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During the recent music season in Chennai, four young singers managed to make Carnatic connoisseurs sit up with their fine artistry. Ramakrishnan Murthy, Sandeep Narayan, Aditya Prakash and Siddharth Sriram were in fact rated among the rising stars of the music mela.
Apart from the fact that they were under 25, there was one thing that connected them - they all come from California, three from Los Angeles and one from San Francisco. Four is a large enough number for music lovers to wonder if after Chennai, California is becoming the second biggest hub for Carnatic music.
It's not difficult to fathom why. California, particularly the greater county of Los Angeles, has a massive population of south Indians, especially those who left India in the last two decades of the IT boom. Their children live in towns that are virtually south Indian enclaves. They are supremely comfortable in their Indian skin, suffer few of the identity pangs earlier generations did. There are in these towns perhaps as many teachers and schools as you would find in a Chennai neighbourhood and home concerts become community events with a large turnout of local connoisseurs.
"I don't mean to diminish other artistes from the US, but California, and particularly LA, is sending out the most number of professional Carnatic singers outside Chennai today. In Irvine, where we moved when I turned four, there are at least 25-30 families that have the same Southern profile as us and almost all of them send their children to learn either Carnatic music or Bharatanatyam, " says Murthy, 22, who is currently learning under violinist Delhi Sunderrajan.
The appearance of NRI kids on the Margazhi stage was for a long been treated with crushing contempt by the rasikas of Chennai. There were allegations that money and PR hype got them premium slots at big sabhas. In fact, there are entire sabhas dedicated to NRI talent.
What marks this new bunch of singers is that they are not looking for short cuts, favours or discounts. Many of them have been learning since early childhood from LA teachers and travelling gurus from India and also shuttling between continents chasing their passion - summers at grandparents' homes learning from Chennai masters, winters soaking in Margazhi concerts and, when possible, performing at small venues across the city till they hit big time. At least two of them - Murthy and Narayan - have, in fact, recently moved to Chennai;US is now their vacation home. They are vying for the same audience and applause as the desi youngsters.
"The challenge that Chennai audiences - followed by Mumbai and Bangalore - pose you will not find anywhere else. Unless you perform to the exacting standards of the sabhas of T Nagar and Mylapore you don't really get anywhere, " says Sandeep Narayan, 24, a student of leading vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Narayan started learning from his mother Shobha when he was just four, moved later to Calcutta KS Krishnamurthy and finally became Subramaniam's disciple, following him around concerts, playing the tanpura for him and aiming to imbibe his style.
All four singers have artiste mothers and early exposure to Indian culture. Aditya Prakash, for instance, recalls shocking his dancer mother by recognising raga Mohanam as a toddler while displaying no obvious interest in Carnatic music. Initially, he had to be pushed to attend music lessons. He recalls being deeply embarrassed when his mother came to school to pick him up, Carnatic music blasting loudly from her car stereo and quickly rolling up the windows! "My parents forced me to go to class and threatened to disconnect our cable TV connection when I did not practice (which happened many times!). Often, I would practise and go to class just to avoid having my video games taken away. Looking back, I am very glad my parents were sometimes strict with me, " says Prakash, whose first teacher was LA-based Rose Muralikrishnan. He found confidence when American kids in his group became fascinated with his musical skills. The youngster who later became a huge fan of the legend Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer later found gurus to lead him to that style in Chennai. The rigour wasn't hard to adjust to. "The community in LA is pretty knowledgeable about Carnatic music and in no way do we have to dilute the music when performing in LA or the US in general. People in the US expect the heavy, traditional ragams as well, " says Prakash. Shobha Narayan, herself a teacher since 1979, says it is now "cool" among youngsters to be a talented classical Indian musician but adds that a pushy parent can make all the difference between a child persisting successfully and one who gives up along the way. "I call this a 'triangle model'. Carnatic music is very foreign for the NRI children. So there is always a constant negotiation between parents, and the children, " points out Rose Muralikrishnan who has taught Carnatic music to around 2, 000 students in her 26 year-long career. She is planning to run a Carnatic boot camp this summer for serious and advanced learners.
One way in which some of these young Carnatic musicians find greater acceptance is by integrating their art with Western influences. Murthy and Narayan have chosen to remain purists but both Prakash and Sriram have ventured into fusion music. Prakash has a jazz group called J LeTrio and Sriram has made quite a name for himself with his urban/pop/indie compositions.
"I'm currently working on my album, all original. Being heavily into both my American and Carnatic music has been amazing. Both of them are so different, but I love being able to find similarities both technically and emotionally. I'm just really glad I'm able to expose myself to two completely different worlds of music and love them both equally, " says Sid Sriram, 21, who too learnt from his mother Latha but became more intellectually engaged with Carnatic after he took lessons from the venerable PS Narayanaswamy.
Like others Indian youth their age, the four have strong educational backgrounds and could, if they choose, pick mainstream careers. Murthy, for instance, was on the verge of a career in informatics when a slew of concert calls changed his mind. But the tag of being privileged kids from the West sticks. "A well-known sabha organiser once told me I should accept token of appreciation, since I don't need money, " recalls Murthy with a laugh.
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