Chosen earlier this year for the Sangita Kalanidhi award, Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan delights in the art of performance and sets a fine example for younger musicians
Sanjay Subrahmanyan is devilishly funny. He is also a cricketing almanac, a board game geek, a seeker of readerly pleasure, a binge- watcher of American sitcoms and a dabbler in technology. And yes, he is one of the most successful Carnatic musicians of our time. Did I mention he is fit as a flea? Subrahmanyan is an interviewer’s nightmare, now bored, now argumentative, as he restlessly foot-taps through a three-hour chat in his living room in Chennai on a rainy evening. His wife Aarthi videotapes and intermittently joins in the conversation, which runs the length of his career before meandering to his other interests. An artiste who specialises in stunning audiences into premature applause, he quickly tires of routine questions about his style and evolution over the years, implying that his music speaks for itself. At 47, the high-functioning musician is among the youngest to be chosen for the Sangita Kalanidhi, the Oscar of the Carnatic music world. The announcement, which came in June, hasn’t changed Subrahmanyan—other than making him more amenable to the media after years of shunning publicity— who has reigned over the concert stage for what seems like an eternity. “What fame are you talking about? I am like anyone else. I have an EMI to pay. When I went to the bank to ask for a car loan and told them I am a musician, they asked me if I was in a band,” he says.
He knows better than to parade the anecdote in Chennai’s classical music circles, where his virtuosity has drawn comparisons to past masters. A mention of his Kambhoji, which time and again parts the seas of creative lethargy surrounding many ‘heavy’ ragas of the Carnatic tradition, can send goose bumps down the spine of a connoisseur. Indeed, the singer’s fans would aver that he is a modern, composite avatar of MD Ramanathan, GN Balasubramaniam, Ramnad Krishnan, Madurai Mani Iyer and so on, having reconnoitered and annexed some of their best nuances to his own inexhaustible repertoire. “Attending a concert of Sanjay’s is like listening to all of them within the span of an hour,” says V Ramnarayan, who edits Sruti, a monthly magazine on performing arts. “He knows how to present a package that will appeal to his audiences. And his rational understanding of the great musicians helps him arrive at beautiful, inspired expositions of ragas that often move people to tears.”
A Sanjay Subrahmanyan concert is like a deliciously balanced musical meal. Each course that is served up has an innate sense of proportion, and yet, there is also whimsy—in the obscure Tamil composition thrown in as an extra treat or a particularly piquant sangati. “The variety in each of his kutcheris still overwhelms me,” says S Varadarajan, a violinist who has been accompanying him regularly for two decades now. “His music is all about aesthetics. For instance, he will sing two ragas without the antara gandharam (a variant of the ‘ga’ note) before following through with Shankarabharanam, so there will be a noticeable freshness to the piece. And this is not always premeditated. The sense of aesthetic curation comes naturally to him,” Varadarajan says.
Subrahmanyan shares an effortless rapport—and the musical equivalent of sparkling banter—with his accompanists, both on stage and off it. His exuberance as a performer and tenacity as an artiste are equally infectious, says Varadarajan. “There are no excuses. In his younger days, if a technique eluded him, he would refuse to give up. He would work on it relentlessly and say, ‘Eppadi varaama pogum (how can it not come)?’” he says. Subrahmanyan found a way out of every quandary that ever threatened to bog him down. Take his raspy voice, which he has steadfastly honed into the precision instrument it is today. Or his family’s insistence on a career other than music. “I took up chartered accountancy only because it left me with a lot of time for music. I gave up practising after six-seven years; I was fed up. I remember my grandfather telling me how disappointed he was,” Subrahmanyan says.
He belongs to a cohort of young musicians who broke into the scene in the mid-1980s, a time of foment in Carnatic music. “We were the first generation to freely express our thoughts. We were each professionally qualified in different fields besides music and we questioned the status quo,” says veena artiste Jayanthi Kumaresh, Subrahmanyan’s contemporary who knew him as a young boy spending the summer holidays with his grandparents in Bangalore and playing records of GNB over and over. The 80s were also when sponsorships and technology started to trickle in and Carnatic music appeared poised to step out of the mama-mami mould. “It was a good time to be a musician. There was no dearth of opportunity for an enthusiastic kid. I was all over the place, even helping out with the tambura if need be. People were glad to pat my back,” Subrahmanyan says.
