Vignesh Ishwar


CulturallyOurs Podcast Vignesh Ishwar Carnatic Music

Vignesh Ishwar

Show Details

In this episode, we dive into the world of tradition of Carnatic music which is a classical art form from the southern part of India with Vignesh Ishwar, an award winning musician from Chennai, India. Vignesh talks about his upbringing around music, the people who influenced his music and how being ingrained in it, helped him realize that the path of a musician is what he wanted to do full time.

Vignesh also shared how in his mind, being an artist and a scientist is really very similar because both involve the same amount of hard work, dedication, focus and creativity. We also talked about the festival of Margazhi, which a month long celebration of the classical music with performances all over the city.

Show Notes

Karthika interviews Vignesh Ishwar, an award winning musician from Chennai, India. Vignesh is an IT professional turned musician who has been performing Classical Carnatic music all over India and around the world. Vignesh shares his passion for the arts and how his analytical background actually helps him with his music career. He also talks about Margazhi, the month long music festival in the city of Chennai that pretty much turns the whole city into a music arena with several hundred concerts all over the city.

The Transcript

Karthika: Welcome Vignesh. Thank you so much for joining me on Culturally Ours. I am so very excited to have you on the podcast and I cannot wait to chat with you and get to know you a little bit better.

Vignesh: Thank you so much for having me and I am so excited to be talking to you.

Karthika: Absolutely. So before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about sort of who you are, where you’re from, just to help set the stage for this conversation?

Vignesh: Sure. I am a Carnatic musician and I am from Mumbai, born and raised. I move to Chennai in 2011 to learn and sing. That’s a part of my story. But I also have a technology background. I did my engineering in Bombay and then I went to Barcelona to do a master’s in music computing with signal processing and came back and decided to sing. And now I’m singing full time in Chennai.

Karthika: Oh wow. Okay. So I heard technology, I heard music, I heard a masters in Barcelona. There’s a whole lot going on here. So how did all of this come about? Was music something you kind of had an interest in at a very young age, or was it something you picked up somewhere along the way?

Vignesh: So growing up music was always playing in my house. And my grandmother learned music when she was very young and she used to sing so, and my father and his siblings and everyone in the family was exposed to music because of that. And they were also interested in Carnatic music and they were listening to a lot of Carnatic music at that point in time. So I was always listening to Gananoque music. It’s just a conditioning that happens in the family and the surrounding and the environment. And you always get used to watching what is happening around you. My grandmother used to take me to concerts and my father used to take me on sets and I was always intrigued by the music I was listening to. I was always looking at concerts, the lights, the stage and the hoopla around the set. And my grandmother used to tell me that even though I was running around at the concerts, I would never tell her to take me home. So that kind of was a sign for her. She could never pursue music because of family life and all that. So she transferred those dreams to me. So she took me to a guru, teacher, who she thought would be the best to get me started in learning Carnatic music.  First he told me that he won’t take me in because I’m too young. But then my grandmother insisted and told them that I would be a great student because I repeated everything that she taught me so well. He then agreed to teach me for a month and said that if it did not work out, then I would have to come back later. But luckily for me, that month never quite ended.

Karthika: So you’ve been singing since you were three and a half years old. That’s amazing. Now, why did technology, and you said engineering, how did that all come about when you were so keen on music?

Vignesh: That’s because of my support system, my teachers and mentors. There have been many people in my life from wonderful teachers to gurus to family. I loved science and my neighbor was a science teacher. She would also talk to us about great scientist of the day and inspire us with their stories. So I got interested in science and I always talked to her about it. Then I took up engineering. And after I did that I decided that I wanted to live in Chennai because I wanted to also sign. While I was in college, this research group came to the campus. They were interested in doing a project on signal processing off art especially in music traditions. They were working with music traditions and Carnatic music to understand how the waves brought out energy. I did my best to collaborate with them. My music teacher knew I was working with the electrical department at that point in time and he pushed me to take that project up because he knew it would help me connect the dots, if you will.

Karthika: It’s so fascinating that science and technology mixes with music in your life where you were part of it since you were such a young kid.

