A Carnatic fairytale

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LA-born Sandeep Narayan impresses with both technique and atmospheric vocals

“I’d like to wish all the mothers a happy Mother’s Day.” Sandeep Narayan’s thick American accent makes me start. Even though I know that he was raised in Los Angeles, it’s still odd hearing the proof, especially right after his rendition of a classic Carnatic composition by that most revered of classic composers, Tyagaraja (1767-1847), and in that most Carnatic of ragas, Bhairavi (not to be confused with the Hindustani raga).

The proceeds of Narayan’s concert, presented by the Hindu Society of Victoria and taking place at the Shiva Vishnu temple, will go towards repairing the temple’s Ring Road, but his name is a draw in its own right. And I soon see why. Narayan has a style that is undeniably traditional, but also aesthetically pleasing – listenable in a way that some ‘Carnatified’ vocals are not. Moreover, Narayan’s story is something of a Carnatic fairytale (yes, they exist). In 2006, he made a permanent and daring move from Los Angeles to Chennai in pursuit of a full-time career as a Carnatic musician, entering a competitive field still dominated by Indian-born and raised artists – and succeeding.

Sandeep Narayan.Indian Link

On stage, Narayan is accompanied by two seasoned artists, B.U. Ganesh Prasad on violin and T.R. Sundaresan on mrdangam.

His first lengthy alapana – improvised exploration of a raga – is in Sahana raga, which is gentle but very atmospheric, and I’m struck by his slow, measured approach. If there’s one thing that can jar about the Carnatic style of singing, it’s a musician bursting into gamakas (shakes of the voice) from the very start; but Narayan builds it up, bringing in the complex technical phrases only when he reaches the peak of his alapana, and aiming just as much for evocation of a mood as for technical virtuosity.

His main piece for the evening, encompassing all the improvised elements of Carnatic music – alapana, neraval and kalpana swaram – is the aforementioned Bhairavi composition, “Koluvai Yunnade”, by Tyagaraja. The alapana is rich and intense, again building up to a passionate crescendo of complex phrases, and the composition is immersive. B.U. Ganesh’s playing is smooth and subtly frilled, and T.R. Sundaresan’s thaniavarthanam (percussion solo) is absorbing.

However the vocal highlight of the evening, in my view, is the Reethi Gowla composition “Nannu Vidachi”, another Tyagaraja composition, before which Narayan sings a multi-raga viruttam, or poem with melodic improvisation. The song’s essence is the emotion of the composer’s plea to the god Rama not to leave him, and Narayan conveys this beautifully and movingly.

I have to resist an eye-roll on one thing though: Narayan’s constant tanpura tuning, which is distracting and off-putting. I’m not sure what non-aesthetic purpose having someone sitting behind the vocalist playing a tanpura, in addition to having an electronic one in front, serves.

Still, when Narayan announces the thillana (in raga Sindhu Bhairavi), the final composition in a Carnatic concert, it’s clichéd but true to say that it feels too soon.

And like I want to go and practice some Bhairavi.