The amazing art is just one part: Honeycomb's April artist spans jazzman to monk
Too often in our modern society, the absence of a singular, unwavering drive is discouraged. The idea that one’s gifts are best realized, perfected, and shared when tethered to laser-like focus is one that seems to start earlier and earlier. The drive toward a soccer scholarship. A relentless circuit of theater auditions. The pursuit of Ivy League pre-med admissions.
Ironically, however, history has shown us that great success – defined in many terms – is often found when the freedom to explore and diverge is permitted, or even celebrated. Further irony? Those “unfocused” humans can also be the most centered.
Born in New York City, Muni Natarajan was the first of four boys. (And he was actually born Philip Royall Johnson; more on that below.) Entering grade school, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder at a time when relatively little was known about the condition. He credits his “forward-thinking” mother with fostering a spirit of wanderlust and creativity in her son by signing him up for private lessons in oil painting, piano, and drumming at the age of six. She couldn’t have possibly known what that seed would produce: A celebrated jazz musician. A master yogi. An inspired artist. A skilled writer and editor. And, for 37 years, a faithful monk of a Hindu monastery.
“I’m now 66 years old and the arts continue to be an extremely important part of my life,” Muni asserts. “God bless Mom. She was and is the greatest.”
Today, as a resident of Daniel Island, Muni continues to share his gifts as a yoga instructor, music teacher, workshop leader, and artist. Though he continues to navigate life down many paths, he does have an exceptional ability to dedicate himself completely when he is in the moment of each one - the example of how one can focus without becoming fixated.
Muni’s art will be shown at the Honeycomb Café during the entire month of April, which provides us the good fortune of an excuse to learn more about the fascinating, continuing journey of this island neighbor. Read on, because what you’ve read so far is barely the beginning.
Jennifer Johnston: The bios I’ve read for you seem to start with your entrance into the monastery. Would you be willing to share with us where you grew up, and some of your earliest experiences and aspirations?
Muni Natarajan: I was born in New York City, the first of four boys. My father was a research scientist working on the Manhattan Project. He investigated nuclear energy specifically for use in the development of the atom bomb. While I was young, we moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the Manhattan Project was headquartered. There, my father worked in research while also filling a position as department head at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he became the official liaison between the university and Oak Ridge. There is still a scholarship in his name. During high school, my focus on music and art intensified. I was band captain, played timpani in the Knoxville Symphony at age 16, and performed professionally as a jazz drummer at various clubs. During the summer before college, I studied at the Art Students League in New York City. I attended Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, as a music/art major. Connections there led to many performing opportunities with jazz greats including Quincy Jones, Cannonball Adderly, Lou Rawls, and Michael Brecker to name a few. I toured professionally with the Glenn Miller Band (under the direction of Buddy Defranco) and also played with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton.
JJ: What turn of events put you on the path to monkhood?
MN: My affiliation with yoga and meditation began in college through a correspondence course with the man that would eventually become my lifetime teacher, Satgurudeva Subramuniyaswami, affectionately known as Gurudeva. He was the founder of the monastery where I lived for 37 years from 1970 through 2007. In addition to leading one of the first Hindu monasteries in the West, Gurudeva was a great spiritual teacher and mystic who received the U Thant Peace Award from Sri Chimnoy of the United Nations in 2000. Other recipients of this award include Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama.
JJ: Daniel Island is a long way from the monastery in Hawaii, and from other stops along your way, San Francisco to India. What brought you here?
MN: It is interesting to now find myself in Charleston, South Carolina. This is actually my ancestral home. The name, Muni Natarajan, was given to me when I became a monk. My birth name is Philip Royall Johnson. The middle name, Royall, was given to me in honor of my great, great grandfather, Dr. Edward Manly Royall, who studied at the College of Charleston, was first surgeon to General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, and was present at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Grant. After the war, he became a cotton planter on land that eventually became Palmetto Islands County Park. His story is included in the book, “Mount Pleasant: The Victorian Village,” by Mary-Julia C. Royall. As I mentioned earlier, I left the monastery in 2007 and I married my wife, Mary Beth. We lived in Kettering, Ohio, for the first two years of our marriage and moved to Daniel Island when Mary Beth took a position as Director of Corporate Communication and Marketing for Blackbaud. She recently shifted her focus to the non-profit world and currently works as the Executive Director of Jazz Artists of Charleston. Her organization presents the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, the Charleston Jazz Festival, and jazz education programs.
JJ: Is it possible to distinguish your spiritual influences from your artistic influences? Who or what do you count among the most profound?
MN: Early on, I fell in love with drawing as inspired by renaissance artists Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Later, I was inspired by impressionists including Cezanne, Degas, Monet, and Renoir, as well as Vincent van Gogh, Eugene Boch, and Paul Gauguin. After entering the monastery, my focus switched completely to the art and music of the East – which is art and music with mystical and spiritual power. In particular, I am inspired by mandalas and meditation maps from India and Tibet, as well as India drumming. During my monastic years, I studied Indian drumming with Indian drum and sound master, Swami Nadabrahmananda.
JJ: How long have you been involved with the Art Guild of Daniel Island, and how has that better connected you to the community?
MN: Since moving to Daniel Island, I have been focused on teaching yoga and meditation classes and workshops, and writing two books about yoga: “A Monk’s Tale” and “Into the I of All.” Recently, I also released a coloring book for adults called “Mystic Mandalas.” In the meantime, our home has been our art gallery. When the co-operator of Daniel Island Art, Kris Manning, came to one of my yoga workshops, she saw the art on our walls and invited me to exhibit at her wonderful new space. Exhibiting at the gallery is my first entry into the art community since moving to Charleston, and I am really enjoying meeting the artists and seeing the great talent we have on this island.
JJ: The level of detail in your work is remarkable. Do you see the world that way? Are you able to execute that precision because you are extraordinarily patient?
MN: From the time I entered the monastery, I have approached art as much for its focus as its creativity. With regard to focus, the greater the detail, the greater the concentration. The greater the concentration, the greater the peace, calm, and stillness that naturally follows. At a deeper level of yoga, the practice of concentration is considered the natural prelude to the state of meditation. Actually, I’m not very patient. Hence, my interest in detailed art as a means for the development of that quality.
JJ: With what type of color/tool and canvas do you prefer to work?
MN: During my monastic years, most of my work was done with pencil or colored pencil after meditation. That said, I love all media. I love switching media. To me, switching media and switching modes of expression together comprise a significant aspect of the creative process.
JJ: Where do you do your best work – art or writing – and are music and yoga incorporated into that space? MN: I currently create all of my work at our home on Daniel Island. This summer, however, I’ll take some of that creative energy to an ancient monastery in the Swiss Alps where I’ll be partnering with award-winning self-help author Debra Moffitt, and Italian jazz and kirtan musician, Luca Giugno, to give a workshop entitled “Natural Balance: Finding Harmony Through Yoga, Music, and Writing.”
JJ: In addition to yoga instruction and spiritual retreats, do you teach art and/or music as well? How integral do you believe the latter are to being truly centered, or do they simply add joy?
MN: In addition to teaching yoga integrated with deep meditation and breath control, I teach drums – all kinds, East and West. I haven’t taught art but would be open to it. I consider all of these to be spiritual disciplines.
In addition to seeing Muni’s art at Honeycomb Café in April, island residents and visitors can find his work year-round at Daniel Island Art gallery. Learn more about all Muni Natarajan has to offer at www.yogawithmuni.com.