a connection with the song or a connection with the composer. For instance, we know the meaning of the song “varugalaamo” in Manji by Gopalakrishna Bharathi. I don’t sing that song thinking about myself as the one who is yearning to see the deity, but I get emotional thinking of the composer who has written so beautifully and described such a situation.

Any raga that you feel emotionally connected of late?

Lately, I am having some connection with Thodi. The nature of my connection with ragas is different for each, and keeps on changing. It may sound clichéd, but I have learned that there is a reason why so many artistes go back to this raga in particular and why it has the reputation it does. It is just seven notes, but there is something so vast beyond that. I feel like I am going down a Thodi tunnel and learning more and more about the raga when I sing it, and when I think I may be out of the tunnel, I realise there is even more to do with this wonderful raga and I delve even deeper.

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