A Scintillating Deepavali Concert by Sri Sandeep Narayan

By Mrs. Sudha Ravi Mani and Dr. Lakshmi Srivaths

Sri Sandeep Narayan’s musical journey is an unusual one. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and like many of our children here, he listened to rock and hip-hop as a young boy. But, coming from a musical family deeply entrenched in Carnatic Music, he showed remarkable interest and ability to sing Kritis just from listening to his mother teaching other students. To further hone his talent, he moved to Chennai to learn music in a more serious and structured form. He then trained under Vidwan KS Krishnamurthy and subsequently under Vidwan Sanjay Subrahmanyan. He has presently established himself as a very popular and sought-after artist in the Carnatic music world. He is the first artist from North America to have done this.

In another first, Sri Sandeep Narayan’s maiden concert in Houston was held on Sunday October 23rd, 2022, at Sri Meenakshi Temple under the auspices of Classical Arts Society of Houston, co-sponsored by Meenakshi Temple society. The concert tour was titled Trichy Sankaran ‘80 to celebrate the Mridangam Vidwan’s 80th birthday. Along with him, sharing the stage were Vidwans VVS Murari on the violin and KV Gopalakrishnan on the Kanjira. Second in the series of CAS’s fall live concerts, the CAS board members were very engaged in impeccably executing this concert’s proceedings.  The program started with CAS president Dr. Nalini Sadagopan welcoming the artists; the temple priests blessing Vidwans Sri Sankaran and Sri Sandeep Narayan with prayers, garlands and prasadam; and Mrs. Anuradha Subramanian speaking very eloquently about Vidwan Sankaran as she has known him personally for many years. Announcement was made about the final CAS fall concert on November 18th 2022, titled “Thenisai Thamizh” by Sri Sikkil Gurucharan.

The concert opened with a neat and concise presentation of Kanada Ata Tala Varnam Nera Nammithi. Following that, the Tyagaraja Kriti Maakelara Vicharamu in Ravichandrika  was handled beautifully by both Sri Sandeep Narayan and Sri Murari. Saint Tyagaraja is said to have composed this song in his later years at a stage of reclusion and introspection, where he trustingly says ‘O Lord, why should I worry anymore? You are the doer, the puppeteer’. In presenting this song, the artists were very respectful of the meaning and mood, conveying its contemplative content. A beautiful ode to the divine Mother, Sri Shyama Shastri’s Shankari Shankuru Chandramukhi in Saveri was next. The raga’s inherent quality of being able describe the lyrics reverentially was fully taken advantage of. The chosen tempo, synergy between the vocalist and percussionist and their exchanges on the word Akhilandeshwari enhanced the descriptive grandeur of the composition.

In a Concert, for the main piece to be the anchor, the artist has to know the target audience, choose the appropriate composition in terms of deity, composer, raga and possibly a few other personal parameters. Over the years, many artists have chosen compositions on Madurai Meenakshi to present in Houston as She is our presiding Deity. But for that main piece to become the Pièce de résistance, for it to satiate the rasikas, to elicit repeated approval and ahas, it has to come from the depths of the artists‘ being. Maamava Meenakshi in Varali is Muthuswami Dikshitar’s heartfelt outpouring to the Mother Goddess; and on Sunday, it was Sri Sandeep Narayan’s and this ensembles’ outpouring to our temple and us the audience. Varali is a Ghana Raga and a vivadhi raga with the Vakra (zigzag) notes in the ascending scale. In the vocalist’s raga Alapana, his approach to raga delineation was unfettered, tremendously delicate and ever so sensitive. Every note on the canvas of the scale was precisely positioned, sensitively summoned, gracefully oscillated and given life to. The result:  Varali unfolded in all its beauty like a flower, spewing her fragrance in straight lines and jagged ones. The conversation between the vocal cords and violin strings was so engaging. The voice modulations and soothing elaborations on the violin, matched masterfully by Sri Sankaran and Sri Gopalakrishnan on percussion, gave this traditional piece a lively contemporary feel. True to the lyrics in the song, it was Madura Vani.

The Thani that followed was literally “Thani” aka unique. The highlight of the concert series, Sri Sankaran, is truly a Pitamaha of mridangam, well known for his percussion style adeptly embracing the singing rather than standing out separately. Sure enough, his percussion was so nuanced and sensitive, the ebb and flow of the percussion modulations creating a musical laya which was pure enjoyment and par excellence! He presented a variety of rhythmic variations, some rapid and some measured, some bright and some soft, which took us on a pleasurable ride on the laya river that seemed to flow endlessly! Vidwan KV Gopalakrishnan ably responded to the rhythm with his own kanjira percussions serving as answers to Sri Sankaran’s queries. Throughout the concert, Sri Sankaran’s percussion was truly “sollu-ful” as stated by him once before, with his sollu kattu perfectly matching the sangathis and swara patterns of the vocalist and the violinist.

Following a small interval, the last section ensued, filled with delectable thukkadas that felt like Diwali sweet treats! As Sri Sandeep Narayan opened the song with the phrase “Penn Koduthadharayya”, the audience perked up to pay attention to this interesting krithi in sprightly Kuntalavarali. The Vidwan announced that it was penned by his revered guru Vidwan KS Krishnamoorthy himself! The melting Jagadhodharana in Kapi and lilting Lalgudi Tillana in Ragesri presented the beauty of Lord Krishna’s leela and the intensity of Lord Shiva’s narthana respectively! The Meera Bhajan Hariguna Gavat, in the rare raga Dipali was indeed the Deepavali Special sparkling finish!

Needless to say, the concert concluded with a standing ovation from the full house audience, in praise of Sri Trichy Sankaran’s percussion mastery and Vidwan Sandeep Narayan and team’s musical brilliance! The enchanting evening ended thus, but the music and laya continued to ring and resonate in the audience’s ears and heart for long!