Chai with Mnaju: Singing Superstars – Raghu Saranathan

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Photo by Rasik Mehta
Photo by Rasik Mehta

Raghu Saranathan is a dynamic singer who has also delighted us in 2012. He is known for his rich, well-trained voice and “famous one liners” and sense of humor. He rates one of his musical career highlights as performing the national anthem at TD Garden at a Boston Celtics game.
How were you introduced to singing and did you have any formal training and, if so, from whom?

My introduction to singing and music in general was when I started learning Carnatic music. I was about 7 years old. We lived in Bangalore when I started my lessons. I learned Carnatic music from Vasumati Sridharan, who lived in the same township as my family did at that time. I remember being the only boy in the music class. The other eight or nine students were all girls and I was extremely shy at the thought of being the only male student. I even protested to my parents and asked that I be excused of my music lessons, but they knew better and insisted that I continue learning. My parents were very encouraging during the early years and I firmly believe that has helped me set a good classical foundation.

I did learn again, as an adult, in the Boston region. For a couple of years, I was learning with Tara Bangalore in Framingham. As many know she is an accomplished singer and teacher in this region.
When did you first perform on stage and what song?

My first performance was in Bangalore as a 7 year old. There was a community program and my teacher, Vasumati Sridharan, had a slot where she had all of her students sing as a group. We sang, “Bhagyada Lakshmi Baaramma,” a composition of Saint Purandara Dasa.
As for Bollywood performances, I made my debut with Saptaswar sometime in fall 2003. If memory serves me right my first song was “Say Shaava Shaava” from “Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Ghum.” I sang the Sudesh Bhonsle piece from that song.
Given your classical background, how did you develop an interest in Bollywood songs?

My father always liked to have the radio playing in the background as he went about his daily activities. As a result, when I was growing up, I was sub-consciously listening to Hindi film music on All India Radio and singing along with them.

Also, when I was in my 10th grade, my mother presented me with a cassette that was a collection of some of Kishore Kumar’s wonderful hits. I even remember the name of the collection; it was called “Many Moods of Kishore Kumar.” It was indeed a wide variety of selection of songs. The cassette, definitely, created an interest in me to listen to Kishore Kumar, Rafi Saheb and other artistes of their era. I then began trading cassettes with my classmates or recorded songs from the radio to form my own music collection.
What do you think is unique about your approach to singing?

I like to improvise when I am singing a song. I think of it as my tribute to the artists who have performed by adding my own touch to the song as I am singing it. Sometimes I prepare these improvisations and during other times, it just happens in the spur of the moment as I am performing on the stage, during a rendition.
How do you prepare before going on stage or before a performance?

Well, first of all, just hours before the program, I still get “the butterflies.” Someone once told me that it is a good thing. They said the feeling only means that I care to do well in the ensuing stage performance and that I should stop performing the day I stop getting this feeling. I value that advice very dearly, as you can see. As for preparation, I try to eat in smaller quantities before the performance because on a full stomach it is difficult to reach some high notes (at least for me). Also I make it a point to keep myself hydrated before and during a program. That really helps me.
Which artist inspires you the most?

There are several artists whom I admire and idolize, including Rafi Saheb, Kishore da, the Burmans, Illayaraja, S.P. Balasubramanian and Sonu Nigam just to name a few. However, the one that inspires me, especially for his stage performances is Hariharan. He just effortlessly glides through the songs when he is giving a live performance. He comes up with unbelievable improvisations that I sometimes try to use for my own performances. Someone had commented on one of Hariharan’s YouTube videos that his live performances sometimes outdo his recordings because of all of his embellishments. That’s a very true statement.
Which performance did you think was your best or most satisfying?

My group, Saptaswar, had produced a tribute to R.D. Burman back in March 2009. It was our first production and all the preparation leading to the show was very exciting. We not only had a full show, we unfortunately had to turn away some people because we could not seat them. Also, we had (and still have) excellent chemistry between all the performers and that really makes a show memorable.
If I have to name the highlight of my singing career, it was in January 2011, when I had the good fortune of being part of the Saptaswar quartet that performed the American and Canadian national anthems in front of a packed house at TD Garden at a Boston Celtics game.
That was an unbelievable experience.

Sudha Lakshmi Rao, Krithi Rao and Rahul Bharadwaj were the others in the quartet.
Did you ever think of singing as a profession?

While I have never thought of singing as my primary profession, I do think of this as my second profession.
How do you balance your passion for singing with work, family, etc.?

It is a bit challenging, especially now that I have a 1-year-old at home. My wife, Supraja, is very understanding and does support me a lot in my musical endeavors. She helps me as I struggle with my responsibilities at home. However, it is a balancing act and one has to count on the love and support of their family as they go about pursuing their interests.
What are some of your future goals?

I believe that music is more of a journey rather than a destination. So no matter how many goals one has, there will be something else on the horizon. That said, I’d like to expand my repertoire, which is mainly Indian film music, to learn more Bhajans especially those that my mother has composed, to sing at appropriate occasions.
And finally, here is his instant response to Rapid Fire Questions:

Music is … a journey.
Fame is … side effect.
Money is … piece of a puzzle.
Love is … all about sharing.
Secret of a good marriage is … love.
My best quality is … my one liners.
My biggest fear is … saying the wrong thing.
My biggest strength is … my faith and my family.
My next show is … “Shaam E Burman” on March 9, 2013.
My last words for Chai with Manju are … Thank you so much.

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