For the newly crowned Vasantham Star champion Navein Gunasekaran, taking home the top prize at this year's edition of Mediacorp's Indian singing competition was nothing more than a fantasy just a while ago.
Due to his "shy" nature and "lack of self-confidence", the homegrown vocalist almost passed on the opportunity to participate in Vasantham Star 2023. Then just days before the window for applications closed, the 24-year-old decided to take a chance on himself and audition for the competition — a decision that would eventually turn what was once a dream into a reality.
The three-month journey that followed was a trial by fire for Navein, who faced setbacks — including finishing in the bottom three for four consecutive times — on top of having to overcome his lack of confidence in his abilities. By approaching each test with a positive attitude and strong resolve, the Singapore Management University undergraduate student gradually transformed into the artist that he is today.
Having had his name added to the star-studded list of Vasantham Star champions, which includes the likes of Suthasini Rajendran, Vikneshwaran Veeran, and one of his local music heroes, Shabir, Navein is now hoping to create music that will leave a positive impact on his listeners.
"I simply hope my music makes someone’s day a little better and I pray that little things like these will go a long way," he shared.
In an interview with Hear65, Navein reflected on his Vasantham Star journey, explained the competition's role in the local Indian music scene, and talked about what he hopes to communicate through his music.
Hi, Navein! First of all, congratulations on winning Vasantham Star 2023. How does it feel to be the show’s latest champion?
It still feels surreal as I never expected myself to come this far in the competition, let alone win it. I feel extremely elated and proud of the achievement. Vasantham Star is a huge title, something that is highly revered by our Singaporean community. I have been watching Vasantham Star since its first season in 2005 and I would have never thought I would be part of the journey and emerge as a champion. There have been lots of love, support and well wishes from friends, family, and even the general public, whom I may not know personally, which is all very heartwarming and I am thankful to every single one of them.
"I have been watching Vasantham Star since its first season in 2005 and I would have never thought I would be part of the journey and emerge as a champion.
Tell us about some of your biggest musical inspirations from the local music scene.
My two main musical inspirations from the local music scene would be Shabir and the late Rishi Kumaar.
Shabir because of his sheer tenacity and hard work. Being the very first Vasantham Star winner in 2005, he did not just stop there but went on to improve and carve an identity for himself every step of the way. This certainly could not have been an easy process given how nascent the Indian music industry was at the time, particularly with regards to independent music. And he has now grown leaps and bounds to eventually establish a name for himself both locally and internationally. I view him to be the epitome of perseverance.
The late Rishi Kumaar was a musician I really admired. His singing and performance often seemed effortless and I always felt that there was a soulfulness in his compositions that I was attracted to. I have heard that Rishi Kumaar was a maestro Ilayaraja fanboy, much like myself, and it is evident from the hints of Ilayaraja’s influence in his music, which I very much enjoy as well. A wonderful artist gone too soon. May his soul rest in peace.
Let’s go back in time a little. Tell us what made you audition for this year’s edition of the competition.
To be honest, I don’t quite remember. I know that I was very hesitant initially when the calls for auditions first came out, possibly due to my shy personality and my lack of self-confidence. However, I remember my family, particularly my mother, incessantly nudging me to join and not lose this golden opportunity. And then all of a sudden, just three days before the application deadline, I decided to go for it and give it a shot. Now in retrospect, one main reason that could explain this change of heart could be [that I wanted] to gain exposure. I have always secretly (not so secret anymore) wanted to establish a career in the music industry, or at least try to. And I figured, what better platform than Vasantham Star to try and create a name for myself?
Moreover, taking part in Vasantham Star would mean getting the honour of meeting and interacting with big names from the local Tamil music scene. It would be good exposure and a learning opportunity for me. Furthermore, I would get to meet new like-minded people like the contestants and personalities who all have a common passion for music, which I did.
In what ways did being Vasantham Star 2023 help you to improve as a vocalist? Were there any pieces of feedback from the judges that stood out to you?
Although I did formally learn Indian classical music from a young age and was in the choir during my secondary school and junior college days, I had never quite liked my own voice and never exactly deemed myself to be an excellent vocalist. Now having gone through the competition, I still don't enjoy hearing myself but I have a newfound confidence and reassurance in my vocal abilities.
I made progress as a vocalist through my training sessions with vocal trainer Erfanullah. Each session was an eye-opening experience. Erfan seemed to be able to teach and make me aware of details in the song that I would have otherwise not noticed on my own. Even for songs that I was very familiar with, he would still not fail to pick out a detail or a tiny subtlety that I was unaware of. Over time, I learnt that each song needs to be approached differently and that understanding the lyrics is key to successfully evoking the feelings and emotions of the song.
During the competition, most of the pieces of feedback from judges were specific to my performances, but [I found two of them] most memorable and applicable. The first would be being mindful of how I hold my microphone while singing and performing. The second would be making sure I practise with a metronome so that I do not rush my singing. These were the main recurrent issues for me throughout the competition.
"I still don't enjoy hearing myself but I have a newfound confidence and reassurance in my vocal abilities."
Aside from being crowned this year’s champion, what were some of the most memorable moments during your time on the show?
