Passion In The Moonlight
They live for the weekends.
At one point or another, the creative types stumble upon a painful reality. The creative life is a very difficult one, often involving personal and financial sacrifice, as well as little certainity of success.
Most people faced with the dilemma, let go of their creative ambitions and take the traditional route, investing in their education and securing a stable job, which ensures, among other things, financial stability and social status. That we in the South Asian community can respect.
As most transition into the “real world,” they find little time or energy left over at the end of the day to pursue their artistic passions.
Then there are those who just cannot let go.
Laksh Singh is one of them. During the day, he’s a civil engineer. Nights and weekends, he is an actor. “It is lot of work. They are two very different lives, but they both reinforce each other and keep me going and energized. Also, having a good job, in an area of my interest, helps me be selective of what I would do in acting. Whether it is developing and playing a character from a different world in a theatre or film, or standing below a giant bridge structure looking at a problem and wondering what should be done next, I find both very creative and engaging. I enjoy it,” Singh says.
His hectic lifestyle is partly hardwired in his personality. He’s always had multiple interests and he’s always done more than one thing at once, so he doesn’t find what he does out of the ordinary.
Singh grew up in Patna, Bihar, and went to the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, for his undergraduate education in Civil Engineering. After graduation, while working daytime as a design engineer, he started acting in professional Prithvi Hindi theatre, one of the most prestigious theatres in Mumbai.
“I used to perform in plays in College,” Singh says. “IIT Bombay was celebrating its Silver Jubilee and as a part of cultural program, we put up a Hindi play Girgit that was based on Anton Chekhov’s Chameleon. I was playing the lead. The response was very good and as soon as the play got over, the director called to congratulate and thank me. Sitting next to him was a professor from Bombay University who told me that I reminded him of one of his earlier students from Bombay University who is now a well-known theater actor in Bombay. He asked whether I would like to pursue it further in professional theater and advised that I meet his student and gave me his number. The person was Shafi Inamdar and I went to meet him at Prithvi Theatre the first thing after graduating and taking up a job in Mumbai.”
He acted in various theaters in Mumbai for about 5 years, performing mostly in Prithvi, earlier in small roles and then the lead. He also has acted in few advertisement films for Durga Khote Productions; one of them directed by the now internationally acclaimed Assamese filmmaker, Jahnu Barua.
In 1991, Singh came to the United States for graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he received his Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Civil Engineering. “The focus of my research at IIT and much later at The Johns Hopkins University remained large span suspension and cable stayed bridges.”
And his acting background? “The last play I acted in was When It Rains for Workshop Theater Company where I played a high flying surgeon who is blunt and opinionated, but quite a jolly character. I’ve also acted in several short films for NYU and Columbia film school graduate students and couple of feature films. One of the feature films I did, Late Watch premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last year.” Singh has also done a TV gig on ABC’s Hope and Faith with Kelly Ripa, Faith Ford and country singer Clint Black.
While Singh straddles a line between the two worlds, Roy Eappen, a government worker/painter who also resides in New York City, finds himself mending both worlds as one.
Eappen explains: “A while back, I was laid off from my job. I actually saw the event as a good opportunity to have more time with art. But surprisingly enough, I did not want to spend my entire day painting. I think work provides me a lot of subject matter for painting, but I really do not see my life as a dual lifestyle. I genuinely enjoy both my work and my painting. They are both strong components of who I am, and in many respects these lifestyles work with each other rather than serve as conflicts. But I do have a hard time seeing myself abandoning one for the other. For a while I really tried to abandon art, but could not. I really tried. I hate to call it passion, but it is really is something that is a part of me.”
He currently works in New York City government working on the city budget, one of the largest municipal budgets in the country. He focuses environmental health policy in the city. “I have no interest in politics, but the work I perform involves a good understanding of politics and its impact on decision making,” Eappen says.
He finds that working in government has the advantage of affording him time to commit his interest in art. “While I could make more money in other fields, I like government for this reason. There are times I have to put painting off to the side, but for the most part this balance is very manageable.”
Unlike Singh, who found acting in college, art is something Eappen has done ever since he can remember. “When I was young I used to make paper action-figures to play with. I also used to draw naked pictures of my sister taking a bath and freak out my conservative dad when I was six,” he jokes.
He did, at one point, consider art school after high school, but ended up studying architecture at Tufts University in Boston. “I remember this choice as being a real dilemma for me, but a liberal arts college was for me. Eventually I majored in architecture, which I thought made perfect sense, since it combined my interest in art with other areas I was good at. But by the time I graduated, I started having second thoughts in a career in architecture. After college, I worked for an environmental firm as an urban planner and eventually my interest in policy led me to my current job.”
“To put it simply, if you love something to the point of obsession the balance comes from somewhere. I need time for my tabla everyday and for me to compete with other tabla players, I must put in considerable number of hours to practice. So I sleep less. I can go on with less sleep and still get my work done at my daily IT field of work sometimes better than others. When I come back home I spend time with my wife and daughter, but after 9 pm it’s my time. I spend that time practicing till 1 or 2 am in the morning. That’s the only flexibility I have. But I don’t feel any pain because of it. Rather I feel pain when I don’t do it.”