There were no shortcuts, however. In a prodigious world, he was a late bloomer who had to work his way up one concert at a time. He was admittedly brash, “without being flippant”. Possessed of an enquiring mind and an insistently inventive style of vocalisation, he ventured into precious nooks that hadn’t been dusted down in decades, explored ragas of Hindustani provenance with consummate grace and depth, placed a premium on compositions that hadn’t been popularised ad nauseam.
To younger musicians today, Subrahmanyan is an imitable example, a serious performer who doesn’t take himself too seriously. “I am a straightforward entertainer,” Subrahmanyan says. “The last 15 years or so, I have tried to be better at stage performance as I believe I am pursuing a performing art primarily.” The art has held his interest right from his younger days when he attended live concerts regularly. Subrahmanyan’s first performance as an 11-year-old was not a musical one; it was a rendition, at an elocution contest, of Marc Antony’s impassioned speech at Julius Caesar’s funeral. He remembers feeling extremely nervous. As he became a regular on the concert stage, this anxiety quickly wore off, revealing an unflappable performer who is as spontaneous as he is well- prepared. “I like stand-ups like George Carlin and Steve Martin and I have watched documentaries and films on artistes like Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and BB King,” he says. “Any performance that can attract people, keep them engaged and make them come back is worthy of taking inspiration from.”
His exaggerated mannerisms, which he has worked to tone down over the years, are not by deliberate design, but simultaneously, certain vocal idiosyncrasies have crept into his music and become an integral part of an evolving style. Critics have been reluctant to countenance these quirks, which they once found amusing in moderation. In a 2012 article in Sruti, TM Krishna, a Carnatic vocalist and a rival musician, wondered what the “cost” of exploring these different avenues was and said he found abstraction missing from some of Subrahmanyan’s recent music. ‘His ability to transfer intellectual acumen to the practical presentation of a keertana, setting it up and so on is outstanding…. Over the last few years, I feel that in some way that “insight” is being hidden behind his urge to create something “new” or “different”. This has caused certain distinct changes in his music,’ he wrote.
Subrahmanyan is unapologetic about his experimental nature. “I used to take different routes when I dropped my kids to school and sometimes they would be upset about it,” he says. It is also true that his efforts at revising his style have kept him ahead of the competitive melee. “He is the one contemporary Carnatic singer I come back to time and again. He has a jazz musician’s voice and he doesn’t sing a kriti the same way twice. Each time, there is something new to look forward to,” says SG Vasudev, a Cholamandal artist. “His concerts are like theatre, there is a powerful element of improvisation,” he adds. Vasudev grew up listening to MD Ramanathan, who, regrettably, missed out on the Sangita Kalanidhi despite being a deserving contender. (“I will accept the award on behalf of him and everyone else who didn’t get one,” Subrahmanyan says, in his irrepressible fashion.) “When I first heard Sanjay, I thought, surely he is the next great musician. He is one of only four—the others are MDR, Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal—I can listen to when I paint,” Vasudev says. “I know many other artists who find Sanjay’s music to be a great creative complement; Paris Viswanathan, for instance, chose his music as the background score for his show at the National Gallery of Modern Art last year.”
Things happen in phases with Subrahmanyan. Like sporting a droopy moustache and blond streaks in his hair, his “metrosexual phase”. Or putting together a philately exhibit on a Czech composer. And then it is on to the next thing. Sometimes, the whole family—his wife and two children included—sets out together on these voyages of discovery. “I spent a year reading about nutrition and started following a fitness regimen. Now all of us are into it. Our daughter just started working as a fitness instructor,” Subrahmanyan says.