You never forget your first. So aside from being crowned as the champion, I will forever fondly remember my first-ever performance and episode. It was a long preparation process for that episode and it felt like an eternity before the moment for me to sing came. I was so nervous before stepping on stage, but once I did, I was greeted with a loud roar from my supporters. [It was] an experience unlike anything else and I was certainly not expecting it at all. They were shouting and cheering non-stop, which was a surreal feeling that helped me to forget my nervousness and put on a good show. My first-ever performance was coincidentally one that won me my first “Best Performer of the Week” [title], which I was most certainly not expecting at all.
Another would be the local artist episode and my performances for that day. It was the episode where I redeemed myself after four straight episodes of being in the bottom three. The performances were not necessarily my best but I remember them to be the ones where I went in with the intention of going in and giving my best without a care in the world. I was determined to give it my all without any fear, and I did exactly that. I remember performing with a strange surge of confidence, something that I was lacking in my previous episodes. It ended up being my turning point in my Vasantham Star journey, and thereafter, I didn't look back and did not let fear weigh me down.
D. Imman, the special guest judge at the Grand Finals, has extended an invitation to you to be a part of one of his new songs. What are you looking forward to the most about collaborating with him?
I am extremely honoured and grateful for D. Imman’s magnanimity in extending an invitation to be a part of one of his new songs. And to answer the question, I am looking forward to just simply getting started and going through the experience of singing for Imman and learning from him. D.Imman is such a prolific Indian music composer and there is definitely so much to learn from this experience. It would be a bonus if this opportunity ended up being a gateway to many other opportunities in the Tamil music scene.
"I am looking forward to just simply getting started and going through the experience of singing for (D.) Imman and learning from him."
In your opinion, what role does a competition like Vasantham Star play in supporting Singapore’s Indian music community?
Singapore’s Indian community is rather small, and in particular, the Indian music community is even smaller. However, despite being small, it is still not easy to get noticed, at least not without the help of mainstream media or through a lucky break. As such, Vasantham Star is the ultimate gateway into the local music scene in Singapore. Being an aspiring singer in Singapore is synonymous with wanting to become a Vasantham Star. The overwhelming turnout for the auditions itself is a testament to the influence that the competition has on the community and how it is a dream for many to take part in the competition.
Beyond grooming its contestants to be better vocalists, Vasantham Star stays true to its name and develops its contestants to become stars. The competition guides contestants to better present themselves on stage, be eloquent in their speech, be more natural in interacting with the audience and camera, and ultimately grow in their overall self-confidence. All of these are essential skills and knowledge needed to establish a name and identity in the music industry.
"Vasantham Star is the ultimate gateway into the local music scene in Singapore. Being an aspiring singer in Singapore is synonymous with wanting to become a Vasantham Star."
How would you advise the next batch of Vasantham Star contestants?
Applying and being selected as a Vasantham Star contestant/finalist is already half the battle won and kudos for taking that first leap of faith. However, the second half is the most arduous and requires a lot of commitment and determination. It's the survival of the fittest and I don't mean it in a competitive way, but rather [in a way that means that] people often fail when they begin to call it quits when the going gets tough. Push through endlessly and hopefully, you will see the fruits of your labour.
Perhaps I can share my personal approach to the competition and for each episode and hope that might help future contestants. For each episode, I prioritised giving a good show and performing to the of my best ability, hoping that the audience and judges would be immersed and enjoy [my performance]. I personally did not view Vasantham Star as a competition against other competitors, but instead, [I saw it as] a competition against myself. Every singer is different and if another singer turns out to be better than my personal best, then so be it. I would have walked out of the competition with my head held high knowing that I had given it my all. There will definitely be circumstances and factors that might hamper this, but doing our best beyond these circumstances is what matters.
"I personally did not view Vasantham Star as a competition against other competitors, but instead, [I saw it as] a competition against myself."
One last piece of advice which I feel is vital, yet most overlooked, is to create good synergy with the band. It is very easy to forget that the band is there to help us contestants and that they too are skilled musical practitioners. They may not be perfect at times but are certainly doing their best to complement the contestants [and make them] sound the best. Feel free to discuss how to craft your song arrangements with them and come up with the best outcome that benefits everyone as a whole. Aim to be a team player as compared to just a solo act. The better the band and arrangement sound, the better the singer and performance would be.
"I simply hope my music makes someone’s day a little better and I pray that little things like these will go a long way."
Lastly, what would you like to communicate to your listeners through your music?
I wish to make the world a better place, one step at a time, and I would say my personal choice of medium is music. Music has the power to perform miracles sometimes, and with a tool that powerful, I wish to tap on it effectively to spread positivity and joy. Or [I could] be that constant companion in (good and bad) times, depending on the situation.
My biggest musical inspiration is Coldplay, and those that listen to them would agree that there is a strong positive energy and message embedded in their songs. Their music over the years has always been my go-to for almost every emotion, at every stage of my life. I wish to do something of that sort in my own capacity and hope to be able to touch hearts and minds. This is an ambitious long-term goal, but in the short term, I simply hope my music makes someone’s day a little better and I pray that little things like these will go a long way.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Relive all 13 episodes of Vasantham Star 2023 on meWATCH.