Reflections from a midnight concert – on what success means

Success is not just about getting what you want. It is about facing Life too.

Anil Srinivasan at the midnight concert
Last evening we attended a midnight concert by the acclaimed pianist Anil Srinivasan. It was the most beautiful and soulful way to bring in Independence Day. Anil rendered many great compositions in his effortless, flawless, inimitable style. Two of my favorites, apart from our national anthem, were Rabindranath Tagore’s “Ekla Chalo Re” and “Hum Honge Kamyaab”(Girija Kumar Mathur’s Hindi translation of the hymn of the African-American civil liberties movement, “We Shall Overcome”). Around the time that Vaani and I were courting each other, in the late 1980s, I had this burning desire to be rich (so that we could have a good Life) and successful (so that I would have a name and fame). “Hum Honge Kamyaab” was our courtship-theme song – we were faced with so many challenges on the road to getting married, from no money to start our Life together to having to get our parents’ approval. So, Mathur’s translated lyrics made a lot of sense – it inspired us to believe that we would indeed overcome our challenges and some day we would become successful, kamyaab, as the song suggested!

When Anil played the song on his piano last night, my eyes welled up. I reflected back on those heady times of our courtship and how we had surmounted every odd to get married and raise a family. I also recalled how, in particular, how I chased success. And today, when I look at the ruins of what was once a dream, I feel that my entire approach to success, in fact, its very definition has changed dramatically. Success to me today means simply this: the ability to live with the reality that is. Which means, to me, acceptance is success, being happy is success and being content is success. As this thought ran through my mind and as I let Anil’s rendition of “Hum Honge Kamyaab” caress my soul, I smiled to myself. Is this how one evolves in Life? To chase material success, find it, and through a Life-changing, cathartic experience, where every ‘thing’ is taken away from you, discover that all that one thought was success is no longer relevant. Success, I realized yet again last night, was simply about living each moment – the way it arrived and presented itself – well. Nothing else can qualify as success. Nothing else is success.


Surely, “Hum Honge Kamyaab” can still be anyone’s theme song – just as it continues to be mine. When you understand what being kamyaab, successful, really means, you will realize that it is totally unimportant how much wealth or fame you have in Life. What matters eventually is how much of your ‘given, gifted’ Life you have faced – and lived fully!   
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There’s a lot of Life left after a crisis; believe me, a lot of Life!

Often when in the throes of a crisis, we think we cannot go on. We don’t see a way out of whatever we are faced with. And we think it’s all over. We want to give up. But just remember this – failure or defeat is temporary, it is giving up which is final!
On Sunday, I was in a conversation with the world-famous pianist Anil Srinivasan. This was part of a monthly Event Series I curate called “The Bliss Catchers” which is hosted by Odyssey, Chennai’s most happening bookstore. The Series celebrates people who have had the courage to let go of “safe and secure” careers to follow their bliss, to go do what they love doing.
Anil Srinivasan and AVIS Viswanathan
at “The Bliss Catchers”
Odyssey, Adyar
Over the course of our conversation, Anil shared his story of how he found and followed his bliss. Anil’s heart was always in the piano – he started playing it when he was just three years old; in fact, the piano is his Life. But family circumstances (a grave financial crisis had made it mandatory for him to pursue a career option that would be immediately economically viable and rewarding) and peer pressure forced him in the direction of an MBA at a US University. He followed that up with attempting a PhD at Columbia. But at one time, what he describes as his lowest phase, the PhD was just not happening. He had huge educational loans to repay. He had no money. And his academic career was going nowhere.
One day, Anil, out of sheer desperation and depression, just blacked out. “I was going to a friend’s place in a cab in New York. But I just lost track of what I was doing. I did not know where I was or where I was headed. When the cab reached the destination, I told the cabbie I had no money to pay him. He kind of made out that I was losing it. So, he said that it was okay, he waived the fare, but he also urged me to take care of myself. I got down from the cab and I just slumped on the stoop in front of my friend’s apartment. I was still clueless of who I was, what I was doing or who I had come to meet. So I simply sat there and spent much of the night there,” recalled Anil. Later that week, Mandolin U.Srinivas (1969~2014), who was a good friend of Anil, called him. Srinivas was performing at Burlington (on the US-Canada border, in Vermont) and wanted to just say hello to his friend. From Anil’s depressive tone, Srinivas surmised that Anil needed help. Urgently.So, Srinivas rushed to Anil’s apartment in New York the next morning and urged Anil to take a walk along with him. The two of them walked along the Hudson for over an hour. Anil says that Srinivas was certain that Anil needed help. But more important Srinivas felt that Anil must play his piano. Immediately. “‘How long ago is it since you played the piano?’ Srinivas asked me. I had no answer. I had forgotten when I had played the piano last. That was how far removed I was from my beloved piano and my music,” Anil told me and the other guests at “The Bliss Catchers” Event. As it turns out, Srinivas took Anil back to his apartment and encouraged him to play. Anil just followed Srinivas’ suggestions without protest. In just a few hours Anil was playing beautifully, enjoying himself and was feeling “totally alive”. “Srinivas re-infused the gift of Life, my music, back in me,” Anil reminisced, even as a tear dropped from his eye. “I can’t believe Srinivas is no more,” he added.
So, that’s how bad things really were for Anil Srinivasan – someone who, as much of the music world believes, is the finest pianist India has ever produced. Can you believe it? One of India’s best musicians was beaten by Life, was depressed and defeated just 15 years ago? And look at him today – he’s living the Life he truly wanted to live, he’s enjoying his music and he’s making music that everyone loves to hear. He’s traveling the world and making people realize that the piano is not just a Western classical instrument but one where it is possible to make any kind of music – from Carnatic to kuthu to Bollywood – if you play it from your soul!
Anil’s story teaches us, yet again, something very, very important. It is the most significant lesson you will ever need to learn about living intelligently – that Life’s darkest moments must be faced. And no matter how dark it is, no matter how hopeless it is, every storm will pass one day. All you must believe, when you are feeling down and out, done in by Life, people, events and circumstances, is that there is a lot of Life still left, after each crisis.

