Presenting before you a Carnatic Vocalist — as a small boy who excelled academically, having his sight firmly set on becoming a scientist or an engineer, in the US of A, but chose not to; started learning music more as a hobby at the age of 7, and hence not a child prodigy, was lucky to have divine interventions or triggers that prompted him to pursue classical music around the age of 15, won prizes in singing competitions, later honed in by a prominent guru, at a time of having established himself as a performing artiste when he was about 20, climbed up the ladder laboriously to carve out an impactful presence, and took to academics to earn a doctorate in music at a middle age.
Dr.R.Suryaprakash – literally translated as Sunlight or Sunrays personifies a meticulous approach, structured and systematic imagination (manodharma), livening up renditions with quick aesthetics (bhriga), and being blessed with a mellifluous voice that stand out in making him shine. It is creditable that as a first-generation musician, he is amongst the most sought-after performers.
Doctorate as Crowning glory!
Dr.R.Suryaprakash earned his doctorate in March 2020 by from Madras University for his thesis titled “Structured and Systematic Approach to Manodharma Sangeetham”. Manodharma is a barometer to test the creativity quotient, for the true challenge of a musician lies in his ability to create and extemporize on the spot.
After quitting his full time job in Reserve Bank of India in 2013, he decided to professionally devote full time for music – as a performer, teacher, and actively work in spreading the goodness of the art. Dr. M.A.Bhagirathi (of the famous Parur Sundaram Iyer family, and sister of the violin virtuoso M. A. Sundaresan) encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D, insisting that sharing knowledge and putting this into a systematic form would be a great service to music, and that’s how the journey towards doctorate began. Suryaprakash added, “The challenge in the topic of `Structured and Systematic Approach to Manodharma’ was not about making templates on creativity but provide a guideline or approach for those who would like to lean on and explore creativity further. I need to specially mention the support of my guide, Karaikudi Dr.Shanti Mahesh (of the legendary Vainika family)”
Beginning without Basics!
Suryaprakash hails from a middle-class family with roots in Porumbur, a village near Mayilathudurai of the Cauvery belt. He has a brother (Somaprakash a consultant in Banking in Bangalore) and two sisters (Subhashree Natarajan , located in Chennai and Jayashree Iyer located in Dubai) as siblings. His father Ramachandran, an officer in RBI, now retired, was interested in sampradaya bhajans, while mother Alamelu, a home maker, and diploma holder in music.
The normal way any typical South Indian child grows up is in an environment immersed in classical music. Some stay away from the ethos of classical music, while there is always a residue inside each of them. How much they leverage the residue is what makes the difference. Some end up as appreciators and listeners (like me), while some pursue music to a point of excellence, and turn performers.
In the case of Suryaprakash, initially he had no special interest in taking up a career as a musician, and would just learn informally from his Uncle Tirukkodikaval Shri V. Rajamani, at the age of 7, and later from Shri M.A.Venugopal, both disciples of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. “I was taught krithis directly, and did not learn the basics. The first two krithis I learnt were `Vathapi Ganapathim’ (Raga Hamsadhwani), and Ramabhakti Samrajyam (Suddha Bangala).
His mother Alamelu, a homemaker used to learn from a music teacher Mrs.Kamakshi Subramaniam opposite their house, and so did his sisters Subhashree and Jayashree also learn.
“I guess I got the basics from them just listening to what they learnt. I quickly graduated to learning raga alapana from my uncle by repeating the phrases he sang to perfection. Film music that was contemporary to my growing-up times did not fascinate me, but vintage classical film songs sung by M.S.Subbulakshmi from the movie Shakuntalai (people in South add a vowel to the normal names), MKT, Dandapani Desigar et-al, just floored me whenever I listened to them”, shared Suryaprakash.
Excel to be on top – An Ethos developed from childhood!
