The IITs are a powerhouse of scientific talent. But if you dig deeper, you will also discover that IITs are a treasure trove of creative talent, talent that has been submerged under the juggernaut of societal expectations.

Ragavan Manian, our next pathbreaker, Music Freelancer & Mentor, conducts online concerts, exploring varied themes for composition as well as piloting school programs that cross-connect musical ideas with subjects ranging from programming to pre-history.

Ragavan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about commencing his musical journey under the tutelage of the world-renowned legend, Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna, graduating with an Electrical Engineering degree from IIT Madras, doing his M.S. and working in the area of computer networking (Cisco) followed by an MBA, and quitting the corporate world, after being unable to ignore the call of music.

For students, its ok to follow a traditional path to sustain yourselves, but always listen to your inner calling. There will be many opportunities for you to get back to what you always wanted to do. But the one thing you need to know is when to pull the plug.

For those concerned about the threat of AI, Ragavan’s advice in the final section offers great insights !

Ragavan, tell us about your background?

I have a Science & Engineering background. Prior to that I had a music background! In a way, music is my original foreground. After 3+ decades of hanging it out to dry, I’ve reinstated it front & center.

I don’t hail from a family of musicians. My dad’s elder sister was the only performing musician in my extended family, and she had to retire early. She played a huge role in shaping my early musical years. My neighborhood (Tambaram, Chennai) in the early 80’s offered a sleepy, yet supportive environment to study music under some fine local teachers. Noteworthy of them were Pallavi T. Narasimhachari (voice) and Kanchi Janardhanam (violin). 

Academic obligations (i.e. studying for exams) aside, music was absolutely everything to me. At 11, I also started studying with the world-renowned legend, Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna. Till I was 15, I assumed that I would become a musician. The X standard boards changed everything. I think I surprised my middle-class parents by scoring high in science and mathematics. They couldn’t resist the temptation of turning me into a proper science kid. I admit that in retrospect they succeeded only too well – I am equal parts music & science nerd today. 

In what was considered bizarre back then, I switched boards from Tamil Nadu state metric, to CBSE; I moved into an “upstream” school in the heart of Chennai; and I prepared for the IIT-JEE in earnest. For the first few months of this newfound academic journey I didn’t think I stood a whisker of a chance. I even secretly hoped that my parents would realize my abject lack of talent in science, realize that my Xth board performance was a freak incident and allow me back into music where I belonged.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

As it turned out I didn’t exactly sink without a trace in the new high school. I even got top honors in a couple of Physics talent exams. Within two years my fantasy had changed from full-time musician to physicist. A good rank in the IIT-JEE ironically took me further away from this dream as well. I wished to do Physics in IIT-Bombay. My parents would rather that I stayed in Chennai and studied “whatever branch I could get – be it computer engineering or swinging on the banyan tree branches”. 

Life at IITM sealed my professional fate more or less, for the next ~2 decades. My musician mojo never quite faded away (even after a few lazy attempts to exorcise it by not practicing music for years on end). At IITM, there were sporadic opportunities to perform solo and in the college bands, to hobnob with visiting musicians at the Saarang shows .. but I had long since given up “pro level rigor” that music excellence demanded, and landed myself square in the amateur box. I graduated with a BTech in Electrical Engineering.

I followed B.Tech with a MSEE at University of Virginia. Again, a cross-roads decision – after flirting with the MBA admission process (I got through to the IIM Calcutta PGDCM, a new program back then), I chose instead to continue exploring a career in engineering. In this decision the voice of reason was my faculty advisor at IITM who felt that IITans ought to contribute to global engineering and “not sell soaps”. 

In the University of Virginia campus, the esoteric musician in me got a fresh lease of life. I always liked “other” music – not just North Indian classical music or Tamil/Hindi movie songs which were de-facto for the environment; I loved heavy metal and also had a big collection of JS Bach minuettes, sonatas and solos. I found a chance to take this up a notch. And as a graduate student I had no big social life, hence lots of time in my hands to listen and mix.

