Percussionist Varun Sunil talks about his musical journey, the struggles, and the rewards

Varun Sunil says he tried hard at making a go at academics. “I did try. But academics did not interest me.” He gave up studies and instead marched to the beat of a different drummer. Or rather beat the drums and became a percussionist himself.

Taufiq and Fazal Qureshi, Ranjit Barot, Astaad Deboo, Sadir Khan, Dilshad Khan, Hariharan, Swedish flautist and soprano saxophonist Anders Hagberg are some of the artistes Varun has worked with. The leap of faith into music was not what his parents wanted him to do, “but once they saw that I was doing okay they came around.” He has music in his genes. His father Sunil Menon used to sing at ganamelas and his mother Sujatha used to play the euphonium. Despite all the music in the family and the inherited genes it was tough getting his parents' approval to pursue music as a career, he says wryly.

Varun has done three grades of Western Music theory from Chetana Music Academy, Thrissur. He followed his music training with, what he calls, ‘self-research’ on complex time signatures in music. A former student of Bhavan’s Girinagar, he was a member of the school band. His training as a mridangist made handling other percussion instruments easy. Some of the other instruments he plays are bongo, cajon, udu pot, doumbele and conja. “All self-taught, the mridangam made learning the others easy because you use both hands which requires co-ordination,” he says.

Varun has composed jingles for brands such as Bhima Gold, Jayalakshmi Silks and Sunny Diamonds. A sense of restlessness induced by a desire to do something in music took him to Chennai, to try his luck at music. It was in Chennai that the real struggle began. He has not forgotten those days of not knowing where the money would come from. He was working with an ad agency but what he did essentially was “holding the light for the camera man and getting paid a paltry amount of Rs. 300 daily.” The struggle shows in the way the 26 year-old talks. He talks about appreciating all manner of musicians, “sometimes we just don’t acknowledge musicians if it is not a known name.”

Burning ambition

The urge to make it as a musician was so strong that he hung on, desperately. The turning point, of sorts, came when a friend from Kochi saw him at a college function. “That was it. She came up to me and asked what I was doing there with the camera man. I lied to save my face. I could not admit to what I was doing or rather was not doing. However, I would like to add that I, later, performed at the same college.” He played at wedding receptions for a meagre Rs. 500 in order to make ends meet. “Not exactly the kind of set-up that requires expert musicians.”

He made a clean break and set out doing what he always wanted to do, to pursue music in earnest and become a performing musician. He got acquainted with Stephen Devassy with whom he went on to perform stage shows. He has played for music directors such as Jerry Amaldev, Johnson, M. Jayachandran and Rajamani. Then came the independent gigs. One gig led to another and he was on the next phase of his career in music.

Scaling new heights

That is how he came to be part of a band. The band, ‘Malabar’, was formed by former CEO of Magnasound, Madhav Das. “We did fairly well. We performed at various prestigious venues.” The band played primarily easy listening lounge music. And then the restlessness bug bit him and took him to Mumbai, the city of big dreams. He says he never went out asking for a chance in Mumbai but he got work. “I had performed in Mumbai so I had contacts there. I never went asking for work, I got work on my own steam.” He currently freelances with Footcandles, a Mumbai-based company which makes ad films. He has composed jingles for Cadbury’s, Sundrop oil, Castrol, Kurkure Monster Paws and Britannia besides a series of others. But that, he clarifies, is not where his heart is.

He distinguishes between playing for the masses and classes. “It is like playing 3,000 chords for three people rather than three chords for 3,000 people, the difference between the reach of Sivamani as opposed to Ranjit Barot.” Music is more a spiritual involvement for him, he says he is driven by the urge to play good music and jam with the best musicians. This journey in music has taken him to places he never imagined. “A jugalbandi with Astaad Debu, me on the percussion and him dancing….it was an unbelievable experience. Being able to share space with, and performing alongside, artistes like Fazal, Toufiq Qureshi and Hariharan is something I never dreamt about. I learnt so much from them, for example Fazalji taught me the taals which I wasn’t familiar with.”

His dream is to move to Los Angeles. “For some time at least. Where I can spend time making music and collaborate with big names in the business,” he says.