Vignesh: Absolutely. Science has always been a part of my life. I grew up reading all the traditional science books and learning about famous scientists by reading their research and biographies. I am a huge fan of Albert Einstein. When we would gather as a group with friends often times we would debate about protons, electrons and so on. So science was always there.

Karthika: Of course. I think for me, when I hear you speak, I sense that passion in both the sciences and the art. It is so fascinating how you found a way to incorporate, not only science but also music, and do it together. Because there is some sort of connection. There’s some sort of history there, right? Even though we tend to think about art as being completely different from science. But that is not the case, right. They’re all connected.

Vignesh: Totally. Working as a scientist and working as an artist you have to the same amount of work. It takes the same amount of mind space. It takes the same amount of effort. It takes the same amount of focus. It takes the same amount of creativity, takes the same amount of hard work. It is amazing how similar they are.

Karthika: This is a fantastic pitch for a STEAM. Because a lot of times we think about arts and sciences as two different streams. At least when I was growing up in Bombay, it was always the case. You either got into science, commerce or arts. Those were the only three options we had.

Vignesh: Yeah. You have art, science and commerce. But the point is that no matter what you are doing you need to put in those hours. Many times, I see artists who do it just as a hobby. Not all of course, but a lot of times people do it because they just want to do something for fun. But in my house that was not the case. My grandmother was very particular that I would have to practice music for an hour or so every day. Sure, I had my studies but music was also a priority. My parents also felt the same way.

Karthika: Now I found you when I was researching the Madras Music Festival which is a huge festival that happens around this time of the year – December to January, right. It is a festival all about music. I would love to get your perspective, as an artist, as a musician and a performer on this world-renowned festival.

Vignesh: Oh the festival does a lot of things actually. So my story is a little different. Most of my music friends have grown up in Chennai and been around the music scene and festival all their life. I was not born in Chennai. For me it is different. I did not know about the music festival until much later. My father used to come here every year since he was a young man. They used to come for the season, listen to all the performances and get my autographs of the singers. So all the stories about season

Vignesh: And I was so jealous, and I was like, I want to be there. But I was sitting at home and writing my exam, taking my exams and sending my papers and I did not get to go. Then I got the opportunity to come to in 2008 when I started learning from my guru Krishna. And just before that, about 2006 or 2007, I got the opportunity to visit in December and I was just amazed. I got to listen and meet people. A lot of whom I had only heard via their CDs. But seeing them in close quarters was something else. It does something to you as an artist, as a young person. It did something to me. Something clicked in my mind and I was like, this is where I need to be. So then I moved here. I realized that if I want people to see me, hear me and know about me, I need to be a part of the community and not just visit from time to time. It did take some juggling because I was still a student. So I had to juggle my exams and come for some days of the season. But then I was able to move permanently. When I moved to Chennai I was living alone. Chennai and my friends were so welcoming. They took me in as one of their collogues, we would meet for dinner and conversations and late night singing sessions. It was perfect. This kind of collaborative atmosphere really helps you develop as an artist. You’re talking about what you’re seeing. You’re talking about how your sing, you’re talking wiht somebody else and how they sing and they’re talking about what you could sing in the future. What you have to aspire to sing. What are you going to sing tomorrow or you put this list.

Karthika: I absolutely agree with you. It is a different thing when you are sitting in class or even when you’re learning from your guru, your teacher and you are practicing alone. But when you’re among friends, it’s like the pressure is off and you’re doing it because of the pure love of the art. You’re discussing, you are practicing your singing. Everyone is just enjoying it for just the pure love of that art form and that just really helps you grow as an artist. And that’s true for any art form, right? When we are surrounded by people we speak that same language, it’s just like something clicks in us and we fall in love with it even more.

Vignesh: Yes absolutely.

Karthika: So my brother in law here in Chicago actually flies home to Chennai for the festival many times. So I know it is a big deal in India and abroad. How has this festival changed? And how has it helped Carnatic music overall?