In UVA I discovered the joys of hanging with an international student community. I learned to play a little piano, started listening to jazz, taught myself to play the bansuri (Hindustani style), sang in pan-Indian gatherings, and even guest lectured on Indian classical music at the department of South Asian studies; while at the same time honing my research skills and writing my thesis at the UVa Computer Engineering lab. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Returning to music was always part of the plan. I just didn’t know when it would happen, but in my gut I knew it had to happen. That it happened well into my 40’s, a little over two years ago, and it involved letting go of a promising career in high-tech management, is the confluence of moira and ananke, destiny and constraint. A child-like calling – the call of a definitive bliss to live a life in music – simply took me decades to answer, when finally it became too strong to ignore. The operational constraint was having a family, hence circumstances had to be somewhat favorable. The basic notion of “blissing out with music” needed a few tweaks but I think I have it now. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

First job, internship.. these are so far back in time I almost reel in surprise at the years! I think the interesting challenge over the many professional roles in engineering & management over many years was to be able to sustain the tender notion of a life immersed in the arts. It is a romantic ideal, considering the alternative was often financially rewarding and intellectually pleasant. 

A majority of my professional years were spent in the USA. Life as a high-tech immigrant worker was like a well-oiled machine. Long hours and good pay were the two sides of the machinery that the “desi techie” clung on to. My first corporate role was that of a hardware engineer at FORE, an upstart computer networking company in Pittsburgh. From there I went West as many do, to Silicon Valley – first to a startup, and then to Cisco, and eventually Marvell Semiconductor. 

Designing high-end networking equipment in the Valley starting from the heydays of the tech boom was to many living the dream. To me it was tolerable. Leisure may be spent in a seemingly endless roster of activities. From trekking in the American outdoors to learning to ice skate, there were many that I sampled from time to time. Closer to my heart was keeping in touch with music through engaging in my local community via weekend concerts and teaching. Music evolved into social currency, cultural identity and part-time passion rolled into one. 

The good thing about a fairly large emigrant community was the quality of the talent pool. I drew much satisfaction by teaming with like-minded musicians and performing, practicing and discussing the finer aspects of the art. Thanks to my childhood training and sustained engagement over the years, I would be featured in many local festivals. My musical vista expanded. I felt happy with the balance between work, hobby and family. 

Things would change again when my wife and I decided to return to India with our young children. We returned because our ageing parents needed our help. While Padma found a great role at a friend’s architectural firm in Hyderabad, I decided to take a study break and got myself admitted into the MBA program at the Indian School of Business (ISB). I had already assumed corporate managerial responsibilities, and felt that a business degree will help me administer them better. It could also be a ticket to step outside the tech pureplay and explore other industries.

How did you get your first break?

If break implies “breaking into music”, I think the earliest I got to a career in music was by signing up as the operations head at Shankar Mahadevan Academy, a year after my MBA. I landed the role through my extended musical network. The move did bring me closer to music albeit in the management sense. SMA is a leader in the Indian music education space. It is eponymous with one of the keenest musical minds in the country (Shankar Mahadevan). Its mission is to provide access to our music to learners from anywhere in the globe. Given its blend of online technology and music, it was an opportunity worth pursuing.

My work at SMA overseeing curriculum design, matching teachers with learners, innovating content and managing P/L in a way prepared me to move back to Chennai to plunge into a new startup in the education space. The move was a decision that I took with gusto but that I regret a little in hindsight. It did help me understand general education better, but distracted me for three more years from music and also landed me in financially unsavory territory!

The “go pro” thought crystallised in my head when my Guru and idol passed away in 2016. I felt that the only way I could fill the void of his absence was to fill it to the brim with music. It felt a little confusing at first, but very soon I learned to introduce myself simply as a musician even if I didn’t know how exactly to go about being one. I started off by hacking away at what I’d always thought of as my lifeline – my corporate identity – principal engineer, team leader, R&D head, VP, the lot. Whatever was left was who I would be for the rest of my life.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

You’d think the biggest challenge was the lack of a monthly wage, but that wasn’t the case. I had already weaned myself off my “paycheck addiction” by committing time fully to the startup and working for no pay. I had arranged for an annuity to weather any startup storm for five years. The real problem was how to spend the days with no apparent accountability. How to kickstart a new day without the checks and balances that meetings and deadlines brought to my professional life all these years. 

I knew I was not starting at zero in the world of classical music, though I was not in the best of shape. I had composed a few songs, some of which my Guru appreciated, so I decided to hone my composition skills. I loved teaching to sing, and there were already a few students studying music from me. I enjoyed playing many instruments, especially sax, flute and violin and felt there may be a few options (perform, record, teach) there. I had taught a course at my alma mater IIT Madras on the engineering design of musical instruments and felt I could further explore ideas that cross-connected art with science and everything else. Each one of these was a thread that I could spawn, each with its own significant joys and challenges. 

