Los Angeles does have its music history enriched in the 1940s by the African-American community that gave way to several bands a quarter century later—and then punk and hard rock. The southern Californian metro was already a global capital of recorded music industry when Sandeep Narayan was a toddler there in the mid-1980s, but today the young Carnatic exponent is only happy to have settled in the south Indian city that suits his focal artistic tastes.
Chennai is where the classical musician has made his home for a decade now, having earlier shuttled frequently between the Mediterranean-climate US coast and tropical Tamil Nadu to learn and perform Carnatic that anyway lays stress on his talent: vocals. “To a large extent I was helped by the prodding of my own guru,” Sandeep, 33, says, referring to acclaimed Sanjay Subrahmanyan. “He convinced me that if I was really serious about being a Carnatic singer, I need my feet firmly planted in Chennai.”
So, in 2006, after completing his B.A. in Law and Society, Sandeep relocated from the Pacific Rim to peninsular India. He got a flat near Sanjay’s home in downtown Mylapore, and began spending more time learning from and singing with his teacher. Most secretaries of sabhas—cultural organisation—used to see him only as an NRI performer: his ear-studs were more taken for a Yankie hangover than a vintage Dravidian feature. So Sandeep had to make the extra effort to register in their minds that he was in town to stay and perform. “The first few years were that way, too, a struggle,” shrugs the 33-year-old, whose now-diluted American accent least creeps into his mouthing of the kritis.
Other than the image makeover, the imponderable was the financial viability of a Carnatic performer. “Not all full-time singers make a lot of money,” clarifies a leading sabha’s functionary. “What an over-the-hill film playback singer makes in a single concert, it will take three or four concerts for a Carnatic singer in the top ten to match. That is one reason why most Carnatic musicians had to fall back on wedding concerts or even private concerts of well-to-do businessmen.” Also in these days of YouTube and illegal digital downloads as well as sharing, royalty through audio rights has shrunk.
The financial strain used to weigh so heavily on the local artistes that many of them were employed in banks, colleges or private companies and performed simultaneously. Till money issues got sorted out through popularity and more opportunities. “The competition is stiff these days, but opportunities in terms of performances within and abroad are also much more,” says ghatam percussionist V. Suresh. “If I had the same opportunities 20 years ago, I would have resigned my LIC job and taken to ghatam playing full-time.” Many junior artistes, though, continue to have a day job for steady income.
Vocalist Sandeep Narayan, 33
Sandeep, too, found his initial Chennai days scary, though his parents and two brothers back in the US did lend a hand. “It is a huge risk…not all talented singers are lucky to make a mark and make that a living. You need to be thoroughly devoted (to music).”
Another vocalist took a similar leap of faith—more recently, in 2001. Ramakrishnan Murthy was 21 when he decided to be a concert musician unmindful of what lay in store. He shifted from Irvine in California to his grandparents’ home in Chennai to join the Carnatic circuit. “I enjoy being on stage, performing. During the (December) season I choose my concerts judiciously to preserve my vocal chords. For me it is about quality and not just quantity,” explains the largely reticent singer.
Murthy’s has been among the swiftest rise to stardom, points out music connoisseur Ramasubramaniyam. “He broke into the prestigious prime 7 pm slot of the Music Academy’s December season in 2016 in just four years. Consistently strong performances help him.”
For Ramakrishnan, currently training under renowned violinist R.K. Shriramkumar, all that matters is pursuing his passion unmindful of the financial aspects and seeing each performance as a challenge. Many local stars have had the luxury of pedigree, being children of established well-known musicians, which opens doors far more easily. But the American imports prefer to fire on their own steam.
One reason for the reverse traffic is the spread of the Indian diaspora in the US, Australia and Europe. There is a section of them attuned to Carnatic. This resulted in more concert tours by Carnatic musicians, who began finding a following among the American-born desi, especially the TamBrahm kind. “Kacheris across the US by top musicians, plus the internet offerings, have helped sprout a young crop of US-based Carnatic students,” says V. Sundaram, who has been organising the annual Cleveland Thyagaraja festival every year since 1978. “In the process, Carnatic music in America has evolved from an amateur interest into a serious pursuit.”
Music historian V. Sriram expects to see more ‘foreign stars’ invading the Carnatic music scene in the coming years. “In the present crop, I see their passion to stand out through performance, a strong American brand of professionalism and willingness to take risk,” he adds. “The success of the first settlers will bring more in.”
Among them also features Akshay Ananth, who left immense job opportunities after completing his masters in signal processing in New York. Instead, he turned into a professional mridangam player in Chennai, an already overcrowded market for percussionists. “I got a chance to do a project at IIT-Madras on Carnatic music and signal processing. The funding for the collaboration stopped but I continue to be a professional mridangam player here,” he reveals. During the December season he performs no less than 30 concerts and is the preferred sideman for the younger crop of singers. Having played with jaaz bands in New York, Akshay, 29, is happy to find the same openness in experimenting among various forms of music in Chennai, the Carnatic capital.
(Clockwise from left) Ramakrishnan Murthy, Vani Ramamurthi, Vishaal Sapuram
Even the rare chitravina has found a taker from America. Vishaal Sapuram, 27, first saw maestro N. Ravikiran playing the instrument during his concert tour in Austin, Texas. “I was only three then, and have since been hooked to chitravina,” he recalls, referring to his decision to train under Ravikiran at Chennai during his holidays. “Back home, I pursued Sanskrit too in college.” As learning under his mentor became more intense and his playing also matured, Vishaal shifted to Chennai at the behest of his guru. Sruti editor V. Ramnarayan notes that it requires immense courage to pursue the chitravina “more so when audience interest in INStrumental has been dwindling”.
Ravikiran, who is all praise for his disciple, notes that 2017 (the year he has won the coveted Sangita Kalanidhi) marks the 150th birth anniversary of iconic Veena Dhanammal. “A few years ago, (sitarist) Pt Ravi Shankar told me, ‘I got sold on Carnatic, thanks to Dhanammal and her school.” One would “never find anything cheap or dramatic in her music, which reflected her convictions about the values she cherished by pursuing only the exquisite beauty of Carnatic,” he notes. She saved hundreds of kritis from extinction by collecting, building and disseminating them in their most authentic form. (See column).
Not that everything is hunky-dory in new-age Chennai. “The ambient noise is too high out here. Practising in quiet environs is almost impossible,” says Sandeep. Also, he could not find a basketball team to play with. Akshay, though has found a team that he trains with during weekends. “But since my fingers are so important I plan to give up basketball and resume my tennis,” he says.
The grandparents, who these artistes missed as kids after their parents moved to the US, are now their doting guardians. Vani Ramamurthi, who relocated from Irvine to Chennai to train with singers Ranjani-Gayatri has a loving grandma to take care of her needs. “In Chennai, music is more than a livelihood. It’s actually life itself,” she says about her city that’s readying to celebrate Margazhi, the concerts-soaked Tamil month.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai