With music in his veins...

Innovative

With music in his veins...

‘TRS’, says the voice at the other end of the line. A clear, precise, authoritative tone. And that is exactly the impression that one gathers on meeting T R Subramaniam.

One of the senior-most singers in the field of Carnatic music, TRS, as he is commonly addressed, is known not only as an able performer and an erudite, much-respected teacher, but also as a bold and daring innovator who stokes the curiosity of the cognoscenti, leaving listeners with a feeling of having experienced something markedly different from the quotidian presentations of music.

As TRS recalls his early days, one realises that this innovative streak has been a defining characteristic of his personality.  A trait that had roots in his innate musical predilections, perhaps inherited from his father, who had a keen ear for music.
Acquainted with most of the leading musicians of the day, he encouraged young Subramaniam to learn music, while at the same time not neglect his academic pursuits, which saw him acquire an MA in English and the Sangeetha Vidwan degree from the Government Music College, Madras. Musiri Subramania Iyer, one of yesteryears’ stalwarts, was the principal of the music college, while the faculty had eminent artistes like T Brinda. With such great personalities teaching him, TRS soon acquired a thorough knowledge of both theoretical and practical aspects of music.

Of course, as he says, there were people who resented the ‘over-smartness’ of a lad who had ‘English education’ in an era where the words of the Guru were to be implicitly accepted without questioning. This attitude of ‘Why only this way? Why not the other way?’ has been synonymous with TRS, and even now, when he perspicaciously articulates his opinions at innumerable lectures and symposia, it sets people thinking, and even the die-hard traditionalist has to, albeit grudgingly, accept that there is substance in the presentation.

Thinking differently

Similarly with his music too, he conforms to tradition and time-honoured norms and practices. Yet, he adopts a novel approach. If the accepted practice to commence a Carnatic music concert is with a Varnam or a song venerating Lord Ganapati, on occasions, TRS has started with a Javali, a genre with romantic overtones overlaying profound philosophy. Sacrilegious for some, an interesting experiment for others. As he says, “Changes and innovations must not be done for the sake of simply doing something new, but must be grounded on sound theory and must reflect the singer’s mastery over the medium”. One cannot help but agree with him.

In his raga delineations, he handles the pivotal notes such that each phrase throws up a new facet of the raga that may sometimes also be the lines of a song. When he sings a Bilahari or a Gowrimanohari, a sudden twist or a dizzying descent brings out fresh pictures that blend tradition with innovation.

In the swara essays, his technical brilliance is clearly visible. Different ways of reaching the landing note, changing the landing note itself, weaving passages of different speeds are some of his novel approaches. But it is in the pallavi, the high point of a Carnatic recital, and the acme of an artiste’s technical and aesthetic perfection, that TRS shines forth in all glory. Pallavi is the improvisation of a select textual passage within the framework of a particular raga and tala. How an artiste goes about this within the given constraints, without sacrificing melody and grammar, is a measure of his expertise and dexterity. It is a cerebral exercise that demands total concentration and grip over the medium such that the exercise is not a mere exhibition of dry technicalities, but a seamless and harmonious merging of mathematics and aesthetics. This is an area where the artiste can give free rein to his imagination and creativity. And TRS is an acknowledged master in this field. Even as a student in the music college, his acumen was recognised, and in fact, he was asked to teach juniors. A rare honour indeed.

Constructing pallavis in different languages, in different talas, in off beat ragas, in different speeds, having odd take-off points, increasing and decreasing the speed within the same cycle, the list could go on where TRS is in full flow. Composing on-the-spot pallavis is his forte which he has not only demonstrated at various fora, but has also trained his students similarly. One such pallavi is the now-famous Dasharatha Tanayuni, incorporating the first, second and third speeds in one cycle. Watching him deconstruct a pallavi, splitting it into its constituents and reconstructing it is a sheer delight. “Pallavis should not be memorised, they should be performed extempore,” is his dictum.

As a professor of music in Delhi University for three decades, he is credited with making the Department of Music one of the most reputed places for pursuing research and producing a large number of doctoral dissertations. Innumerable awards and citations, including the Sangeet Natak Academy award sit lightly on his shoulders. His services are much sought after as an expert committee member, as a jury for music auditions, as a reviewer for scholarly articles, and as a guide for PhD aspirants among many others.

One of the few musicians who has made a mark both as an academician as well as a performing artiste, TRS is surprisingly Catholic in his views and is always open to new ideas and suggestions. He is now engaged in teaching music for advanced learners at the prestigious Music Academy in Chennai, while his fecund imagination has come up with the phrase ‘applied musicology’ for framing a revised curriculum for teaching music theory, eliminating obsolete and irrelevant details. He continues to inspire and enrich the world of Carnatic music.

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