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Sandeep Narayan - Exclusive Interview

How did it all begin? How did you get interested in Carnatic music?

I was born into a very musical household. My two older brothers, Nikhil & Nirmal Narayan, are Carnatic musicians themselves and had undergone training well before I started to learn music. The interest for all of us came from my parents of course. In the early 1980s, my father, K.S. Narayan, founded the Carnatic music organization in Los Angeles, the South Indian Music Academy (SIMA), which is still the premier Carnatic music organization in Southern California. His passion for music perhaps stems from his upbringing in Thiruvaiyaru, where he was raised on the music of the all time greats performing in the Thyagaraja Aradhana. My mother, Shubha Narayan, has trained under some of the senior most artists in Madras, and has been teaching Carnatic music in Cerritos, California since the early 1980s. So I was raised in an environment where my mother was singing and teaching music every day, and we had touring musicians in and out of our house on a weekly basis.

What is the first song you remember listening to?

I am told that the first song I listened to and in fact started singing was Manavyalakimchara in Nalinakanthi. I was too young to remember this story, but when Sri TR Subramaniam was staying with us in the late 80's, he noticed that I kept singing this song, and he asked my parents if it was something I had actually learned. Apparently I had overheard my mom teaching other students and had picked it up from there. He sensed I may have a knack for singing and advised my mother to start teaching me music more seriously.

Who are your gurus? 

My first guru was my mother Smt. Shubha Narayan. I started learning from her when I was about 4 years old. When I was 11 years old I moved to India and began training under Calcutta Sri K.S. Krishnamurthy. After he passed away in 1999, I continued my lessons with Sri Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

Can you please share memories of your first stage performance?

My first performance was actually a chamber concert when I was 11 years old, before I had moved to Madras to learn from KSK Mama. The concert came about as a result of one of our community members in Southern California making a deal with me that he would buy the chocolate I was selling for a school fundraiser, and in return I would sing a concert in his house! I accepted the deal, perhaps not knowing what I was getting myself into at the time. But the training for that performance, being the first time I was learning the basics of manodharma, increased my interest and seriousness about learning. The concert itself was for a smaller audience of about 75 people, and I remember singing Thyagaraja’s Chakkani raja in Karaharapriya as the main. I do remember a small incident from the concert where I forgot a song and then included it out of order after realizing my mistake.

After moving to Madras in 1996 and learning from KSK Mama for a few months, I was requested to sing a concert for a relative’s wedding reception. KSK Mama attended the concert and told my mother afterward very frankly that he was impressed and would start teaching me even more advanced concepts and krithis.

Which musicians do you admire and why? Who are your idols?

At a very young age I began following Sri Sanjay Subrahmanyan's music. He was also learning from KSK Mama and so it was a good fit for me to continue in the same style and learn from him after KSK Mama passed away. Other than my guru, at various times I have idolized different musicians such as Sri TN Seshagopalan, Sri TV Sankaranarayanan, and Thanjavur Sri S Kalyanaraman. Of late I have been re-visiting some of the older generation's recordings such as Sri GN Balasubramaniam, Sri KV Narayanaswamy, Voleti Sri Venkateswaralu, and Madurai Sri Mani Iyer. Since moving to India, I have become very close to flute vidwan Dr. N Ramani. He has become a mentor of mine who I visit often to discuss music, and I have learned a lot from my interaction with him. I admire different qualities in each of these artists, and I try to take something from each of them when developing my own style.

How do prepare for a concert?

Sometimes a concert may require certain songs (thematic, etc), but otherwise I don't have any specific preparation other than singing a lot of different songs, both old and new. If I have something I am particularly working on, I will try to hear that ragam and/or krithi by various senior artists. As the concert date approaches, I begin to formulate an idea of a song list in my head. I feel that as an artist, I have a responsibility to plan out a concert out of respect for the audience that has come to listen to me. Keeping the audience in mind, I make it a point to include at least 1 or 2 newer songs in every concert, or at least revive some old songs which I may not have sung in several years and bring them back into my rotation. Of course song-lists are rough guidelines and can change during a concert based on my mood or the audience’s reaction. But I try to put more thought into the set of krithis so that there is variety of ragam, talam, language, composer and emotion from song to song.

How often do you practice? For how long?

I practice every day for at least 2-3 hours. When I first moved to Madras in 2006, I had more free time and a less busy concert schedule. At that time I would do two sessions of 2-3 hours each, one in the morning and one in the evening.  

What do you practice?

Although I don't have any strict formula for my practice, as mentioned, I will prepare the latest songs I have learned, or revive old songs I haven’t sung in years in order to get them concert ready. I usually start with a varnam in 2-3 speeds just to warm up. Once I start singing a raga alapanai or kalpana swaras, I might start to explore all the different possible sangathis in the ragam and then go into calculations and different pattern possibilities for the swarams, etc. Sometimes these explorations go in so many different directions that I'll end up spending the majority of the practice just on one song alone. Thus each practice session can differ greatly from the next.

What does a typical day in your life look like?