As a kid who excelled in academics, he would pursue the path of engineering or medicine, from IIT or AIIMS, get a passport or visa to the US of A, becoming the first person in the family to reach the land of status for many South Indians and earn in dollars, that’s what everyone thought! Many in the family looked at him as an academic role model, but life took a different turn. After finishing his SSC exams, he set off on a vacation with his family availing LTC/LFC to Shringeri.
Life takes an unexpected turn!
A near death experience was in store for Suryaprakash and his younger brother Somaprakash at Shringeri, this was when they were taking a dip in the river Tungabhadra and got stuck in a whirlpool. They had to be hospitalized, and this became the talk of the town, so much so that His Holiness Sringeri Acharya met up with the kids and gave them a Mantropadesham (revelation of secret mantra). The meeting with Sringeri Acharya had a deep impact on Suryaprakash, and he started taking music seriously, subsequently winning top honors in vocal singing in Inter School competition.
The frequency of learning from his Uncle and the music teacher opposite his house increased. While in higher secondary year at school, simultaneously preparing for IIT-JEE, he was clear that he would be pursuing Engineering. Vacations after HSC board and, IIT-JEE, was utilized for learning more music. Simultaneously he attained proficiency in singing alaaps in Kalyani, Bhairavi, Mohanam, Sankarabharanam, Kambhoji and so on.
Turning a Setback into a Virtue!
Suryaprakash missed his IIT-JEE by a whisker but did get a call from the prestigious BITS Pilani. He turned it down and firmly decided to pursue his newfound love for Carnatic Music as a career option. This came as a major shock for his family members and relatives, but his fatherRamachandran told him to be the best in whatever he pursues. Madras Christian College (MCC) became a platform for Suryaprakash to showcase his awards and accolades during the tenure of his graduation. He was selected as the College Singer from the first day as his talent was spotted by the cultural coordinators, while pursuing bachelor’s in chemistry. The college authorities gave him the flexibility to practice music and attend (or miss) lectures at will. He took this as an opportunity to do his sadagam (Sadhana) and excel in his art. Academics was also not neglected as he passed out of college with distinction.
Suryaprakash had his first concert in Kumaran Kundran Hall in Chrompet and a second concert on his Uncle’s 60th Birthday, where he was accompanied by the local senior artistes Kanchi Janardhanan and Nagai Soundararajan. Quite a few concerts followed with talented youngsters as accompanists, some of them are stars now
Promising Performer is born
His uncle felt the need to get Suryaprakash honed under a senior professional, and sought the guidance of T.V.Sankaranarayanan (the leading maestro and disciple of the legendary Madurai Mani Iyer), and accepted to mentor Suryaprakash. After his tutelage under Shri.TVS, in one of his early concerts for YACM Anniversary, at Kasturi Srinivasan Hall, extensively reviewed in the media, Suryaprakash was hailed as a `SURE BET’, but “a photocopy of his guru.” The 90’s was the decade when he developed his own style, based on the foundation of the Madurai Mani Iyer tradition and his assimilated quintessence of other great traditions and there has been no looking back since then.
As he attained more fame and performed at prestigious Sabhas across cities in the country, recording contracts followed and Suryaprakash recorded many albums. He vividly recollects the first of his albums, where Mridanga Vidwan Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam insisted that Suryaprakash include the thillana composed by Suryaprakash.
Challenges for a First Generation Musician
“After my first few successful concerts and the critical appreciation, I thought I can take up music as my career right away but woke up to the reality of things being not so easy. Coming from a well-connected family surely helps a fledgling artiste to get a fillip, at least initially, and with the absence of that facility, having to prove your abilities time and again before modest gatherings could be frustrating. Yet for the pure love of music one had to persevere with positive approach without falling into any whirlpool! And in those days opportunities for upcoming artistes were quite limited, unlike today”, reminisces Suryaprakash about the days of his struggle.
Risk Averse Approach — Life Father Like Son!
In 1989, Suryaprakash decided to take up a job and continue with his musical pursuit, and cleared RBI Officers Entrance Exam by coming on top, satiating his hunger for the academics. The motivation to join RBI perhaps came from his father – Ramachandran, who served as an Officer in the same institution. Now being financially secure Suryaprakash counted notes in the day and explored musical notes after work!
