This musician transcends racial norms with his music

race jazz hindustani
Sundar Viswanathan, born in a South Indian family, is an accomplished Saxophone player, who explores the merging of notes in Hindustani and Western music.

His journey into this musical exploration was ridden with various obstacles and one of them was of race. When his father moved to Northern Ontario in the late 60s, the place was very different. They witnessed racism first hand – from his father not being promoted as he belonged to a different race, to Sundar being bullied in school, as he was not white.

The interesting part of his life though, he states was the fact that his father didn’t care about any of these things. This did not lead him to be closed to people from other races or cultures. In fact, his father had a lot of friends from all nationalities and he also headed multi-cultural associations. This, Sundar feels, led him to get over his problems at school. That part of his life continued with struggles and at the same time music continued to be his partner all through.

His mother’s family and his mother were musically inclined and hence they always had a lot of musicians visiting them, all the time. Sundar grew up with musicians around him and that led him to find musicians as his companions even later in life. For him, overcoming the usual obstacles of parental pressure was not such a big deal, as compared to him not being accepted for who he was, in school. His parents had concerns about him leading a stable life when he chose music as his career, but they were quite understanding as well as supportive of his choices.

He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston,  where he explored Hindustani music more, along with Jazz. Strangely, Sundar was attracted to Hindustani music because of its free-flowing nature, as compared to Carnatic, which is a lot more rigid in its transitions. So for him, Jazz and Hindustani fit in well together. He invested a lot of time in studying music, which you can read about here.

He then lived and played in New York, and at jazz clubs like St. Nick’s pub in Harlem, just like a lot of other great Jazz musicians – say, Charlie Parker. “The fact that I was not black, didn’t matter, as soon as my saxophone played”, he says. “People there liked music, irrespective of colour and I started getting deeper into music. Through music, I became a student of human development, meditation and spirituality.” His trauma from school hadn’t resolved by then, but he was encountering it constantly through music.

This led him to Vipassana where he understood the impermanence of everything and he made a conscious decision of getting over his past trauma. Today he says, “I thank those people for bullying me, because that is the reason for this deep wound and my intense exploration of self.” He strongly believes that everything happens for a reason and he has intellectually forgiven all those people and he is sure that he will be able to forgive them completely some day.

This exploration through music has helped him change his perspective on life. It has made him aware of the choices he makes – wrong or right; it’s done with awareness.  This led to his latest record PETAL – where he explores the impermanence of the fragility of a petal. Not only was his struggle impermanent, but also were the people who bullied him.

Even when he teaches and approaches music today, it is with this understanding of the impermanence of everything. Today, he says, “One has to constantly update one’s website or page, to be remembered, because impermanence strikes you in the face with social media.” So although it is not his personality to constantly be in touch, he just does it to keep up with the times.

Seeing Sundar’s stability in his career and his happiness – as he practices music, his family now encourages other youngsters to pursue their musical goals. Sundar says that there is a younger cousin of his who has taken up music without much struggle.

Sundar has not only paved the path for other generations in his family, but has also paved a path for other artists, for whom he stands as an inspiration of self-exploration through their art form. His music, due to his deep connection with self, has a deep impact on its listeners.

You can hear Sundar’s band AVATAAR’s new recording PETAL (focused on the theme of impermanence) on his website, here:


Desiness personified!