Sandeep strikes the right note

Sandeep strikes the right note

Sandeep Narayan is not known as a Carnatic star for nothing. In a freewheeling chat with Hema Vijay, he talks about his music, his journey, and much more...


One of the most exciting names in Carnatic music today is Sandeep Narayan. Someone who left the US for Chennai to pursue a career in Carnatic music, went on to succeed spectacularly, charm stalwarts of the genre as well as new audiences across the world, he is today not just an icon for the genre, but also a symbol of Indian resurgence. Excerpts from an interview:

Maarghazhi Utsavam is still some months away. Nevertheless, what are your plans for the forthcoming edition of the Utsavam?

No fixed plans as of yet. I have many concerts from now until the December Music Festival starts, for which I am continuing to prepare for. My goal for Margazhi is always to present a variety, and not be predictable. I like to mix old favourites with new ideas, which will hopefully keep the audience going home satisfied.

About your Madrasana experience… your ‘Gopala Gokula’ music video has now registered 46,260 views. Do share some of the most interesting feedback you have received for this.

The most interesting feedback I have received is from at least a dozen parents who say their young children listen to it every night while going to sleep. One friend said that his newborn cries during almost every other song but will sit quietly for this one, and usually dozes off, much to their relief! Other feedback I’ve received is from those who don’t believe we shot the video fully in Chennai, on a real boat, and on a rocky beach. We were very much in and around Chennai, on a real fishing boat, with a very enthusiastic and kind fisherman who was very helpful in making sure we got those beautiful shots at 4 am and that I did not fall into the water. Other funny messages I’ve received are from fans who ask for beard grooming tips!

You decided to burn your bridges and head to Chennai to become a Carnatic musician… What was the thought process that went into it, and the inspiration? What would you advise youngsters with a similar passion?

Having lived in India when I was 11, and subsequently travelling every year to learn, the thought of eventually moving to Chennai didn’t seem so far-fetched when I was growing up. There were times when I had my doubts if I could take up music fulltime, but a strong support system of family, friends and my guru pushed me to go for it. And I knew it would definitely be better for me than working in an office. My advice to youngsters is to be all-in. If you want to do it part-time, while holding another job, while in a different country, it will be hard to be accepted on par with fulltime artistes who are here in Chennai, the centre of Carnatic music.

Do share the high points of your learning path.

I have been extremely fortunate to have amazing gurus. My lessons began at home in Cerritos, California with my mother Shubha Narayan. My home was always filled with music, as it has been the centre for the Sampradaya School of Music, run by my mother even before I was born. My father organised concerts for nearly two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, so I was blessed to spend time with the legends of Carnatic music who would spend days, and sometimes weeks, in our house. When I was 11 years old, I lived in Chennai for over a year, receiving advanced music lessons from Calcutta KS Krishnamurthy.

Aside from the classes, I will not forget the times I would go in for my music lessons and Sanjay Subrahmanyan would be leaving after his, or the time I finished mine and P Unnikrishnan would be waiting in the hall, as his class was next. I was very privileged to be getting training from such a revered guru. Not to mention that I got to skip one year of school so that I could spend that time in Chennai.

Once I started my lessons with Sanjay sir in 1999, I was exposed to a lot of concert dynamics as I would go to concerts with him and sit on the stage. Often, there were informal post-concert discussions at his house and I would ask him several questions then, about what he sang, and get my doubts clarified. These were the times before social media took over, and all the conversations were done in person.

What has been the high points of your journey as a Carnatic musician so far?

The ‘high’ points keep getting higher and higher. I’m always excited when I get invited to perform at any festival around the world. I love to travel, and it’s an added bonus when I am invited as an artiste and get to perform, as well as take in a new city. One of the unforgettable moments for me in my career was my North American concert tour in 2012. It was my first full tour, and also the first time a US-born artiste was invited on a tour as a visiting artiste from India. It was one of those reassuring times when I knew I should continue doing what I love.

How creative or non-creative is it to be a professional Carnatic singer/musician. Once a certain peak is reached in terms of vocal range, musical expertise, and repertoire, what else is left to do? 

I don’t think any Carnatic musician ever reaches a peak after which they can think, ‘what is left to do’. There is always more to learn, as one lifetime is not enough. For example, even at the age of 75, the late Dr N Ramani would ask me what were the new songs I was learning, and the notation, so that he could add them to his repertoire. He would remark that many songs had evolved for changing tastes and that he wanted to update his database. My own guru has always been the same way, and I am following this path as well. The great M D Ramanathan once said that our music is a vast ocean, and we have just barely discovered a small stretch of it so far.

In your opinion, what are some of the aspects of the Carnatic music scenario that need attention? And the most promising aspects as well.

If our concerts are presented as a respected classical event, where audience members come early, well dressed, and sit respectfully throughout the concert, then we can present our art on a greater level, on par with classical art forms around the world. 

The most promising aspect is the wide reach that social media and video streaming has created. It has increased the knowledge of audiences around the world, and allowed me to sing my full repertoire wherever I am performing, without having to dilute it.