Four lines typically found in an autograph book would say: First is School, Second is college, then is Marriage with a Baby in a Carriage! The year 1997, was when Suryaprakash married Chithra, a student of Bharatanatyam, who has been a home maker par-excellence and pillar of support to his musical journey ever since. In the year 1999, the couple was blessed with a baby girl Purnima, who now is pursuing B.Tech in Computer Science. While continuing her training in music from her father, she has not yet pursued it as a career.
That prestigious label every musician aspires for of performing overseas is a big moment for many, and that happened in Suryaprakash’s life for the first time in 1999, where initially he had only 3 concerts in his maiden tour overseas, of North America. The tour started with such a bang that he was in demand overnight, coast to coast. The team of Suryaprakash, violinist R K Shriramkumar and mridangist Mannarkoil Balaji ended up performing 23 concerts, indicative of the audience acceptance he was able to gain on his debut tour. On his return to Chennai, he received his first award, “Yuva Kala Bharathi” by Bharat Kalachar from the hands of the legendary D K Pattammal. After this success, international tours for concerts became regular in his calendar!
In a subsequent tour in 2006 when travelling from Buffalo to Purdue for a concert, Suryaprakash was practicing a Pallavi at the airport and the humming continued in the plane too. Noticing this, the Flight Attendant graciously asked Suryaprakash to sing for the audience. So here was an impromptu performance at 20,000 feet, wherein the passengers had an auditory treat of listening to Krishan Nee Beganey Baaro.
During an open-air concert in Kerala, there were heavy rains and audiences had retreated away from the venue. The downpour continued and so did the performance. As Suryaprakash began his concert, in the darkness he could witness the emergence of many umbrellas. Unfortunately, one could not click a picture of the colorful spectacle.
He also leverages opportunities of spontaneously singing in picturesque surroundings and feel one with nature. Imagine exercising your vocal cords out at the shores of Pangong lake in Ladakh – open air, where the oxygen level is only 20%, or sing Hamir Kalyani in the Tea Gardens of Kerala or doing sadagam (sadhana) at -25 degrees in Minneapolis!
A temple concert in Kerala, with Suryaprakash while delineating an alapana in Kharaharapriya (Kapi in Hindustani), he suddenly noticed a rustic villager, who briskly moved toward the stage, did a Namaste and lauded Suryaprakash for his performance and handed over a lemon and a 100 Rupee note which the artiste cherishes even today as the highest award, even after being conferred with “Kalaimamani” by the Govt. of Tamil Nadu for year 2017.
Beyond music, he is a voracious reader, and feels that Internet has almost killed that as a habit for the present generation. He is not only a cricket enthusiast but used to play the game well too. Writing poetry, painting, trekking, exploring languages and watching horror movies are his other pursuits.
2020 has brought many challenges on various sectors and performing art has got majorly impacted. Online live concerts have become the order of the day in these pandemic times, but Dr.Suryaprakash avers that Live is Live – that interaction with audiences, that applause, inspiration, appreciation and adulation that you get from the audience is a validation that cannot be compared with anything else. Online teaching of Carnatic Music has been happening as a normal with skype classes for about a decade and this musician has devoted time to teach and produce a community of talented shishyas as future torch bearers of his tradition.
Secret of Success and Message for Rasikas
Dr.Suryaprakash concludes by saying, “free spirited independent thinking is what I attribute as my secret of success as it has helped me creatively explore the world of music, innovate, sing my heart out and present an enjoyable fare without getting typecast. Be a continuous learner, for Passion with Patience and Perseverance are the key qualities that will continuously ignite the quest to excel, introspect, practice more and improve, thereby sustaining the performance standards, setting new bars for yourself every time and scaling new peaks. A message for the rasikas – thanks for being with me, let’s continue our journey to see the beautiful scenery ahead.”