You ask any white person what they associate India with and for centuries, they’ve whipped out the two big ‘C’s- Colour, and Culture. The country has been flamboyantly peacocking these very aspects as their USP, and yet why is it that an occupation that aims to uphold this culture is considered the ‘road not taken’? When every breathing individual finds solace in music and serenity in staring at a painting, why is the arts considered a risky territory to pursue as a passion?
Flashback to almost a decade ago, these were some of the questions buzzing through the young mind of the now celebrated mridangam prodigy and percussionist, Sumesh Narayanan. Today, he has over 2000 performances under his belt with veterans like Bombay Jayashri, the celebrated IndoSoul band, numerous Carnatic concerts and even on the big screen in a Rajiv Menon masterpiece, ‘Sarvam Thalamayam’.
However, it was not long ago that he had fallen into the rut of attaining a degree in B. Com, with his heart still yearning for a career in Music. It didn’t help matters that his college was practically a dead-end to any opportunity to express his talents through cultural events, as it was considered a deviation from the divinity of the academia.
“A bunch of the most notorious of us went to the management and got it done. We said we’re not school kids anymore, I have a beard-I’m a man now, so hear us out. After much hue and cry, we finally had our own culturals, without any funding or support.”
Upon graduation, at the end of a rabbit hole of thoughts about a 9-5 job, ironically, Sumesh began freefalling into the field of music. Although a corporate placement seemed to be more promising of stability and approving nods of his well-wishers, Sumesh decided to follow the piper into music anyway.
“Sure, if I’d taken that road, I might have made much more than how much I make now, but I know that I would never be able to sleep. I would have been the man with everything yet nothing at all. Music is all I know, that’s all I ever knew. I can lie to anyone in this world, but not to myself. It’s not a walk in the park, but whenever I asked myself questions- music is my passion but how did I plan on making it sustainable? Am I ready to take the leap? The answer always brought me to simply knowing that the amount of passion I had for mridangam is enough to fuel my vehicle.”
Along with the conflicting voices in the contemplating mind, there will always be those who question the viability of an artist’s life choices. For some who are not aware of the industry, the sight of a musician not vigorously playing their fingers off every hour of the day is ghastly, and can come off as lethargy and defeat on the part of the musician. It’s exactly at this time that they’d chime in some unsolicited opinion on ‘stability’ and taking up a more ‘serious job’. What some people fail to understand is that on the days that musicians and artists are seemingly idle, they are reflecting on the nuances of their previous performances and frantically working towards their next one.
Appreciation, admiration and the travelling are only glamorous veils to an artists’ sacrifices. Considering the pressure to outdo their previous performances, and to live worthy of their fame, stagnation is cancerous to a performer. It induces severe anxiety which often onsets depression. However, for artists like Sumesh, music is both the tunnel and the light at the end of it.
Fortunate are those who have experienced Sumesh Narayanan live on stage with his band IndoSoul, led by Karthik Iyer. More electrifying than the atmosphere that their soul-raking music creates, is the unspoken conversations he shares with his band members on stage.
“Karthik Iyer asked me if we could perform at his sister’s wedding and gathered a few other instrumentalists and IndoSoul began there. Although a few band members have changed, we now tour and travel together. I get high on that life - the practicing, sound-checks and performing.
There’s no ‘on’ and ‘off’ button for creativity. When I’m not feeling my best, I’m not performing my best and it shows. My dad would be the first to tell me that I played like a damp firecracker, just not up to my mark. It’s easy to see others do well and wonder if you’re not good enough. I got this mark in my eye from a nerve bursting because of the stress. I’ve had days where I had to decide between having dinner or saving money for breakfast so I have one extra day to create opportunities for myself.”
Artists by theory express through their art, and for this to be honest, their emotions are often at the surface. As productively channelizing these emotions can be quite taxing, the members of their family often walk on eggshells around them. On dealing with Sumesh’s off-days, his sister, Snehaa says “I miss him when he’s travelling for his concerts, especially when he’s gone months on end, and he misses out on my special moments, but I couldn’t be prouder of him. When he’s anxious, he does express it. I can’t preach to him that this is how life could be sometimes and that it could get better- he’s seen it all. It’s in the little unsaid things like giving him a hug, or making him my murukku sandwich that I try to help.”
2014 hit Whiplash produced one of Sumesh’s favourite quote of all time- "Being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody's idea of success." When asked how far along the idea of success he is, Sumesh said:
“To answer that, you must first understand what success is- it’s a journey. But in my perception, the answer to this could be as simple as saying that I succeeded the moment I chose to become a musician, to as complex as success being continuing to do anything that doesn’t go against my conscience, and still pursuing my passion. You might not have yardsticks for success because when music is your life, you surrender to it, and realise that no artist is greater than the art. You don’t question, “what is this art doing for me”, but start experimenting on what you can do with it, for it, and go where the art takes you.”
For any individual with the conviction and the raging passion, success begins the moment they decide to pursue it.
“Any artist that has chosen to pursue their passion without a safety net know that you’ll be tested and held over the edge, but your passion will never let you fall, and you have to trust that. You need to believe in yourself more than anyone can, and more than you would in anyone else.”