When it comes to musical talent, most people say you either have it or you don’t. But there’s always more to the story than that. Without a doubt, talent can be traced back to a child’s upbringing and their family surroundings. However, growing up in the UK and learning Indian classical music often means that your artistic commitments are really a part of your wider cultural education. Soon enough, academic study and a ‘stable income’ become more important. But what happens when a student wants to take music further than just an extracurricular activity that adds a competitive edge to their corporate career?
Achuthan is a 20-something charismatic violinist in the Carnatic tradition of Indian classical music. Recognised as a keen young player, his recent solo performance opened South Asian Arts UK’s Solstice Festival in Leeds this year; he appeared as an accompanist on BBC Young Dancer; and he’s been touring with Seeta Patel’s classical bharatanatyam dance work. Although music has always played a huge part in his life, he only began to recognise it when it started to slip from his grasp.
“Whichever tapes my parents could get from India were really the first memories of me listening to music,” Achuthan recalls. After finding Achuthan had painted all over a mridangam drum, his parents enrolled him into vocal classes when he was 6 years old. For many Sri Lankan Tamils, Sunday school is where the community ensures that cultural traditions such as music and dance are preserved and passed on to future generations. After seeing his elder cousin learning violin and developing an attraction for recordings by the legendary Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Achuthan learned violin for twelve years at his local Tamil school in Wembley from his first guru, Shri L. Kothandapani, who gave him the stage presence that he has today. “He would always say that presentation is so important in performance, so I would be mindful of that. If you have a teacher that makes you feel confident, it relieves some of the tension you have on stage,” Achuthan says. That confidence soon paid off and Achuthan started to win every competition in which he participated. But it was one competition in particular that would mark a change in his musical journey.
After a number of qualifying rounds, Achuthan competed and won a music competition in 2005 that awarded him enough money to travel to India and finally learn from his musical icon, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. With years of learning and success under his belt, Achuthan travelled to Chennai with his parents to meet ‘Lalgudi sir’ in the hope that he would give Achuthan some lessons. “I got there thinking I was going to have classes, everybody in England thought that I was going to have classes there. On the first day Lalgudi sir asked me to play something, then he said ‘I can see he’s listened to my tape a lot, but it’s not our style.’ He just kept saying ‘this is wrong, this is not our style.’” A disheartened 15-year-old Achuthan managed to persuade Lalgudi sir to consider him after playing a few more phrases, but the violin legend said that he would let him know if there was going to be class tomorrow or not. “I still remember the ride home in the auto-rickshaw. I kept shouting at my parents, saying ‘imagine if he doesn’t want to teach me, I’m going to look like a fool when I get back!’” But luckily Lalgudi sir called him the next day and a humbling experience ensued that stripped Achuthan’s technique right down to the basics. “You live in a bubble in England and people are good here, but the level of training over there is completely different,” he says. After creating a new foundation, Achuthan had to change teachers in England in order to preserve Lalgudi sir’s particular tradition. Visits to India provided a huge boost in terms of the skill and context of the craft but Achuthan’s parents couldn’t afford to take him every year and besides, he now had to revise for GCSEs and A-levels.
At the same festival Achuthan met sitar maestro and educationalist Ustad Dharambir Singh, who invited him to join one of the earliest cohorts of the South Asian Music Youth Orchestra, known as SAMYO. Every summer Achuthan was pushed out of his comfort zone, surrounded by older musicians from different backgrounds and encouraged to try new ideas in front of people. The ensemble toured various venues with original compositions throughout Achuthan’s teenage life which kept him in regular contact with music, despite intensive education at his local grammar school and similar ambitions to his peers to be a doctor or a banker. Attention to music may have been turbulent throughout his higher education, but there was one force that kept Achuthan grounded: “It was all down to my mum, she was literally the one sitting with me every day, forcing me to sit there and practice. She would correct me too because she knew about music.” To this day, Achuthan’s mother critiques his preparation for performances and solos.
Surprisingly, the decision to study medicine arose from Achuthan’s own work experience in the field instead of parental pressure. “Those five years were damn hard, but it was the best decision I ever made because now I can support my family.” Studying medicine at St Bartholomew’s in London took over Achuthan’s life but he felt a pull during his second year of medical school and remembers thinking “I’ve been doing music for sixteen years, if I don’t do it now, when will I do it? When I was growing up, I realised there were a few people who were really good at music and went into professions but then I never saw them ever again. I didn’t want to be that guy. For me it’s not enough, I need music.” During university, another encouraging mentor, Pushkala Gopal, introduced Achuthan to bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer Seeta Patel and Achuthan became the violinist for her touring work. “She is such a good dancer that every performance is nuanced and unique. She can respond to improvisations in the music so well,” says Achuthan. Now, alongside touring with Seeta and working on solo projects, Achuthan is a locum doctor employed through an agency so that he can work flexibly around music.
“Education is important. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone not to study because you do need to be smart. So many Indian musicians have degrees and other professions as well as music,” Achuthan emphasises. He believes commitment to education is essential for success but also having the right exposure to good music and the support to take it seriously, if an individual wants to. Ultimately, it comes down to many factors. External influences, mentors, regular opportunities, self-motivation and guidance from dedicated teachers all determine what kind of relationship you will have with your art. But when you look back, it is clear to see that passion from all sides is what really guides you on the continuous journey.