Take Two Music

An equal music

Carnatic vocalists Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma

Carnatic vocalists Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma   | Photo Credit: S.GOPAKUMAR

Carnatic music and camaraderie come to the fore in a Take Two with vocalists Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma

The camaraderie is obvious as two of Carnatic music’s rock stars Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma get together for a chat in Thiruvananthapuram. “He’s the only one in the music fraternity whom I call my buddy,” says the soft-spoken Rama Varma, as the more flamboyant Sanjay chips in: “We are such good friends that I can answer any question put to him and he, mine!” Indeed. There’s not a discordant note as the two vocalists get right down to questioning each other about classical music, peppered with keen observations, insights into their friendship and plenty of no-holds-barred laughter. Over to the duo...

Sanjay: You were the first Carnatic music star on YouTube. How did you accomplish that?

Rama Varma: Musiquebox is a channel dedicated to my music that a friend started. Once I discovered YT, I started my own channel and started putting up concerts of people who are much better than me: Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Balmuralikrishna, K.L. Saigal, Parassala Ponnammal... At that time it was dial-up connection. In January 2017, both the channels turned 10. In the first two years it had 7,000 views; last five years it’s been six million views and counting! What makes me really happy is that it’s pure Carnatic music that everyone’s watching. Both of us have only sung Carnatic music till today and have never sung jugalbandhis, fusions or for films, all of which help make one popular. You are, perhaps, the only mega star classical musician who hasn’t dabbled in films. How do you resist the lure of films?

Sanjay: There is nothing wrong in being in the film industry. For me, it was an ego issue: Can I become successful without the aid of something unconnected to Carnatic music? Twenty years ago, when I was first approached for films, I didn’t want to become popular though Rajinikanth’s face or Kamal Haasan’s face. I wanted to be popular for my face, my music. That was my logic. As a young guy you have rebellious ideas. It was just one of those things that stuck in my head and I said no to.

Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan.   | Photo Credit: S.GOPAKUMAR

Rama Varma: The irony is that we both love film music.

Sanjay: I love film music. I listen to it all the time; several of my friends are in films. One of my students, Sean Roldan, is a big composer in Tamil today. In fact, P. Unnikrishnan and I were learning from the same guru and singing for the same festivals when he first started playback singing and won the National Award. People were expecting me to also jump in immediately and started calling me. Somehow I resisted. Now they know I won’t sing but still, every two-three years or so, I get a call asking me sing for films.

Rama Varma: Things have been much easier for me, because nobody asked! Also, from when Lata Mangeshkar’s voice hit the screens back in the 1940s, the pitch of film songs has increased exponentially, especially for female singers. I sing in a much lower pitch than what is sung in films. Not singing in films is not the only thing we share. I have a professionally friendly relationship with a lot of Carnatic musicians because I’m an organiser, but the only one I call my buddy is you. We always meet across a dining table.

Sanjay: We’re both foodies. Well, me not as much as you!

Rama Varma: Both of us eat a lot and love food but the difference is you are a gym freak too. I don’t hit the gym and it shows!

Sanjay: You read and speak French fluently. I can’t. We also love reading and, more importantly, share the same taste in books.

Rama Varma: In fact, if I find a book I like, I buy a copy for you too.

Sanjay: We discovered Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Vargas Llosa... together, didn’t we? And, more recently, David Mitchell, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and so on. So, we bond over music, books, food, films...

Carnatic vocalist Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma.

Carnatic vocalist Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma.   | Photo Credit: S.GOPAKUMAR

Rama Varma: You have an exploratory mind; you travel, you have a Cosmopolitan outlook. You are a musician who readily take inputs from other sources, be it a book, a movie, a conversation, all of which colours our perspective of art. You are constantly changing your repertoire. Each time you sing a song, you will give it fresh dimension. There so many musicians who have lived their lives singing the same songs, without a single change. Like a photocopy. Some listeners like to be in their comfort zone and like the idea of knowing what’s coming up. They can never predict what happens in your concerts.

Sanjay: Well, constant change can also get tedious. I’ve had people come and request me not to do it. That reminds me, what made you bring katha kalashepam model into a classical concert? It’s a Western concept to give a little insight into what they are performing. In Carnatic music, musicians rarely talk. If they do, they stop at the composer or the raga. How did you start out with it?

Rama Varma: When I started out, I knew only Telugu, and Sanskrit songs and a smattering of Kannada ones, as taught to me by guru. I didn’t know the languages or the meaning of the songs. It all started in 1994 after a concert in New York. I remember the song - Purandaradasa’s ‘Naaneke badavanu.’ Over dinner, a Kannadiga friend explained the meanings of the lyrics. That kind of it set off. Till then I was attracted only to music, never the lyrics. Once I studied French and came across the lyrical beauty of Belgian poet Jacques Brel, I started getting moved by lyrics. I started learning the word by word meaning of classical songs. Mainly Tyagaraja. The more I learnt, the more addictive it became. I derive a lot of enjoyment from the lyrics and I felt that it was unfair not to let the audience also enjoy it. I do it only when a song is conceptually rich. Like a Purandaradasa, Annamacharya, Tyagaraja, Bhadrachala Ramadas, M. Balamuralikrishna... In the beginning, the older listeners in the audience used to feel insulted that a young upstart like me could presume to teach them something that they has been listening to for 50 years! Nowadays, people seem to have accepted it and tell me they look forward to it. Of course, after the internet expanded, all at your fingertips....