I don’t think there is a “typical” day, as my schedule will often change day to day. I try to spend afternoons or evenings practicing, unless I want to attend a concert, in which case I try to finish my practice earlier in the day. The mornings are difficult to have a focused practice, as this is the time that all of the daily chores get taken care of and there are inevitably people in and out of the house. Nowadays, because of my increased travel schedule, when I’m in Madras I enjoy time at home and don't go out too often.

How do balance a career in music with other obligations in life (ex. family)

Well I just got married a year ago, so I never really had any other obligations to anyone other than myself. It's easy to balance your life when you only worry about yourself :).

I suppose now that I am married I do have to make sure to not just get completely lost in my music related activities such as concerts, practice, and recordings. My wife Radhe is a full-time bharathanatyam dancer, so she knows the nature of our field and realizes there are times when my music takes priority. But when the schedule permits, it's important to make time for everyone else.

What do you like the most about being a Carnatic musician?

I love that my profession is also my passion. I never have to look at my job as something I am just doing because I "have to." Nor is it a place I go to, only to count down the time until I'm back home again. I love to get on stage and perform, and I love even more that I am able to travel around the world doing it. I am exposed to so many different cultures and groups of people that I feel I have grown so much as a person, as a result of being a Carnatic musician.

What would you choose as the top 3 moments in your life as a musician so far?

My decision to move to India in 2006 and take up music as my full-time profession was one of the riskiest and most memorable moments in my life. I remember having a conversation with my father who asked what my plan was, and the only thing I could respond was that I was going to "move to Madras, be a Carnatic musician, and see what happens!"

Another moment was the first time I sang in the Music Academy for the December season. When that curtain opened, I was practically shaking. It probably took me 1-2 songs just to settle down and feel somewhat comfortable on that intimidating stage.

The day I heard that my guru Sri Sanjay Subrahmanyan was going to be conferred the title of Sangitha Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy was a moment I will never forget. As his student for the last 16 years, I was so proud of him for being honored with this prestigious award. From the time I began learning from him at an early age, to our relationship evolving into him being a mentor who advises me in music and life, he has always been someone I look up to, and even more so now.

What do you do in your spare time?

In my spare time, I still try to listen to concerts around the city, or catch up on some TV shows or old movies. I always enjoy reruns of ‘Seinfeld.’ As I love to travel, I make it a point to go see the tourist sights and local eateries and attractions wherever I am. On a recent concert trip to Abu Dhabi, I enjoyed grabbing a quick bite of authentic mezze (middle Eastern appetizers) in between the concert and my outbound flight. I listen to a lot of non-Carnatic music as well. One of my favorite bands is the Dave Matthews Band because they use a lot of instruments not traditionally associated with rock music, such as the saxophone, violin, and trumpet. I used to enjoy going to their live concerts when I was living in California.

And like many other musicians today, I’m a big fan of the latest gadgets and tech stuff available. I like the benefits it provides me musically as well, such as having a tambura application on my iPhone and iPad that makes it easy to travel and always have my “sruthi box” with me. I spend a lot of my free time reading up on the latest releases of both apps as well as gadgets themselves. I usually make a wish list through out the year and see which is worth getting when I travel to the US or UK while on tour.

Tell us something interesting things about you that rasikas may not know

These days it's hard to have any part of you that the public does not know or can't find out easily through Google or Facebook. Perhaps one thing that rasikas probably don't know is that I still follow American basketball even from Madras. Although I do not follow it as closely as I once did, I still keep up with what is going on in the NBA and always support my Los Angeles Lakers. 

The last few years, I have also become an avid scuba diver. I have gone diving in Tanzania, Thailand, off the Indian coast from Pondicherry, in the Andaman Islands, and most recently in the Flores Islands near Bali in Indonesia. It helps that my wife also loves to scuba dive, so we have started planning vacations around the best scuba diving spots. During our most recent trip, Radhe and I encountered several sharks, stingrays, and I even had a baby shark swim within a few feet of my face while I was snorkeling!

What do you think are keys to success in a career in Carnatic music?

There is a certain attitude needed to succeed in Carnatic music. Perhaps it is to be slightly indifferent to the criticisms and comments often made by others. This means taking both positive and negative comments with a grain of salt, and to ignore the politics and competitiveness that exists in the field, and focus on one's growth as a musician and a person. One must stay true to their music and trust that in the long run, the audience will appreciate their genuine approach to music. It is a given that one must work hard and practice a lot. Something can just click for an individual and they should be ready to produce music at the level that audiences expect, and to also consistently improve from there.

Any words for young students of music?

As I mentioned, number one is to practice hard and listen to a lot of music. Go to a lot of concerts and listen to the recordings of great artists from the past as well as present. There are things to be learned from all kinds of artists, both seniors and juniors. Even today, I enjoy going to the concerts of my peers and even younger artists of the next generation. One must also have a good teacher that suits their personality and style. Learn several different ragams and songs to establish a strong foundation, and then constantly increase your repertoire. Don't be afraid to repeat the heavier, time-tested ragams and songs. Sri TV Sankaranarayanan once advised me that I should sing big ragams over and over again as I will learn new things each time I sing them. Make a conscious effort to sing songs properly, with focus on sangathis, and not treat them as just incidental parts of concerts. While there seems to be an increasing emphasis solely on manodharma aspects, it’s important to maintain keerthana rendition as the main focal point of any concert. 

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