Surya Srini just released his first original single “Kadhal Aadhirai” while also working in a corporation. He graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering of IIT Madras in 2019. In this interaction with Chennai36’s correspondent Sujay Srivastava, he opens up about his unconventional career choices and a lot more.

When and how did you start developing an interest in music?

I was in 1st grade when my mother enrolled me in a keyboard class because she was a busy working woman and wanted to keep me engaged for a while after school.
So by class 6, I was pretty good at playing the keyboard. So I aspired to get a formal education with private lessons. At that time there was only a single institute that was into serious music, which was 30 km from my house. My daily routine was like this : School started very early at 7:30 and ended at 4pm and from there I’d directly go to the music class at 5.30 pm.. The class would end at 9 pm, and then I would catch the train back home. Sometimes, I would catch the last train of the day to my place.
That went on for three years. By 2013, I finished all grades of music theory, and by 11th grade, I was pretty clear that I wanted to become a music director and work in the Tamil music Industry. So I started learning other instruments like the flute and guitar to just get the feel for the instrument. I learned Western classical, and I found little bit of interest in Carnatic Music.
But my parents were convincing me to do engineering as being a musician is not sustainable and to some extent, I believed them.
That was 2013, when Anirudh Ravichander rose to fame at just 22. He became my role model. He was an inspiration in that, if someone so young could achieve so much in the music industry, I can do it too. That was when I started making covers and music tracks on YouTube.
My parents promised to get a music studio setup if I cracked JEE, so that’s how I got my set up in Aug 2015.

How did IIT Madras help you, and how was your journey as an undergrad student?

There are a lot of wonderful things about IIT Madras like I didn’t have to spend a lot of my time on class hours and the course work was quite flexible. No other college would have given me enough time to invest in my music. It gave me a lot of time to explore new stuff. Most of my free time would go into exploring music.

So before coming to IIT, I was mostly into Tamil songs from the movies. But here, I got introduced to new genres, independent artists, and these broadened my perspective.
We got a shared room during our first year, which meant I couldn’t get my instruments and practice in the room without disturbing others. So, I became a day scholar to be able to practice music at my home. Next year when I got a single room, I shifted into the hostel.

During my first year, all I did was to attend classes( and if possible, bunk them), go to the library and complete my assignments, and come back home where I spent most of my time working on music.
In my second year, my Insti friends and I formed a band to perform in NIT Trichy’s Festember, and we cupped big time. That was slightly demotivating, to be honest. And I questioned whether I was as good as I thought.
But at the same time, I knew I wasn’t very interested in a job.

Around that time, I started participating in local music competitions, and I won a few of them, which was very encouraging. The turning point was when I won the instrumental event at Mood Indigo(Taal Mel) along with Gautham.U in 2017.
We won the next year too!

During my final year, a band contacted me saying that they saw me perform during the competition and loved it, and asked if I would join them. That was a significant jump from working with people who could only put in a limited amount of time in music due to their academic commitments, to people whose only focus and aim were to grow as musicians.
It was a great experience, and I got to learn a lot and got valuable guidance from my peers. More importantly, we all had a common goal.
I didn’t sit for placements during my final year and worked to become a full-time musician. About the time I graduated, sadly the band broke up. I could see that I still had to improve my skills and needed some time to do so. Due to parental pressure and other reasons, I had to sit for the 2019 placement season and got a job while continuing to work on my music.

So what changes have you witnessed during your stay at IIT, especially in the cultural scene?

During my first and second year, there wasn’t much support from insti, and we had to pay from our own pockets for travelling and accommodation for the inter-college cultural fest. It took quite a lot of commitment to participate in a fest.
I remember the time during my first year when 3 of my friends and I went to Unmaad (IIM-B ‘s cultural fest), and we didn’t have a lot of money to spare so that night we just stayed outside and roamed around.
When I was in my third year, things changed. IIT-M formed a contingent for culturals and allotted a budget for it and from then, taking part in events became much more comfortable.

What do you miss the most about Insti?

I miss my mates.
I used to work on music in my room. Whenever I experienced some creative block or felt a bit demotivated, I got out of my room and met up with my friends, and we would go to Ramu’s Tea Stall (RIP Ramu).
Whenever you get a setback or feel a bit demotivated, divert your thoughts for a while and do something else, and then come back with renewed energy.
I also miss studying as I love to read and learn.

What is your advice to people who want to choose an unconventional career?

It takes a lot of hard work and struggle. Please do it for the process and the thrill of doing it and not for the prizes. You can only make it if it is something that makes you genuinely happy.
Even if you are coming back home with just 10K a month, you won’t feel like that matters. If you are content and satisfied with what you are doing, and not working just so that you can get things which make you happy, then you won’t have those unnecessary demands, and you won’t feel the peer pressure from your friends who are out there making big bucks.

One more thing, there is no defined path to success. You have to create your path. No one knows everything. But that shouldn’t stop you from making decisions.
We are IITians, and we take stuff very logically. For instance, if you want a ‘dream job’, you take a structured path, and you will work on those skills, and how to pitch yourself, etc. (Chennai36 got it covered;)). You are in control there.
But an unconventional career path asks for blind risk; a leap of faith.
You need to have the attitude of, “Let’s just do it, and see what happens next.”
It is difficult if you have a faint heart.

What are your plans now?

I am working on my vocals, to perform better at concerts. I am a professional pianist but, I noticed that people are way more reactive to vocals than just music, as this is what the audience understands in life and can easily relate to.
I can also sing in more places, and this could open up more possibilities than before; it’s going to add a little bit more excitement to my work.
Right now, I am entirely into releasing songs, and I want to pitch songs to music directors in the industry.

And, I am working on 6-7 songs right now, and my next single is about to be released in July.
So, stay tuned for that!!!