Supriya Nagarajan is a Mumbai-born Carnatic vocalist who lives in Dewsbury. She is the founder, CEO, and artistic director of Manasamitra, an arts organisation that is described as “delivering a range of exciting and original cross-cultural experiences”.
As part of Asian Standard’s International Women’s Day campaign that sees women being heavily featured across our titles for the entire month of March, we spoke to Mrs Nagarajan about her classical training in India, her positive outlook on life, and performing during the pandemic.
Mrs Nagarajan found her love of music at the age of five, when she was able to begin her training as a Carnatic singer with her “Carnatic guru” teacher, Balamani. At the age of ten, she began to perform in local concert and then as part of a duo.
Growing up in such a multi-cultural city as Mumbai – which she refers to it as the previous name, Bombay – provided her with a wealth of diverse culture to draw from.
Mrs Nagarajan said: “I am from Bombay in India. It is a very multicultural space as it is the business hub of India, people from all over move and settle down in the city. Growing up I was exposed to diverse types of music and languages.
“I speak seven Indian languages just because I grew up in such a wonderful city, learning the languages in school and socially. It was the same with music, I was exposed to soul, classical, Bollywood, all kinds of music.”
A polyglot, Mrs Nagarajan speaks eight languages, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, Sanskrit, Telugu, and English. She jokes that she hasn’t ventured into learning any European languages as “there is no space in the hardware in my brain”.
From a steady middle-class family, with her mum, Susila, a music graduate, and her father and grandfather both accountants, she was encouraged to perform but to also find a sensible and “stable” job, as Mrs Nagarajan puts it, and so followed suit and earned her degree in Commerce and Accountancy and joining HSBC in 1985.
Her job took her around Asia, from India to Hong Kong, to Singapore, and finally, the UK where she settled in 1997. She stayed with HSBC in the UK for eight more years, 20 years in total, before she left her banking career to pursue music full time.
The musician said: “I performed when I wasn’t working, but I wanted to devote my time entirely to music, so I left the bank and set up Manasamitra in 2005, an artist-led organisation based in Dewsbury that presents South Asian art to a wider audience.”
After two decades in the money business, Mrs Nagarajan was ready to take the plunge and focus on music professionally. Switching careers can be difficult for anyone, but as a South Asian woman leaving her reliable job to enter the capricious creative sector, there was “always obstacles to overcome” she said.
The CEO said: “I was 39 when I set up my organisation. At the time, it was second my career so who would have believed that I was able to deliver music in a professional way when I hadn’t done it before in the past?
“Being a middle-aged Asian woman looking to compose and perform music in mainstream spaces was always going to be an obstacle. It took time to overcome, but eventually, hard work won over the challenges. Tackling the issues head-on was the only way to do it.”
The singer’s mother, Susila, sadly passed away before Mrs Nagarajan set up her company, but her father and brother, both living in India, were supportive of her dream. Her husband, Dr Srinivasan Nagarajan, encouraged her to follow her passion and backed her all the way.
She added: “My mother passed away before she could see the dream of mine come true, but my father was incredibly supportive. My parents, my brother and my brother were all based in India. Here, I have my husband and two children who have always been supportive.
“If you start a new venture, you either invest money or you invest your time. In the creative sector, it needed some money, but more so I needed to invest my time to understand the industry I was heading into.”
Mrs Nagarajan has a positive outlook on life, and her work. She is not afraid of rejection or pushback, which is needed when working in such an industry that ebbs and flows.
“I was never phased to approach people and talk about my work. I am quite happy for people to say no to me”, she said.
“If I pitch a piece of work and somebody says ‘no, thank you’, I am happy with that, at least I got an answer. The worst thing is if you reach out to somebody, and they do not reply.”
This outlook on life comes from having a “secure family network” she said. “If you know that you have the financial and mental backing, then you feel more comfortable when you hear the rejections.
“Positivity is part of the social fabric, and it depends on the strength of the thread. The stronger the thread, the better the output. Luckily, I had that support.
“My positivity also comes from my pure love of music. Music is in every breath I take. I am doing something I’m so passionate about so positivity comes to the forefront naturally.”
Two years ago, the singer released her debut album, Dusk Notes. Inspired by the encouragement of Jarvis Cocker, this evocative feature-length record is a complete sensory experience celebrating spirituality and dusk ragas.
As well as promoting arts and culture across Kirklees and West Yorkshire, Mrs Nagarajan travels the world over performing when not in a pandemic. The artist was supposed to travel to Australia to perform in 2020 before the world came to a standstill and international travel was halted.
Undeterred, she took to performing digitally from a room in her Dewsbury, partnering with international creatives. Viewership varied but one performance streamed to over 130,000 people around the world.
The pandemic was also difficult for another reason. The singer’s entire immediate family are healthcare professionals, working on the frontlines during the pandemic. “My husband is a GP, and my son is an anaesthetist working in the Intensive Care Unit at Bradford Royal Infirmary, so I was constantly thinking about the dangers they were exposed too”. The artistic director added: “My daughter is a GP living in Australia, so she was experiencing the pandemic in a different way, as well.
“I needed to do things that gave me peace of mind and working with collaborators around the world and connecting on a spiritual level through the internet provided me with this and kept me sane.”
Her latest project with her long-time artistic partner Duncan Chapman and in collaboration with Simon Limbrick is a performance called Meltwater in Blue. Drawing on South Indian ragas and two years of improvisation over the internet, this is the first time the three performers have been in the same room together. This piece is inspired by ideas of change of physical state from stasis to flow.
In December it was announced that Manasamitra secured funding from Performing Rights Society Fund and Arts Council England to support its growing mentoring programme, mentoring women from minority backgrounds within the arts industry.
Mrs Nagarajan currently supports six women, providing them with individual sessions tailored to the needs of each mentee will result in a new composition from each artist.