I wondered why there isn’t one definitive photograph of him and found the answer almost immediately. Because there isn’t one Sanjay Subrahmanyan. No portraitist can possibly scale the entire octave of his personality. Just when you think he is reclusive, he offers a backward glance at his younger self. You learn that he dropped out of a Masters in History from Madras University because “a paper on Jayalalithaa was not the history I wanted to learn”. It was a waypoint in a lifelong fascination with history, which he later pursued as an online course. “Sanjay is a rare musician who is also a well-rounded individual. He is curious about everything around him and this intellectual questioning feeds his creativity,” says V Ramesh, a senior artist and a fan. “He is also very generous with his art. He gives a number of concerts and readily bursts into song when you prompt him,” Ramesh says, recalling a magical impromptu performance at his studio in Visakhapatnam.
Swarna Rethas, 33, remembers the first time he met his guru as though it happened yesterday. Over 15 years have passed since he walked into Subrahmanyan’s house and proceeded to sing Upacharamu in Bhairavi. “I was a fan and I had learnt that song from a tape of his. I am sure I came nowhere close to copying him, but he was happy to take me on,” he says. Perhaps Subrahmanyan was impressed with Rethas’ zeal to listen and to learn. Absorbing as many influences as possible is an essential part of his pedagogy, says Rethas, who is a performer in his own right. “He has always pushed me to listen to the music of different musicians. He is unflinching with his feedback, but he is there when you really need his support,” Rethas says. Like the one time in 2012 when he sang an Academy concert with a sore throat and the guru assured him he had done the best he could, given the circumstances.
Subrahmanyan is full of surprises. He is well read, both in English and in Tamil. Well, thanks to the relentless demands of life as a concert musician, he is still catching up on Nabokov and Julian Barnes, but these days, he has four or five books stacked on his nightstand. It was late in life that he discovered the pleasures of reading in Tamil. The Wodehousian oeuvre of Devan, articles in Kalachuvadu, and friendships he cultivated with Tamil writers have led him to achieve proficiency in—and to blog about—his mother tongue. “Great musicians before him, even as they pursued a sublime classical art, had embarrassingly coarse tastes in literature and film. Sanjay is able to negotiate contemporary Tamil literature like no other musician of his generation,” says historian and author AR Venkatachalapathy, who is a friend of Subrahmanyan’s. The musician has no scholarly airs about him and says he is drawn just as much to popular culture. He hums Ilayaraja’s melodies even though he has turned down multiple requests to turn playback singer, and it is with a heavy heart that he takes up concerts that clash with an IPL match. “He can watch any sport—the Olympics, even the NBA. He has a soft corner for the Tour de France,” says his wife, smiling as I shake my head in disbelief at the ever-lengthening list of pet obsessions. So why has his writing dwindled over the years—from rambling blog posts on the concert season to matter-of-fact shares of his schedule and one-liners on cricket on Twitter? “I could write, but it would become another thing to worry about. I wouldn’t be happy with everything I write,” he says.
Subrahmanyan is a stickler for depth and detail. If he is playing Ticket to Ride, a wildly popular board game, it is safe to assume he would have read its designer Alan Moon’s biography. He is, at heart, a researcher, excavating rare songs, ferreting out stories of composers whose work has never before graced the concert stage. “After I sang an entire concert of songs by Chennai composer Duraisami Kavirayar, someone wrote to me because they couldn’t find him on Google,” he says, obviously delighted to unearth such musical artefacts. The composer, he explains later in an email, was a traditional poet whose time period was approximately 1880 to 1945. ‘I got these details from the written material of VS Gomathi Sankar Iyer, who was a veena lecturer at Annamalai University and who also set many of Duraisami kavi’s compositions to music. The songs are mostly on the deity Murugan, some of them specific to the temple at Tirupporur near Chennai.’
Much is made of his penchant for Tamil compositions, but all successful musicians, from ML Vasanthakumari and MS Subbulakshmi to Maharajapuram Santhanam, he points out, routinely sang Tamil kritis. Subrahmanyan does not see himself up there with these personages; his music is an homage, but it takes on new resonance in the light of the Sangita Kalanidhi. Singing unselfconsciously without memory aids on stage, his deep respect for literature and sahitya (lyric) evident in his diction, Subrahmanyan looks every bit the role model. There is an earnestness and a lack of inhibition in his art that is reflected in his forthright personality. He is the perfect all- rounder, to brazenly borrow a cricketing expression, to serve the team.