Kaizen, his mantra

With his complete involve-ment, thorough competence, enthusiasm and professionalism, it is no wonder that Carnatic musician Sanjay Subrahmanyan is revered by fellow musicians and rasikas alike. With raw, palpable energy, surpassing of expectations in every concert, and camaraderie with his accompanying artists, he is a delight. And what he refrains from — no gimmicks, speeches or sensationalism — completes the package.

Sanjay is a vocalist par excellence… without a doubt, a doyen of the present day. There is little in Carnatic music that he cannot or does not do well. During the Music Season, most rasikas may attempt to catch a recital each of the leading artists — when it comes to Sanjay though, many will follow him from sabha to sabha. One can attend his concerts everyday without feeling even a tinge of monotony or repetitiveness. Such is the variety he presents.

Nagai Muralidharan, a senior and respected violinist, recalls how in a 36-concert U.S. tour in 2004, Sanjay did not repeat even one piece. S. Varadarajan, a regular violin accompanist, adds “His song selection is impeccable – often, he will showcase all the 12 notes within one concert.”

Rough edges

Did Sanjay Subrahmanyan, the singer, face any challenge?

Several, he says.

  • * Trouble keeping tala
  • * No sruti alignment
  • * Forgetting lyrics
  • * Tri-kalams were difficult

How did he overcome them?

Sheer hard work. There’s no short cut.

Sanjay is an enigma of sorts — as fashion gurus debate the best outfits to wear on stage, Sanjay resorts to the tried and tested white shirt and dhoti; he does not talk at all during performances (except to name a rare raga, perhaps) and he does not seek out rasikas. Yet, he has been on the cutting edge of technology throughout and is a self confessed gadget freak.

Extremely hard working and focussed, this qualified Chartered Accountant tells it the way it is. There are no attempts to sugar-coat or say what is expected. Refreshingly frank, he is principled, well read, has tremendous clarity of thought and does not hesitate to voice his opinions - only when asked, though – a remarkable quality. The media coverage he gets is unsolicited (as is this article).

Sanjay’s musical training began in 1975 with violin lessons from V. Lakshminarayana, father of L. Subramaniam and L. Shankar. Lakshminarayana would make Sanjay sing everything he had learnt on the violin and this proved helpful when he switched over to vocal. In 1982, when Lakshminarayana moved to the U.S., Sanjay took vocal lessons from Suganya Swaminathan for a year before continuing his training under his grand aunt (and mother of Suganya Swaminathan), Rukmini Rajagopalan, until 1990.

As a young child, though, he learned without serious commitment. In Sanjay’s own words, there was nothing in his childhood to indicate his future as a musician. He dabbled in everything, from cricket to movies to chess to books to trekking. Yet, music was a constant — always in his environs, his family being Carnatic music aficionados.

When he was about 15, he heard a recording of G.N. Balasubramaniam’s rendition of ‘Maragathavallim’ in Khambodi, a song he had just learned. Mesmerised, he listened to that recording over a 100 times! This was the trigger and there was no looking back. He became passionate about the art, spending about six hours daily, contemplating, listening and practising. He gave his maiden concert in 1986, at the age of 18.

Sanjay also underwent training with Calcutta K.S. Krishnamurthy from 1990 until the latter’s demise in 1999. In 2002, nagaswaram artist S. Kasim took him to meet Sembanarkoil S.R.D. Vaidyanathan, a senior nagaswaram vidwan. Inspired by what they spoke about and the songs that Vaidyanathan sang, Sanjay learned from him until Vaidyanathan passed away in 2013. Sanjay even trained in Hindustani music for a couple of years under Pandit Krishnanand.

When so many attribute their success to abstract factors, Sanjay explicitly describes the challenges he faced - difficult for us to fathom now, given his present facility in those very areas. “So many problems,” he says, without hesitation. “I had trouble keeping tala properly, and it took a lot of work to surmount that. The tri-kalams of pallavis were difficult – I taught myself, listening and observing extensively and spending hours practising. My voice would not align to the sruti. I would forget lyrics constantly and gloss over them. What’s more, these mistakes have occurred multiple times on stage too. It is a necessary part of musical growth. ‘Ineffective articulation’, proclaimed a headline after a concert in Bombay. Others said I was not suited for vocal music at all. I have been dismissed completely – so many times.”

Far from discouraging him, those early comments served as a catalyst to work more diligently, aim higher and put in a concerted effort on fixing shortcomings. Now, despite totally eschewing aids such as notes and iPads, Sanjay rarely stumbles upon lyrics (“There is no shortcut — only repeated singing”). He has excellent grip over laya; his pronunciation is so crisp that a rasika can write down the lyrics with the stressed and unstressed syllables clear, and his alapana phrases are distinct enough to dissect even the most complicated ones into their individual swaras.

Says Sanjay, “Deserved criticism makes me work harder. Much of the open criticism I received in my earlier days, was valid. Unjustified comments bother me, but I don’t believe in defending my perspective in public. I believe in performing and allowing others to make a judgment. If the judgment is erroneous, so be it.”

If his concerts manage to satisfy rasikas of varied hues, it is because of his cognisance that he cannot take them for granted. “Semmangudi mama said it best — music is merely a want and not a need for listeners. Earning a livelihood and taking care of responsibilities will always be primary. Given that, I have to sustain the audience’s interest and keep them enthused enough to make them attend.”

Sanjay strives to keep his content fresh, explore uncharted territory and push the boundaries constantly, not just in music but in all aspects of his life. Even while driving, for instance, he takes different routes each time, just to explore. Kaizen (continuous improvement) is his mantra.

Next week, read about Sanjay's repertoire, thirst to learn, etc..

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 8:48:39 PM |

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