Vignesh: Of course, the visibility of Carnatic has only increased. But the whole December music festival has become bigger because of technological advancements and everything that has happened in the last 10, 15 years, I guess. In the past 15 years the change has been in the way the festival has been projected, has grown and the number of concerts that are happening all over the city. The visibility that the person gets when he sings in the summer music festival has also grown. Now there are two sides to this. One is that the festival has grown because of social media. The fact that we all have a phone in our hands and the moment something happens it is projected worldwide. So many young people have come into the space. You can see so many youngsters taking up the arts, people coming from abroad, people inside India for that matter who want to take up the arts full time and want to be a part of this festival. But the other side is that with so many concerts and so much happening, who is really paying attention. These days there are more 1,500 – 2000 concepts happening a day, and how many people are actually listening? If that can be streamlined to be made more meaningful rather than just concepts happening everywhere, it would be great.

Karthika: You bring up a very valid point and I think that’s true for anything. Like you said, social media awareness, the sheer number of people. There are positives and negatives.

Vignesh: Yes. And its not just the social media aspect. Earlier with a select number of concepts people would go to the concert because they wanted to hear an artist, really wanted to listen to them because they liked the music. But now with the explosion in the number of concerts all around, it begs the question as to how can we make it more meaningful and more about the music and less about just a popularity contest.

Karthika: Fair enough. That’s a very valid point. And like anything in life, I think it’s, it begs the question as to how do we balance it? How do we balance all these things, right. This question is perhaps a little bit more personal. So if you don’t mind sharing, I want to know from a more cultural standpoint, how has Carnatic music impacted your life? You said it was a part of your life since you were very young. How has it played out over the years and where do you see it taking you?

Vignesh: Carnatic music has always been a part of my life and since I’ve taken it seriously, this changed a lot of things for me. The way I think , the friends that I have, the circles that I move in, everything that I have in life today is because of Carnatic music. My mindset has changed because of music. The way I look at things, the way I think about situations, the way I think about my own music, the way I think about situations generally in life has changed because of Carnatic group, because of my teacher, because of our conversations with him because of the big role that he plays in our life also. So Carnatic music is not something that has come to me on its own. It’s also what has been given to me by my guru, by my learnings from all the other brilliant, amazing artists and people who have surrounded me.

Vignesh: And as for what Carnatic music would be for me in the future, all I would like to say is I’d like to be truthful to this music. There is a lot more to explore and while people might say it is a cliché, I would like to be a bit more aware of where my music comes from. Its history, its social background, it’s geography. And to be aware of everything that’s happening around you is very important for an artist. And as a musician I would like to be truthful to my music, my society, its ethos, its background, its history and try and explore what are the icon within Carnatic music within its element, within its learnings.

Karthika: I love it. And you’re so right because a lot of times we know we kind of take the art form in its silo and we say, Oh, I want to be perfect in music. I want to be perfect in dance, I want to be perfect in photography or whatever it is. But there’s so much history and there’s so much cultural connotations in any sort of art form. And without understanding that, like you said, without understanding the history, where it’s coming from, it is very hard to grow as an artist because then you limit yourself. You want to be the best in this. But that’s it. What happens when you reach it? It’s like you put blinkers on and keep doing without understanding.

Vignesh: Yes absolutely. So, I would always like to be that person who questions what I’m doing, to introspect, to question myself, to question what I am singing, how am singing, why am I seeking it? And also being aware of everything that’s happening around me to be aware of my own music as to what I am doing. And again, this is something that I heard and I like to say to sing with consistency and distinction. What does change is something that is really wonderful and not something that is negative and holding you back. But trusting that you have the space for a reason and to make the most out of that.

Vignesh: To me it means awareness and awareness, not just as an artist, but awareness as somebody who is taking an art form and making it their own right. Because it’s very easy to say, okay, I’m going to do this because this person does it or this person said to do it. But do it because of your own individual wants. Because it means you are trying to be aware of the art and the art form and the artists and everything else that comes with it.

Karthika: Well, you know, I’m going to ask you this. You are a very popular Carnatic musician, one of the best from what I’ve read. Would you mind singing something for us?

Karthika: Thank you so much Vignesh that was amazing. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast and sharing your story. I really do appreciate your time.

Vignesh: Thank you so much for having me.


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