Sanjay: Access to information nowadays is phenomenal. If you use it well, you get so much more out of the songs. A friend of my wife’s told her the other day that attending your concert is as refreshing as a rock concert. It’s amazing that you are able to do what you do, given your royal background. Were there any challenges on that front...?

Rama Varma: My family was not interested and neither was I. It was T.V. Gopalakrishnan who first encouraged me to sing in public.

Sanjay: As a performer you’ve got more patience than me because you listen to more concerts. I cannot! When I was young, I used to listen to a phenomenal number of concerts/ recordings in Madras [Chennai]. From 17 till 25-30 years of age, my high was to go for concerts or listen to recordings. It was a routine. It got too much over a long time period. Now, I prefer to play board games, go to the gym, watch cricket, listen to Western classical and Tamil film songs and so on. It keeps me in tune with other forms of entertainment. I hardly attend four or five live concerts a year. Last year, I went to only two. How about you?

Rama Varma: My idea of relaxation is reading and watching comedy on YouTube. I can watch anything from sophisticated British comedy to shocking American comedy and base Malayalam comedy to mimicry and what not. I love comedy much more than music. In fact, I often have to control myself not to crack jokes in the midst of a concert! I like it when the audience claps for my music; I like it even more when they burst out laughing at my jokes.

Sanjay: I enjoy comedy too but I believe in being very restrained on stage. For the best of cricket, they used to say in Yorkshire, ‘No square cuts before lunch’, which means don’t take too many risks. I figured that at least when I sing, I should think like a top batsman. That’s the temperament I want to bring to my singing, because I failed as a cricketer.

Rama Varma: Cricket’s loss is Carnatic music’s good fortune!


Rama Varma: This year the Swathi Sangeetholsavam at Swathi Thirunal’s Kuthiramalika Palace turned 18 years old. Now, it has become a major!

Sanjay: I’ve always wondered what prompted you to start the Swathi festival, particularly when the traditional music festival at Navaratri Mandapam has been around for decades?

Rama Varma: The Navaratri festival as you might know follows a strict disciple, with regard to venue, songs, dress code, timing, no audio recording or photography... It has it’s own charm and duty, but my mind is a bit more free and I wanted everyone to enjoy the music. The Swathi Sangeetholsavam was actually started by the Public Relations Department of Government of Kerala in 1994-95. It’s only when they discontinued it that I impulsively started conducting the festival, without knowing if it would continue, grow or shrink. That was in 1999. Thanks to people like you it’s been growing steadily. Earlier, we needed big brand names like the late M. Balamuralikrishna to draw in the audiences. Now, this year, even a young school girl Aditi Prahlad from Bangalore managed to make the packed audience stay till the end.

Sanjay: I think it’s important that the planning of a music festival is done by someone with enough inside knowledge. It’s like curating an art festival or a film festival with a theme or the right artist(e)s. Generally, Carnatic music festivals are not curated; it’s rare to find one like the Swathi Sangeetholsavam, where, with your involvement in music, your professional capacity as a musician, your family background..., you know what’s happening in the industry and you are able to bring people into the mainstream; people from Kerala who have been singing for 40 years and have been forgotten. From here they have gone to Madras and Cleveland and everywhere else. It makes sense when someone is able to put a festival together like this...and consistently.

Rama Varma: So many people travel to Thiruvananthapuram just to attend your concerts! I give so much credit to people like you for singing so many different songs to keep audiences engaged. Otherwise, everybody will sing ‘Devadeva Kalayamithe’ and go away. This time over 75 different compositions were sung...

Sanjay: See, if you take Tyagaraja fête in Thiruvaiyyarur, everyone gets to sing four songs and almost always the songs will be the same. It’s because it’s not curated. You, on the other hand, take the trouble to ask what a vocalist plans to sing or if I’m singing on the last day, would I do something different and thus avoid repetition. That way people get a chance to listen to more songs and musicians in turn are encouraged to sing and learn more. Compositions become popular only when musicians sings them. ‘Nagumomu’ and ‘Devadeva Kalayamithe’ became popular only because top ranking musicians sang it in public.

Rama Varma: I wish all musicians who come here would act as ambassador of Swathi kritis like you do so brilliantly.

Sanjay: When I first came for the Swathi festival more than 15 years ago, I hardly knew about 15 or 20 Swathi kritis and that too ones that I had learnt from my gurus. I would sing them elsewhere but not much. On one occasion, I was singing at the Marghazhi fête and during the open question-answer session, someone asked me why I don’t sing Swathi kritis. I replied saying I do sing them - when I go to Kerala! Remember that’s when you told me, ‘I’ll invite you twice a year to perform and your repertoire of will increase.’ And it’s true. Music, for me, is music. The composer, composition, language... is secondary as far as I am concerned. If there is musical worth in compositions for me to exploit as a performer then I will sing it. Primarily, for me, it’s the art that matters and politics comes much later. If they are good compositions and concert worthy and people like to hear them, then I will sing it. I have learnt so many of your recordings directly and sang them. In a sense, the first major push for popularising Swathi kritis came from your great-grandmother, Amma Maharani, right? She had a vision about popularising songs, got musicians and encouraged them to sing at the Navaratri festival. It was she who kind of gave it a pep. You have carried it forward into the 21st century with the Kuthiramalika festival.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 9:48:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/An-equal-music/article17311955.ece

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