I have often come across the notion that in America I am an Indian, and in India I am an American. It made me wonder if I properly identified with either country, being strongly interested in Carnatic music, yet raised in California. My friends in America found it bizarre that I would visit Chennai once or twice a year, and that I was a South Indian vocalist. At times, I found it bizarre myself. But having been a resident of Chennai for the last four years, I realise that I’m fortunate enough to identify with both countries and cultures.
Moving to another country is never an easy or quick decision, and my move in November 2006 from Los Angeles to Chennai was no exception. Although I did spend one year in Chennai when I was 11 years old, learning music from Calcutta K.S. Krishnamurthy, I did not really consider living in India for the rest of my life to be a real possibility. During school holidays, many Indian-American children visit Chennai to learn more about their culture, specifically their interests in music and dance. As I continued to visit India throughout high school, my passion for music grew but remained secondary to my studies. “School is always first,” my parents reminded me. However, after just my first term in college, my guru Sanjay Subrahmanyan urged me to take music seriously and think about pursuing it as a full-time career. The idea seemed outrageous to me then, as I was already going down the usual path of attending a university, and expecting to find a job and work somewhere in the U.S. after completing my course. I returned to college in California after that music season, but my mindset was definitely starting to change. I was finally seeing that perhaps there was, in fact, a future in music for me. I should also credit my brother, Nirmal Narayan, for making my move a little easier as he had already been living in Chennai for one and a half years at that point. Being a mridangam artist, and a student of Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, he had decided to spend some time immersed in the Carnatic scene. Joining him in Chennai, I surrounded myself with music and began to take things more seriously.
However we both faced our respective issues upon moving to Chennai, and the process of trying to be taken seriously as a professional musician has been no cake walk. For starters, the label of being an ‘NRI’ musician is often extremely difficult to shed. Most people do seem to realise that I am in Chennai permanently. However, I occasionally run into a sabha secretary who would ask when I got into town! Explaining that I have moved to Chennai can be tiring at times, but it’s something one gets used to and it just furthers the idea that one must live in Chennai to become a serious Carnatic musician.
Upon my trips back to the U.S., I have had the opportunity to perform in many cities on both the West and East coasts. It is interesting to see that in some places, a musician in my position is received as a local product of the U.S., and in some places one is introduced as a musician coming from Chennai. In the States also, there seems to be an understanding that a musician coming from Chennai has gone through more rigorous training and has perhaps reached a higher level of competency. I sometimes remind them that although the majority of my musical education has taken place in Chennai, my upbringing was back in the States, where I received my fundamental training in music.
For most individuals who are able to pursue their passion, whatever it may be, work rarely feels like ‘work’ in the negative sense. I recognise my fortunate opportunity to do something I love and make it my profession.
Although the temptation to go back to the U.S. and return to the American way of life can loom over one’s head, I know that if I were there I would always miss the music scene and concert opportunities that I have in India. Performing regularly in Chennai and constantly challenging one to reach greater heights helps an individual grow both as a musician and a person. It’s comforting to see all the efforts to pursue my passion have been worthwhile.
Sandeep Narayan is a young Carnatic vocalist from Southern California. Read about him at http://about.me/sandeepnarayan