‘The audience is doing me a favour’

Sanjay Subrahmanyan talks about teaching, his foray into the virtual world and more.

June 18, 2015 04:18 pm | Updated 04:25 pm IST

Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Photo : S.R. Raghunathan

Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Photo : S.R. Raghunathan

Sanjay Subrahmanyan has been singing on stage now for almost 30 years and he has managed to sustain his energetic voice. “A singer HAS to sing every day. There might be a few who have voices that genetically require less practice, but it is rare. Generally speaking, at the most, one can afford to miss a day or two a month, no more. However, the voice is part of the body. As advocated for physical fitness, one should prepare, perform and then recover. Regularity is important, but rest is critical too. Overstrain must be avoided. Just as one is advised to space out weight training in the gym, the voice should also be allowed to recoup,” he says.

Sanjay learned the hard way - from the repercussions of singing out of practice and coughing through concerts, presenting multiple concerts on a single day, etc. “The Season is tough. We try our best, but it is very hard,” he admits. After trying it all, waking up early in the morning to do sadhakam and different types of voice culture, he has achieved an understanding of his voice and settled to a routine that works for him.

With audiences all over the world hungering for his music, Sanjay has performed extensively in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, most European and Middle Eastern nations, besides Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. Once, at the U.S. Embassy in Chennai, a Visa officer, upon being told he was a vocalist, asked him to sing. Sanjay immediately broke into Thodi , to which she asked if he could sing something with words (‘Kaddhanu Variki’ followed)! If only the Visa officer knew that it was the wordless alapana that portrayed his virtuosity!

At a mike test in Spain, violinist Varadarajan was playing Neelambari. The technician asked Sanjay if it was a lullaby! Another incident closer to home was when a lady in Chennai took Sanjay to task for his staid attire that, in her opinion, did not match his musical acumen!

A sought after teacher, many of his students have ascended the stage and made an independent name for themselves - Sandeep Narayan, Swarna Rethas, Prasanna Venkataraman, R. Raghavendra, J.A. Jayanth, Baradwaj Raman, Bharath Kumar (son of Suguna Varadachari) and Rahul Krishna (his regular tanpura support, and brother of Swarna Rethas), among others. However, Sanjay considers himself a performer first and foremost. He teaches advanced students only.

Sanjay has always been on the forefront of technology. It was on one of his trips to the U.S. when friends pointed him to the Usenet group Rec.Music.Indian.Classical. The Internet was burgeoning then, and the idea of creating a website exclusively for Carnatic music took root. The domain name was registered and Sangeetham.com born in 1999, possibly the first ever website devoted exclusively to Carnatic music. Well ahead of its times, it was managed by Sanjay and noted historian V. Sriram, until lack of a revenue model eventually shut it down in 2006.

Sanjay was probably the pioneering Carnatic musician to sell albums online, starting with mp3.com around 1997. He continues to champion this channel of distribution. Rather than worry about YouTube and other sites, Sanjay uses Gumroad to distribute his music online himself on a Pay What You Want basis, where rasikas can receive intimation of new albums and get them directly for free too.

Sanjay was one of the initial members of the Youth Association of Classical Music (YACM) which was active from the mid 1980s to mid 1990s. Practically every musician in his age group was part of it then– B. Kannan, R.K. Shriram Kumar, P. Unnikrishnan, Vijay Siva, Manoj Siva, K. Arunprakash, Varalakshmi Anandkumar, Gayathri Venkataraghavan and Balaji Shankar. He says that YACM was the reason many of them took to music seriously – Sanjay feels the present day is harder for youngsters to get a foothold in the field. “Because of YACM, we never had to approach sabhas – sabhas would look at the YACM list and invite us, and those invited would suggest others. The best part was its composition of performers and non-performers. The non performers ensured that the association stayed impartial and that all of us kept our egos in check!”

Talking about the Season, he feels it is one of the best things about the state of Carnatic music now.

“It is a showcase of culture,” he says, “The way the crowds turn up for concerts is a joy to see and experience. Another huge development now is the fearlessness of today’s children to present kutcheris. When I was 16 or 17, it was like playing a Test match – an act fraught with anxiety. For today’s youngsters, it is a matter of routine.” On the downside, the music is Chennai-centric and the eroding relevance of temples in propagating culture is sad, he feels.

Sanjay connects directly with his rasikas through his blog (sanjaysub.blogspot.com), Facebook (sanjaysubmusic), Twitter (#sanjaysub) and email to Gumroad subscribers. Recently, he announced that he is on a quest – to sing all the Melakarthas. He has already completed 57 so far in compositions, RTPs, viruththams, ragamalikas and thukkdas. He is now considering augmenting the quest to include only compositions.

As a concluding remark, he says, “Much of my time is spent on working on my music. To do justice to the art necessarily means that I have to be selective in my usage of time. I am indebted to society for allowing me to take up music as a profession. I don’t take the audience for granted. I don’t believe I am doing them a favour. They are doing me a favour by allowing me to indulge in this art form full time.”

This is the fourth and concluding part of an interview with the Carnatic vocalist.

Read first three parts here:

Part 1: >Kaizen, his mantra

Part 2: >‘Like a painting, it evolves on its own’

Part 3: >‘No short cuts, only hard work’

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