So I wish-spawned four distinct musical threads – teaching, performing, composing and cross-connecting. The modus operandi was to take on whatever assignment came my way and see where it led me, as long as it was enjoyable. 

Where do you work now? 

Performances have been few and far between in these strange times but I have conducted a number of online concerts and live’s since the pandemic started. I’ve explored varied themes for composition. I’ve piloted a school program that cross-connects musical ideas with subjects ranging from programming to pre-history. Teaching takes up a good chunk of my work. And after all this, I have time left for practice and contemplation. I feel I’ve made progress and collected goodwill in the last two years that I couldn’t have done in a decade of being a part-timer.

How does your work benefit society? 

Art serves a very different purpose compared to other walks of life. The classical arts represent distillates of centuries, maybe even millennia, of evolution. Until recently, I would’ve fixated on technology as the one social good with a potential to transform society rapidly and visibly, whereas art is a means to transport oneself to a different world, but who knows if it makes any real transformation. But when I undertook classical music as a full-time endeavor, I felt I had landed myself the opportunity to make a far bigger impact than I could’ve as a techie. As a purveyor of a well-defined creative pursuit rooted in cultural ethos, a classical musician holds an ancient treasure with enormous currency. 

Creativity is a meta-skill that we need today in the age of AI, more than ever. Indian Classical music with its rules and exceptions, rigors and relaxations offers a time-tested system of individuation. Music- genre no bar – criss-crosses across all of humanity, touches all walks of life and is the closest we have to an universal language. With this vision as guiding affirmation, even the slightest move that I make along the direction of transmitting this vista carries with it a  germane power. Not flashy like a ringing cellphone or a screaming missile, but the resilient power like that of self-possession of an unfolding raga.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Mid-year 2015, I accompanied my Guruji for a concert trip to Bhavnagar, Gujarat. He was to sing at the Hanumat Jayanti festival in Mahuva, a small village there. Opposite to him was the great Hindustani vocalist Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty. My role was to take good care of Guruji and aid him a little during the concert. One song into the show, he said he was feeling a little tired and asked me to sing the next song. And the next.. and soon I was exchanging alap and swara prastaaras (improvised musical phrases) with one of the finest Hindustani musicians of our time. 

Jugalbandi was not a new genre to me, having collaborated with many Hindustani musicians in the past, but it was a joy to be able to rise to the occasion. I felt deeply touched by Guruji’s generosity in allowing me to sing solo for as long as I did. If this great icon of Indian music would place his trust in me, it was high time I started taking myself more seriously as a musician! It put me firmly down the path of spending more time in music until I reached the point of choosing music over everything else, a couple of years later.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

You the next generation – you’re entering uncharted territory in human history. You are inheriting a planet stripped of much of its natural beauty, diversity and fertility, at the brink of implosion. You face a sea change in job markets because of the advent of AI. The ability to uncover radically new insights to solve problems will be the last bastion of humanity, and it will be your joy and your burden. There are no recipes on how to do this effectively, but you’ll require unprecedented levels of creativity and empathy, in addition to traditional hard scientific understanding. 

Despite clear evidence of the darkness ahead I believe in being optimistic in seeking collaborative solutions. Here’s where the study of both arts and sciences will really help you, instead of working in separate professional and cultural silos which has been our failing approach for the past few generations. Art is not merely entertainment, just as science isn’t just a means to a livelihood. Both studies reveal deeper aspects of ourselves and through them, may show us paths out of crisis situations.

While drilling deep into a subject, keep an eye out for connections with other disciplines. Generalizations are not only for philosophers; nor is specificity confined to scientific method. Emotional Intelligence is not just for psychologists; nor is symbolic manipulation just for mathematicians. Be greedy for the big picture.

Our society places a high premium on the study of science and technology mainly because of market forces. I benefited immensely from a technical education, but a lopsided materialistic notion of utility will hurt our long-term prospects to survive and thrive. Art brings balance to living, by restoring a sense of purpose and helping you connect the dots. Embrace art knowing that it goes straight to the heart. 

Future Plans?

A big chunk of a musician’s role in society is to advocate his/her art. Naturally, I plan to continue to use the tools at my disposal – vocal and instrumental music, lyric-writing and narrative to reach out to newer audiences, especially the young with the objective of impressing on them the relevance of art in their lives. Besides the obvious route of reaching out by working with schools and colleges, I think every performance is an opportunity to further my pet topic of why learning music and/or cultivating a listening habit can improve ones quality of life tremendously.