‘No short cuts, only hard work’

Sanjay Subrahmanyan gets technical in this session with Lakshmi Anand.

June 11, 2015 03:42 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 10:44 am IST

Sanjay Subrahmanyan

Sanjay Subrahmanyan

(This is the third part of an interview with the Carnatic vocalist. Part 1 -‘Kaizen, his mantra,’ and Part 2 - ‘Like a painting, it evolves on its own,’ were published on May 29 and June 5, respectively.)

Sanjay Subrahmanyan offers suggestions to make listening more productive for aspiring performers. “Listen a lot, and repeatedly, to what you like. Regardless of what you have been told, even if they are famous names, if you do not like what you are listening to, you will not learn from it - plain and simple. If you like a song, you SHOULD learn it.

After keeping at this for, say about 2-3 years, it should start reflecting in your music. I had teachers who encouraged me to learn whatever I liked – not all teachers might be like that – you should decide how to deal with that conflict. There is also the choice of deciding to simply perfect the standard versions of songs – you have to try both and arrive at a balance. Also, keep in mind that if you are strongly opinionated and feel that only certain music is ‘correct,’ it will be difficult to glean new ideas. If you have a guru who encourages you to venture out of your comfort zone, you will push yourself. Finally, all these efforts can be crystallised only with hard work, time and dedication.”

To develop manodharma sangeetham, Sanjay suggests beginning with kalpanaswaras - after learning 50 to 60 kritis and several varnams. Knowing the underlying swara structure of a raga is critical to understanding the raga itself. When the flow of kalpanaswaras comes fairly effortlessly and to tala, he suggests proceeding to niraval.

Niraval, Sanjay says, is the toughest, but at the same time, provides an easier introduction to raga since it is sung for shorter periods of time using smaller phrases fixed within a metre. Raga singing cannot be taught, he insists, though there are some methods with which to develop it. Guidance can be provided, but one has to work through it oneself. It is helpful for vocalists to have some training in the veena or violin, he says, to get a complete understanding of swara sthanams.

Quick fix solutions such as memorising kalpanaswara patterns or alapana sequences can only provide short term benefits, but ultimately, if one wishes to be a professional musician, certain processes and principles do not change and one has to work in the conventional way – there are no short cuts.

Sanjay’s own methods of learning have evolved over time. Earlier, he would learn pieces he fancied from recordings, staying faithful to it until the concert presentation when it would necessarily change. Now, he consults books and is constantly on the lookout for resource material while having a music library himself. He spends more time learning each piece now, practising and assimilating more. If certain lyrics engage him, he sets those to tune.

Initially, Sanjay focussed only on the melody and bhava aspects, paying scant regard to the lyrics. Responding to audience feedback, he found that enunciating properly and having a general understanding of the lyrics added dimension. He has, since, worked on comprehending the meaning of compositions in other languages – the Trinity’s and Maharaja Swati Tirunal’s, for instance.

Violin vidwan Nagai Muralidharan says, “His diction is flawless.” Sanjay now strives for a balance between lyrics and melody which, he thinks is essential for the overall experience. “I intend to work on Purandara Dasa and Annamacharya compositions. Being of an earlier time period, the language is more challenging.”

For Sanjay, concerts are so sapping as if it were a workout. He puts his all into each and every performance. “Many ask why I have to sing with so much effort. I tried, but was unable to sing in any other way.”

He explains how he even tried sitting in front of a mirror attempting to sing with a poker face, like Voleti. “Now, I don’t fret about it.” His inability to ‘rectify’ what might have been perceived as a problem, has become an anticipated stock-in-trade.

His conservative sartorial tastes notwithstanding, he is a photographer’s delight - natural, vivacious, and so devoid of artificiality that he, and his every syllable, seemingly leaps off the stage. He attributes learning this spontaneity and the ability to sing sans confinement to S.R.D. Vaidyanathan and his tribe of nagaswaram artists. “Perhaps since they have to play with all their might to be heard in the wide open spaces, it allows them to feel unrestricted.” It is almost impossible to have a clear view of Sanjay’s performance and be uninvolved – he is audio-visual entertainment.

Discussing concert structure, he explains how the standard format itself - roughly speaking, a varnam, a few songs some with alapana and/ or swaras, a main item, RTP, thukkadas – allows for boom and burst in energy levels. “We do not sing at peak energy constantly. You can sing some songs in a slow or medium tempo; some can be rendered exactly as taught providing a breather.”

Sanjay is satisfied with the present format which “allows artists enough scope to explore and also work around it in ways that are aesthetically satisfying to the performer. If the audience stops coming to my concerts, I might rethink it, perhaps.”

He offers his insight on rasikas walking out right before a thani avarthanam – an issue that crops up frequently and rankles. “People walk out during all parts of the programme, actually. While it is disrespectful to get up precisely at the start of the thani, I believe if the programme is planned such that the thani comes in the first 90 to 100 minutes or so, many will stay, perhaps all the way to the end. The audience wants value for money (particularly in ticketed concerts).”

Accompanists and main artists can have a tenuous relationship at times, often fuelled by ego. This is noticeably absent in Sanjay’s concerts now (he has faced it in his earlier days). He stresses the importance of giving accompanists due respect, keeping performances professional and making sure that at no stage does the tension filter down to the audience.

Sanjay is aware that a concert is teamwork – if he feels that it is not possible to work amicably with someone, he avoids those performers, and works with accompanists with whom he shares good chemistry.

Sanjay’s all-round competence and sensitivity towards his team earns him the respect of those who play with him. Sanjay intimates his violinists of rare ragas that might not be familiar; he often gives them a turn at playing the final (and usually longest) round of kalpanaswaras.

He ensures that the thani avartanam is incorporated early enough in the concert when the percussionists still have energy and vigour to demonstrate their best. He puts tala clearly - textbook style - with the lagu, drutam and anudrutam distinct even from a distance. He does not see his accompanists as competition but, rather, as co-artists and recognises them as such. Nagai Muralidharan reveals, “Sometimes I will deliberately play something different from what he has sung, eagerly looking forward to see how he carries that forward. Invariably, I am pleasantly surprised.” Neyveli Venkatesh says, “He is so encouraging, and looks out for us always - be it on or off stage.

One should learn stage etiquette from him. He is always well on time and starts concerts on the dot.” Varadarajan says, “He listens intently to what we play and is so appreciative, wanting us to do well. His concert list is brilliant and provides admirable variety. His raga prowess is incredible - he will render the same raga differently each time; he has opened up new vistas for me in raga exposition.”

Together, Sanjay and his team feed off of each other, resulting in high energy performances where their bonhomie is clearly discernible.

Sanjay’s own sojourn with the violin gives him an abiding respect for good instrumentalists. When asked if he is happy with his early switch to vocal, he emphatically says that he is extremely glad as the violin is a tough instrument to master, requiring tremendous discipline and hours of rigorous practice. “Had I not switched to vocal, I would have been a bad or mediocre violinist, given up music and taken up another profession. Instruments are tough to master – if a vocalist has to sing every day, an instrumentalist has to play twice a day. Hats off to them,” he says.

(To be continued)

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