A lot of folks– especially those within the desi diaspora– will identify with this story about identity crisis.
It’s about how “Sam” reconnected with his roots as “Sundar.” Music helped.
As young boy growing up in Sudbury Ont., a small mining town, Dr. Sundar Viswanathan, an Indo- jazz artist/composer (saxophone, flute) and a professor at York University, naively figured, Sam would have a better chance of fitting at school.
The shedding of his South Indian name did not however spare him from racism. Luckily for him, he had music.
“Music was an escape for me in high school,” he said adding he grew up listening, not just to western pop and rock, but also Bollywood and Kollywood (Tamil) music. “I was very introverted and music was my way of expressing myself.”
Sundar’s dad (Parameswara), also a professor, was a staunch Gandhian who believed in “turning-the-other-cheek.” He told his children to deal with discrimination and ignorance by being non-confrontational. Since retaliation wasn’t an option, the Viswanathan children, turned to their band and blasted music from the basement to alleviate some of the anger and angst of being picked on at school.
Parameswara and Shantha (Sundar’s mom) tried to nudge their son towards a career in medicine. When he remained adamant about music, they accepted his choice. In fact, had his dad not intervened at a critical moment in Sundar’s life, his musical aspirations would have been crushed by rejection.
As high school neared to an end, Sundar diligently create demo tapes and mailed them to prospective universities. Then he waited.
“I thought I was good, but I really wasn’t,” he said explaining he got rejected from all the schools.
One school- Wilfrid Laurier hadn’t gotten back, so a tiny flicker of hope remained. The music professor that heard the tape almost said a ‘no,’ but he decided to invite the wannabe composer for an audition.
Sundar flunked the test.
His dad–who had accompanied him to Wilfrid– realized rejection would crush his son, so, he sat down with the dean and pleaded with him to give his son a chance. The dean agreed.
Imagine how all our lives would be without those “second chances.”
For Sundar, the “yes” was a blessing. He proved to be a great student with impeccable work ethic. He excelled. By the end of his BA, he had several awards lined up on the mantle.
“That was it,” he recalled. “I was a musician. I went to the school for composition, not for performance, but I ended up playing so much classical saxophone that my teacher told me to learn jazz… The jazz thing just hit me…”
My name is Sundar
The undergrad degree led to a masters and finally a PhD in 2004.
Sundar, who grew up loving all sorts of music, by now felt a bit partial to jazz.
It was a pivotal time for a man who understood music, but was confused about his own identity.
“There was a bit of an inferiority thing that happened (during high school) because of all the racism,” he said. “At that time, I convinced myself, I am not brown, I am Canadian. While doing my MA in Boston, I took several conservatory courses (in non-western music), Turkish maquam and was influenced by Brazilian and African music. That’s when the shift slowly began. I kept hearing how artists like John Coltrane and The Beatles loved what was coming out of India and I realized, I should be proud of where am I from.”
One day it hit him: life’s not about fitting in, but it’s about being true to oneself.
Comfortable in his own skin today, the jazz artist who wears his distinctly Indian name proudly performs in Canada and around the world with his band–Avataar. The motley group includes several Juno-award winning musicians: Felicity Williams (vocals), Ravi Naimpally (tabla), Michael Occhipinti (guitar), Justin Gray (bass) and Giampaolo Scatozza (drums).
Sundar recently launched his third album Petal.
The impermanent truth
With Petal, Sundar dives into the fathoms of spirituality and surfaces with notes that appear to be distilled from his musical muses: Brazilian, jungle, Indian classical and jazz. Besides members of Avtaar, Petal showcases the artistry of award-winning pianist Robi Botos and acclaimed Hindustani singer Samidha Joglekar.
“I write very intuitively,” he says. “I’ll hear a simple melody in my head, then sing into a tape recorder, expand it on the piano. I think cinematically in big pictures, in landscapes. I feel out the nuances and colours in a way that’s really distinct from more academic practice.”
The album signals Sundar’s metamorphosis as a musician connected with the cosmos through spirituality.
“This album tells a story,” he said adding Petal was sponsored by the Ontario Arts Council. “For me, it was about connecting with my music and understanding the different threads that are inter-connected. My goal is not to entertain people. I would like to think, this album is more than music, it’s a message…”
Like the petals of a flower that appear resplendent, only to disappear into ether, Sundar says he now understands the truth: every moment is part of our journey, our reckoning.