He works a full-time corporate job (as Senior Vice President at Goldman Sachs) five days a week, travels and performs during weekends and manages to be absolutely extraordinary at both. So extraordinary, in fact, that it seems like he straddles his two careers effortlessly. With his distinct nasal twang, the stamp of the Lalgudi bani and his intelligent music, his musical style is truly inimitable. Meet Saketharaman Santhanam, vocalist par excellence and disciple of maestro Lalgudi Shri Jayaraman.
What was the musical atmosphere like at home when you were young?
To be honest, there was not much music at home when we were young, as my sister and I were both into academics. Our interest was kindled only when we started learning from Lalgudi sir.
Your parents lived in Africa for a few years. When did they move back to Chennai, and why? Did you or your sister ever live there?
My parents and sister lived in Tanzania until I was born. My father Santhanam worked for World Bank in Africa for a decade. Apparently, I used to call him ‘uncle’ as he came to India only when I was four years old! He moved to Chennai for good in 1986 as my parents wanted to groom both of us in Indian culture and classical arts.
How did you start learning from Shri Srirangam Krishnamurthy Rao at the age of six?
Initially, I was not very interested in Carnatic music. But my sister Vishakha Hari was learning from Shri Srirangam Krishnamurthy Rao who would come home to take classes. Once, when I was four years old, I sang Reetigowlai alapana impromptu, and he was stunned. I then started formal training at the age of six.
When and how did you then start learning from Smt. Savithri Sathyamurthy?
My sister and I performed together in Mumbai when I was about seven. Smt. Savithri Sathyamurthy played the violin in that concert. She wanted to give us both formal training, so that’s how we came under her tutelage.
Did you also learn the mridangam for a little while?
I learnt mridangam from Shri Babu Rajasekhar, who is the mridangist for Shri Udayalur Kalyanaraman’s bhajans. I learnt for about five years.
You started learning from Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman in 1992 at the age of 10. How did that happen?
Shri G.J.R. Krishnan suggested to my father that we apply for an advanced training programme that Lalgudi sir was conducting in 1991-92. My sister and I applied, and luckily, we were selected. There were only about 14 students in the four-month crash course he taught on manodharma sangeetham. I was luckier still — he selected one from the 14 to become his full-time student, and I was that one! My sister also started learning from him as it made sense for both of us to imbibe the same style.
Describe your training with Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman. You have said that classes would often last 4 to 5 hours. Can you describe a typical class?
Typically, a class would start at 4 pm. He would ask us to sing the song that he had taught us in the previous classes. He would then ask us to sing kalpana swaras and alapana in turns. Then he would teach us a new song. However big the song was, whether it was Chakkani Raja or Dharini Telusukonti, he would teach us the entire song in one class. Then he would sing a ragam tanam pallavi and expect me to do the anulomam and pratilomam then and there. He would get really furious if I was not able to sing with precision. But then, at the end of the class, he would always give me a hug and say that he expected a lot from me, which was why he had scolded me. I used to have tears in my eyes — a legend like him explaining why he scolded me! There would be joke sessions as well. Typically, a class lasted for a minimum of 4 hours.
You also learnt padams and javalis from Smt. Geetha Raja.
Smt. Geetha Raja is my mother’s second cousin. She used to stay with us whenever she visited Chennai in the 90s as she lived in Mumbai at that time. I was keen to learn padams and javalis in the most authentic way. The Brinda–Muktha style is one of the most aesthetic and classical styles, and I was fortunate to learn more than 30 padams and javalis. In fact, Smt. Geetha Raja arranged for me to perform a 2.5-hour exclusive padam–javali concert at her house.
Watch young Saketharaman perform Karthikeya (in Todi) as part of the Papanasam Sivan bhajan procession near the Kapali Temple in Mylapore, Chennai (1993):
When did you start performing concerts?
I started performing with my sister at the age of seven. But my first individual concert was at the age of 13 when Lalgudi sir arranged for me to sing at Shri Krishna Gana Sabha in the Gokulashtami series. I won the best prize for my debut concert.
Meanwhile what was happening on the academic front?