Awaken the artist in you


A common, and unfortunate, myth about spirituality is that it demands renunciation. That it asks of you to give up something in order to gain inner peace. Nothing is farther from the truth. Spirituality asks nothing of you. It does not even ask you to awaken. It is, in fact, only when you awaken, when you understand who you really are, when you realize the purpose of your creation, that you turn to spirituality. Spirituality is always there. As is ‘everything else’. It is only when your inner awareness blossoms that you look to spiritual experiences and want more of it. And you find, in your awakened state, that ‘everything else’ is so very insignificant.  

Elango: Realize and Indulge
Yesterday I had a unique learning experience. I was invited to an art show and auction. There were two artists on stage. One was the celebrated painter A.V.Elango and the other was the famous pianist Anil Srinivasan. As Anil played the piano, Elango painted. For over 45 minutes all of us in the audience were in a trance. We watched, in amazement, as Elango created a ‘Krishna with a Cow’ on a blue canvas, even as Anil had us mesmerized with his soulful piano recital. When invited, Elango spoke very briefly, preferring to let his art speak. However, what he said appealed to me greatly and I share my learnings with you. He made three major points:

  • There is a surrendered Nandiand an arrogant Mahishasura in each of us. We need to let more of the Nandievolve, through total surrender to Life, in us. (Both Nandi and Mahishasura are bulls with unique characteristics in Hindu mythology)
  • Let us learn to be happy being alive. I am happiest when I am painting. That’s when I merge with the silence that I really am.
  • There is a simple difference between a saint and an artist: “A saint realizes and renounces. An artist realizes and indulges.”

How true. There is an artist in each of us. We don’t need to be able to paint magically with oils like Elango does or make music the way Anil does. There’s something that truly brings us alive. And it is unique to each of us. A friend of mine simply loves cooking and having friends over. He cooks each dish and serves his guests personally telling them how he has prepared it. Another friend loves to sing old movie songs sharing trivia on how the lyrics came about or nuances of how the music was composed and such. Similarly, there’s masterful artistry of some form in you. In me. The artist in each of us is often dormant for most of our lifetime, waiting eagerly, patiently, to come alive. But because we are so busy being “career professionals” and providers, we don’t have the time to be the artist that we really are. But whenever the artist in you awakens, the real youis unveiled.

Elango invites us to experience, perhaps even as an experiment, that state of awakening. We can get there provided we don’t come in the way of Life. Provided we stop being arrogant, like Mahishasura, and stop thinking we are in control of our lives and that each of us has to play the all-important role of protector, provider and lead performer in this lifetime! He says we can get there by simply surrendering, through what gives us joy, to Life!

By surrendering to Life, he is not advocating that we become saints and renounce the world. He is saying just the opposite. He says indulge by all means. But indulge in what gives you joy. When you realize and indulge in what makes you joyful, with the artist in you coming alive, you grasp the essence of spirituality. You will then not feel burnt out. You will not feel you are working harder yet are getting nowhere in Life. You will not be seeking “something” despite having everything. You will then be peace. You will then, like a flower, bloom every single day. You will then be bliss – because the artist in you is awakened!