Like a painting, it evolves on its own: Sanjay Subrahmanyan

Sanjay Subrahmanyan talks about his approach to music, how he plans a concert and the importance of listening.

June 04, 2015 04:05 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 10:44 am IST

(This is the second part of an interview with Sanjay Subrahmanyan. The first part appeared on May 29.)

Prior to every concert, Sanjay Subrahmanyan decides what to sing, practises and reviews pieces that he has not rendered in a while and any new ones that he intends to present. He compares his musical exploration to a painting.

He says, “A painter might start with a basic sketch but after a point, the painting takes a life of its own. So it is with the music. I might begin with an idea of what to sing, but once into it, the atmosphere, thoughts at that moment, feedback from the accompanists, all make it develop. What works one day might not work on another since the mix of factors will be different.”

Many rasikas often go to concerts intending to stay for a little while and head out elsewhere. Sanjay’s programmes make this difficult though. This writer has overheard many discussing the appropriate time for departure since “What if Sanjay does something exciting right after we leave?”

How did he acquire this difficult skill of keeping the audience absorbed throughout? Sanjay attributes this to the prolific listening he did from the ages of 9 to 25 or so. “I would have attended at least 100 concerts a year, besides listening to the radio and recordings. While listening, you notice where your attention stays and where it wavers. In a live concert, you observe that there are phases where everyone is fully focussed on the artist – you analyse what happens there. My grandaunt (Rukmini Rajagopalan) would say that we should attend all sorts of concerts – some to learn what to do and others, what NOT to do. Why is a particular artist not able to sustain the interest, you should ask yourself. Just as stock market gurus tell us not to get sentimental about particular stocks, we should have the courage to move away from singing what does not click. It is important that performers are not bored themselves Presentation is very important. We have to take pride in our work.”

Violinist Nagai Muralidharan, who accompanies Sanjay often, affirms this. “He is an artist of such high caliber. I cannot think of anyone else with his work ethic, perfectionism and desire to keep learning. His spontaneity is admirable.” Neyveli Venkatesh, who regularly accompanies Sanjay on the mridangam, says, “From Sanjay, I picked up the habit of doing something new in every concert.” Varadarajan, another regular violinist, says, “Sanjay does not hesitate to act on impromptu ideas and delivers too! Every time he renders a raga, it will be very different, show new colour. His concerts require being on alert throughout. Even regular accompanists will be surprised.”

This quality comes from Sanjay’s intellectual approach to music - extensive research and pursuing avenues that have not been delved into as much. “Calcutta Krishnamurthy was instrumental here – he celebrated scholarship,” Sanjay explains. “For example, we could learn just one song in a raga, but if we learn many, there is something to be gained. He also believed that music should evolve and not stagnate. ‘What did you do differently?’ he would ask every time. He encouraged me to think out of the box constantly.”This relentless quest for challenging and bettering himself has meant that Sanjay knows an enviable number of ragas and compositions. He enjoys learning and presenting newer and lesser known pieces, with particular affinity to Tamil compositions. “My grandaunt loved Tamil songs and liked D.K. Jayaraman (DKJ) very much. She would tell me to listen to DKJ and learn some pieces in his style. I was also active at the bhajan sessions that the Papanasam Sivan family - Sethalapati Balu, Rukmini Ramani and Ashok Ramani – conducted. They sang many Sivan songs and Balu mama presented several viruthams as well. As Calcutta Krishnamurthy was at the Annamalai University in 1942 (during the heart of the Tamil Isai movement), it resulted in his being thorough in the songs of the early Tamil books. He conducted a Bharatiar festival in Calcutta for many years, and set all Bharathi’s poems to tune. All my gurus created an atmosphere that was conducive to Tamil compositions, fuelling my enduring interest in them.” Sanjay followed this love for the language despite criticism, and feels that it has served as a vehicle to integrate rasikas of different communities in his concerts.

Over 99 per cent (by his own estimates) of Sanjay’s recitals feature a Ragam Thanam Pallavi (RTP) – a rare phenomenon now, except at The Music Academy during the Season (where it is a requirement), or in dedicated pallavi programmes. His motivation lay in his unearthing the fact that artists in the 1940s and 1950s presented RTPs even in one-hour concerts at The Music Academy. He explains that the RTP embodies the ultimate in creativity – its every aspect examines competency and creativity in a thorough and exacting manner. Further, it is a launch pad to delineate unconventional ragas. He says, “Some ragas are heard only for a few short minutes - as thukkdas, for example. I like the idea of examining such ragas in more detail. Also, it is not possible to learn songs in every possible raga. RTPs allow me to nevertheless sing them – they can be an interesting process of discovery.” He engages in tala gymnastics judiciously, being careful not to overdo it or make it the sole focus.

An attentive individual, Sanjay discerningly acts even on offhand suggestions. On one occasion, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer asked him what pitch he sang in. When Sanjay replied ‘1.5’, the thespian suggested he sing in 2. He switched immediately… and has sung at 2 ever since. Several years later, Calcutta Krishnamurthy happened to mention that except for Semmangudi, hardly anyone was singing Narayanagowla. As a result, Sanjay learned ‘Sri Ramam’ in that raga from him. After a tentative start, Sanjay now sings vivadi ragas regularly after many experts suggested that his voice was particularly suited for it. Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman and Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna sang such ragas frequently. Nagai Muralidharan, who has accompanied artists such as Kalyanaraman regularly, demonstrated and taught Sanjay several vivadi ragas. Muralidharan recalls Sanjay’s intent attention and how quickly he grasped the nuances, often presenting the raga barely a few days later. The consummate ease with which Sanjay sings them belies the effort and care he has taken to master them.

Sanjay explains how, as he learned and attempted more music himself, he could appreciate other artists and their skills all the more. “I like everyone,” he says. At different points in time, he was ‘crazy’ about Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers, M.D. Ramanathan and Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman (to name a few), and, for instance, had wanted to sing Begada exactly like Ramnad Krishnan.

An admirer of Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan (TNS)’s approach of long drawn phrases in the nagaswaram bani, Sanjay realised how singing a single alapana in that style was extremely challenging. “TNS had enormous amounts of energy and vitality and was successful in his approach. As our knowledge increases, we develop more understanding of the skills that others present.”

Listening is the Holy Grail for any aspiring performer, increasing the repository of knowledge and providing ideas. “Sanjay has listened so much, and to so many artists that he has distilled the best from each, giving his music so much depth”, says Varadarajan. Muralidharan says, “Within his refreshing presentation, one will unfailingly recall yesteryear masters.”

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