I was quite good on the academic front. I got the highest marks in class XII. I scored 485/500 and was asked to witness the Republic Day celebrations from the Prime Minister’s Box. In college as well, I was always in the top three ranks in my engineering course.
Over the years, how many hours of practice per day has gone into your musical growth?
Music is 24*7 so it’s hard to define the number of hours as such. My practice depends on the voice texture on a given day. If the voice is a bit hoarse I might spend a couple of hours just doing voice exercises. On some days, the voice warms up from the word go, so even 15 minutes of culture would suffice. Then I practise songs, kalpana swaras, alapanas, pallavis, etc. I spend quite a lot of time thinking, learning and listening on a daily basis. So I would say at least eight hours of music practice and thinking per day.
Why did you take up a full-time corporate role?
I was quite interested in finance engineering. I was a commerce student in school and engineering student in college. My job in a top multi-national investment bank has definitely given me a great opportunity to merge these interests.
There’s no denying that working at Goldman Sachs has greatly restricted your concert schedule. Are you happy with that?
I would say that I have been at peace with myself — I know that I could have had a faster trajectory in my music career if I had taken up music full time, but I have also enjoyed every moment in my corporate job. I have had extremely fast career growth — I’m a Senior Vice President within a decade of industry experience. I strive to give quality music, and I have never been an advocate of counting the number of concerts that one gets to perform. I get sufficient time to think and plan for my concerts as I generally don’t accept more than a concert or two per week.
You have said in an earlier interview that you will continue to work until you gain financial stability with your music career. But being in a job means that you can’t accept many concerts, nor can you go on long concert tours — both of which are pretty much essential to build a financially viable performing career, don’t you think?
Actually, I have been lucky — my managers have allowed me to go on month-long tours to the US frequently and for the annual December season as well. I also have financial stability in music now. It’s really up to me now what I want to pursue further.
Have you ever felt that your hectic work life (which I understand involves international travel as well) has affected the quality of your concerts? Do you ever see yourself giving up your job for a full-time music career?
The international official travel used to be a lot more in the earlier days but nowadays I only travel for a week or two. So I don’t think it has affected me. In the next few years, I will definitely take music up as a full-time occupation.
Have you performed with your sister after becoming a professional? Do you brainstorm or practise with her?
I have performed a few concerts with my sister. Shri Shashikiran was the first to organise one, for Bharat Sangeet Utsav in 2012-13. It was a huge hit, and we were invited by many sabhas to perform as a duo. But due to the difference in shruti, it puts a strain on both our voices. So we decided to take a break. We brainstorm with each other all the time on various aspects of music — new pallavis, raga phrases, new compositions, rare ragas, voice culture, etc. I don’t practise with her though since I sing at D and she sings at G.
You have composed several pallavis yourself. When did you start doing this? Do you have a personal favourite?
Lalgudi sir asked all his students to compose pallavis and render them in his classes. My first was in Shanmukhapriya in Tisra Rupakam 3 Kalai. He liked it a lot and encouraged me to compose more. Since then I have been composing pallavis. The count is 100+ now. My favourites are the ones that I compose for Pallavi Darbar every year — Ranjani mala, Gowlantya ragas, pancha nadai, etc.
Watch Saketharaman peform at Pallavi Darbar (2016):
How do you learn these days and ensure your music doesn’t stagnate?
I keep an open mind when it comes to styles. I listen and learn from all musicians and try to incorporate it in my own style. Whether it is past masters like GNB, Semmangudi, Alathur or Madurai Mani Iyer or contemporary musicians like TNS, TVS or Sanjay Subrahmanyan, I try to imbibe the essence and not imitate. It’s very important for us to have a flexible approach, adapt and keep improvising. Otherwise, as you say, there is a danger of stagnation.
Where do you see yourself in the Carnatic music field 10 years from now?
Well, I will need to use sentimental analysis and other data science/machine learning algorithms to predict that! On a more serious note, I think that I will be performing as a full-time musician at that point. I’d like to continue providing quality music while still increasing my fan base. I’d also like to compose more pallavis and tune thukkada items such as those of Purandaradasar and Annamacharya as well as bhajans.