A Carnatic Life, outside Chennai

A lot has been said and written about the very talented Carnatic musicians that North America has been producing, and how some of them have now made Chennai their home to pursue their music careers. These musicians deserve every bit of the attention and press they are receiving.

But not as much is being said or written about the musicians from Chennai who have had to move to other parts of India or the world. How, I wonder, are they coping with the new environment and the depleted performance opportunities? Having gained a foothold in Chennai, how are they going about re-establishing themselves outside of it?

So I spoke to two young musicians from Chennai, who had begun to carve a name for themselves in Chennai’s concert circuit when they had to relocate.

Violinist Arunachala Karthik was a busy accompanist in Chennai despite pursuing a full-time corporate career, performing 60–70 concerts a year. But when a meaty corporate role beckoned, he decided to move to Bangalore in early 2011.

Arunachala Karthik performing at the Music Academy in December 2011, with Vechoor C. Shankar (Vocal), Konerirajapuram V. Varadarajan (Mridangam) and Vazhappally R. Krishnakumar (Ghatam)

Arunachala Karthik performing at the Music Academy in December 2011, with Vechoor C. Shankar (Vocal), Konerirajapuram V. Varadarajan (Mridangam) and Vazhappally R. Krishnakumar (Ghatam)

It wasn’t an easy decision, but Karthik handled the move admirably. As a start, he got his All India Radio B-high grade transferred to AIR Bangalore and has performed for the radio station there. His success in Chennai means that he is still a preferred accompanist for his musician–friends who visit Bangalore to perform. He has also made friends in Bangalore’s music circle, accompanying local artists as well as visiting artists from Chennai. When he is not performing, he focuses on learning.

He is also using social media to his advantage, Karthik says — he has just uploaded a recording of one of his AIR Bangalore performances on Sound Cloud, and has been getting fantastic reviews (you can listen to the concert here) from his contacts around the world.

But does he miss Chennai’s concert scene? “I did, initially,” he says. “But work has kept me so busy I can barely think about it! I try and listen to as many concerts as possible in Bangalore and also from my own digital collection. But importantly, just as in Chennai, good music is received well here because the audience is knowledgeable. What Bangalore lacks in quantity, it makes up in terms of quality.”

Karthik visits Chennai once every few months. While he is there, a few phone calls to let organisers know that he is available is all it takes, he says. “As long as you can produce performances that capture people’s hearts, out of sight does not mean out of mind.” Difficult to argue with that!

Vocalist S.M. Vilasini

Vocalist S.M. Vilasini

Young vocalist S.M. Vilasini, who was a regular performer in Chennai and steadily gaining a solid reputation, now lives in Doha – though she shuttles to Chennai regularly. She misses performing in Chennai and listening to concerts, but she’s trying to build a network in Doha by going to all the Carnatic concerts that happen there. She echoes Karthik’s views on being away from Chennai: “Music is getting globalized, it is beyond boundaries and borders. If your music makes a mark with the audience, you will remain in their memory no matter where you live.”

As I finish typing that last sentence, I have just coincidentally received an invite on Facebook to Dr Jyotsna Srikanth’s Bangalore Dreams concert here in London, in which she collaborates with Shadrach Solomon (Keyboard) and N.S. Manjunath (Drums and ‘ethnic’ percussion). Jyotsna is a great example of a musician who has adapted to her changed environment. She has re-invented herself brilliantly as a collaborator, teaming up with Scottish, British and European musicians and touring the UK and Europe as part of bands such as Nordic Raga, Carnatic Nomad and Raga Garage. She also runs a music school in London, and organizes Carnatic concerts as well as the annual London International Arts Festival. With so much going her way, there’s little doubt she has established a very successful music career in UK and Europe.

In the US, musician Kiranavali Vidyasankar — who is already well-known as a vocalist, Chitravina artist and a guru of repute — has just received a unique recognition: she has been awarded a major project grant by the prestigious Pew Center of Arts and Heritage. To be recognized by the Carnatic community abroad is one thing, but to be recognized by an American organization for your Carnatic talent is a remarkable achievement! Read about her project Tradition – An Evolving Continuum here.

As I go over the experiences of these musicians, it seems to me that there is an obvious takeaway from all of them — that good music does not go unrecognised. And with global boundaries shrinking, young musicians outside of Chennai can take heart from the success stories of established ones like Jyotsna Srikanth and Kiranavali Vidyasankar.

One thought on “A Carnatic Life, outside Chennai

  1. Very interesting to see how the Carnatic music scene is growing in different parts of the world outside India. The rasikas in North America are indeed lucky to enjoy so many kutcheris, festivals, workshops etc. I hope we can do the same in london in the future.


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