CHATLINE T. Sathish Kumar speaks to SUBHA J RAO about surgery and music, and why the live concert experience must be enhanced

Cleveland, 1996. A casual visit to a friend's place changed the way surgeon T. Sathish Kumar perceived life. As the strains of Brindha amma's ‘Payyada' filled the air, it stirred the soul of 25-year-old Sathish. A boy raised in a family that had no connection to classical music, fell in love unconditionally, irrevocably.

The swaras beckoned and Sathish, who had completed his fourth grade in piano from Trinity College, became a disciple of Carnatic music. His family was taken aback. But, it was not as if Sathish succumbed to music without a fight. “I was in awe of what I felt. Then I understood its power and stopped fighting its presence in my life.”

When a brain haemorrhage snatched his mother in 2002, Sathish felt a terrible void. “My mom was the centre of my universe, and I felt I had not done enough as a son. I wanted to celebrate her memory with something that was as important to me. I could only think of Carnatic music. I brought them together, for my peace,” says Sathish. In 2003, Rajalakshmi Fine Arts (RFA has 700-plus members now) was set up, and it changed the way the textile town of Coimbatore perceived Carnatic music.

Besides monthly concerts, it introduced the concept of a ‘September season', an annual celebration of music, dance and lecture-demonstrations. It also changed the aesthetics of the sabha circuit. There were flowers on a subtly-lit stage. The sound was perfect, and the choice of songs unique. White screens glowed with interesting trivia about the compositions. “Our music is so beautiful. Why can't we add some visual beauty to a live performance by enhancing the ambience?” he asks.

Sathish also came up with the idea of concerts that revolved around a theme. Musicians, therefore, (with suggestions from Sathish) had to dig deep and find and perform compositions that challenged them. So, the audience got to listen to rare pieces by the masters.

Sathish continues to wield the scalpel, but music has become an intrinsic part of his life. There is music in his operation theatre. The reenkaram of the tambura echoes through his home, music plays in his car and ragas rain down his office and operation theatre. Sathish, who reveres his gurus, Chandrasekhar Bhagavathar (music) and C.R. Ballal (surgery), says “music helps release the feel-good hormones, endorphins. You feel at peace when you sing or listen to music. What I love most is that it challenges me constantly. I am easily bored. But, even if you dedicate your life to music, you can't fathom even five per cent of its depth.”

Talking about RFA, he recalls the initial cold shoulders he encountered. “People thought I would shut shop in a year. I had to convince them that though I was not in the ‘Carnatic circuit', I wanted to bring good music, dance and lec-dems here. Now, comments don't bother me. I like my independence. That's why there is no sponsorship. I don't want any dilution of this format.”

The dedication has paid off. Most artistes consider it a privilege to perform during the September season. Since they work hard on the concerts, some requested that it be recorded for posterity. Rajalakshmi Audio was born. It now owns 240 albums.

Sathish is in a happy space as he handles two things that give him great joy. “Plus there's my efficient office team of Vijaya Jaya and Mahesh. My advisory team helps pick good music, irrespective of the name.”

How did it feel conducting the fest after the demise of the legendary ‘Gopi mama'? (C.R. Gopinathan, ardent lover of music and patron of Coimbatore's sabhas) “We missed his presence, but we all know how much he loved music. What better way to honour his memory than to carry on with the festival?”

Sathish sings himself, but only for friends, and, occasionally, students. He says music has soothed and calmed him. “I used to be very tense. I'm a better human being now.”

But, how does one strike a balance between two diverse fields — one that banks on clinical precision to heal, and another that seizes the soul? “Music and surgery provide me joy in different ways.

Surgery is in my control, mostly. But, I am a slave to music; it takes me where it wants to.”

So, is a professional performance on the cards? “I'll skip that one. I like to stay a listener. I sing for myself.”

But, what about the piano? “Recently, when I saw the piano at The Residency, I was tempted to glide my fingers over it. I tried playing Beethoven's ‘Fur Elise'. I was disappointed. Luckily, there was no one around. So, for now, my heart's with Carnatic.”

Youth and the arts

Sathish, also the vice principal of PSG IMSR, has started Club Utsav, the literary and fine arts club of the Institute. The 225-member association conducts classes in Carnatic music, dance and painting, besides hosting literary events. This year's edition of September Season is being held in association with Club Utsav.

The fest, on from September 2 to 11, featured the likes of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Bombay Jayashri, Aruna Sairam and Chitraveena Ravikiran. P. Unnikrishnan (today), Ranjani Gayathri (Saturday) and Sudha Ragunathan (Sunday) are slated to perform on the last three days.