Nayak is a former recipient of the Fulbright scholarship (sponsored by the United Nations Institute of International Education program), who started out living out his passion in college, playing in numerous cultural programs.
His tabla career thrives during weekends and over the last 15 plus years, they have added up. He has performed with many well known musicians of national and international repute.
“These gigs are my way of expressing my freedom at the end of the week. It’s also an expression of my love for my instruments. It’s also my way of expressing joy and happiness through music. I come alive at the end of the week. I live for the weekend.”
How does he maintain his sanity juggling the demands of work and his music career? “Music has always been in my blood. I can’t see life without it. I sometimes wonder how life would be without music. I shudder just thinking about it. My mother is a sitar player and a fantastic vocalist. Music came from my mother’s side there was a whole lineage of musicians from my ancestral home of Panchet Garh in the district of Midnapore, West Bengal, India. This house in Panchet Garh boasted of musicians such as Jadu Bhatta, Ustad Faquir Bux (Ustad Kader Bux’s father and Alla Rakha’s guru/teacher), Chowdhury Jadabendra Nandan and my grandfather Chowdhury Kausallya Nandan.”
“I took vocal lessons from my grandfather and my mother when I was young. I used to be really fascinated by tabla when my grandfather used to teach other students in our ancestral home. I remember during my childhood I would be constantly hitting the table or the Chair or bang something until someone would get really irritated and give me something tangible to bang on. That’s how I got introduced to tabla.
“No one really taught me tabla, it came to me naturally. It was only through my grandfather I got indoctrinated into the wonderful world of hand percussion. When I was growing up in Calcutta I would participate in different music festivals and neighborhood shows. Those were wonderful days.”
When he arrived in the United States, Nayak was just another poor student living off of his stipend at the Penn State campus. A move to Washington, DC, changed all that. He got his first platform at the George Washington University’s Listner Auditorium, to perform with one of the most well known musicians from Bangladesh.
This was a major turning point for him. “Something wonderful happened in this program. I met a guitar player who happens to play guitar to satisfy his soul during the weekend and does a day job to survive.
“He taught me how to keep being a musician and keep a day job. By now, I have started studying computer science and information technology and doing music/playing my tabla during the weekend for money.”
What started off as something on the side, became a parallel part of his life. Wherever he went, he made it a point to gain contacts, which, in turn, led to more work. He found work easily because people were always looking for a good tabla player. Over the years his table skills have improved and he has also learned how to balance his professional life and his passion for the tabla.
“After college, I was also competing with full time tabla players in the area as well as starting a professional career. Somehow, I kept the tabla playing part of me going in full swing. I would play concerts all weekend long and come back from out of town to get straight to work.”
Perhaps, what helps him with the everlasting energy is the fact that he’s never lost the energy to stop learning. “I have been learning from Pt. Samir Chatterjee for almost 9 years. I am one of his first seven Ganda Bandh (with knot tying ceremony, a ritual performed by Guru when a disciple is accepted) disciples.
“I have also learned from Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pt Anindo Chatterjee whenever they are in my area. Learning never stops. I learn form concerts, workshops and films. It’s an ongoing process. I perform almost every weekend all over the country and sometimes in Europe.”
As much as he loves music, he doesn’t plan to be a full time musician. “Only if I win a lottery ticket. I do believe in magic, so who knows, that might happen too. I continue to believe in this principle that if you work hard at anything something is going to give.
“Who knows may be someone will notice my music somewhere and offer me something really big. Like I said, I do believe in magic. After all, I am from the land of magic and exotica.”
Bhavni Patel has already transported herself to that world. After graduating from University of Tennessee, she worked in corporate America as an interior designer for two years. “Dressing up in suits and button down shirts and playing someone who I wasn’t was not very comfortable for me.”
As luck would have it, while working at the architecture and interior design firm in those two years, she found a gateway to pursuing her artistic interests.
She explains: “When you design convention centers most everything that goes into them are custom designed. The budgets for these multi-million dollar spaces are huge.
“They represent the city and that is why so much money and time is put into them. In the financial plan there is a large sum of money that goes towards custom carpeting. That was my first opportunity to attempt textile design. I fell in love with the ability to be creative with very little restriction.”
So she quit her job at the firm, and went into designing textiles fulltime. “The great thing about my job as a textile designer is that it is corporate America when it comes to the times I have to work 9-5, but at this company I work in an old historic house with two dogs running around.
“They’ve created the environment to be very laid back and relaxed. I also work independently on the design patterns. I don’t work in a team so what I create is clearly my own interpretation.
“That’s the great thing about what I do I am very true to myself and I don’t have to live a dual lifestyle, in the general sense of the word. I’ve made my hobby her strength and occupation,” she proudly says.
Along the way to finding this career “sweetspot,” she’s had opportunities she could only dream of. She is on the design team, which includes Vern Yip of Trading Spaces, to design an extension to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga.
Her team also came up with a concept for the interior design of an Italian restaurant (by the world famous Italian architect Renzo Piano), which is connected to the High Museum of Art, in which her team ranked third from among 100 entries.
Sounds like she’s hit the lottery Nayak has been banking on.