When he strides onto the stage in his spotless white attire, the drill is predictable. Cross-legged, he pats a large towel in place on his knee and bends his head down while the accompanists ready themselves. The drone of the tanpura is the only sound audible as the audience waits with bated breath.
Suddenly his voice breaks the stillness and the rasikas settle in anticipation of a roller-coaster ride. They are never disappointed. Sanjay Subrahmanyan is off on yet another tumultuous journey filled with the excitement of discovery of music. It’s all there in him. He struggles to get it out. You try not to focus on his face, but listen with closed eyes to the first guttural sounds which fuse into melodic notes, which in turn end in one grand oeuvre.
Someone called it a “high-energy performance.” Another dubbed it as “audio-visual entertainment.”
Never mind the histrionics or the painful facial distortions. Once Sanjay begins to sing, Caliban turns into Ariel “to show riches ready to drop on us.” His performances from a serene temple in Washington to crowded sabhas in Chennai never fail his audience. He sits there, composed and unruffled, because “the audience is doing me a favour by allowing me to indulge in this art form.” Every concert is perfect.
What is it about Sanjay’s music that sets him apart? Is it dexterity or melody or emotional content? Or, is he a mere crowd-puller? Of course, he does attract crowds because audiences know that here is an uncompromising musician. He respects his listeners who vary from besotted rasikas who adore him to those who wonder, “Is this music or a wrestling match?”
If cynics compare him to an untamed elephant, there are others who swear that they will listen to a Sanjay concert or nothing. Highly professional, this amazing performer, who is easily among the best in the country, can transport his listeners to another sphere with music that thrills, moves and liberates. It is a music born out of true sadhana.
When you listen to him pleading in Telugu, “Nagumomu ganaleni najaali telisi, nannu brovaga raadhaa...” or lamenting in his favourite Tamil, “Kodutha maanitha janmam veenaagi pogudhum, yen kurai theertha paadumillaye...” you realise he is no mere entertainer. Sanjay Subrahmanyan is a yogi in his own way; a musician with a mission.
Sanjay Subrahmanyan (47) was recently awarded the prestigious title of Sangita Kalanidhi. This award recognises the best in Carnatic music every year. Here are some excerpts from an interview:
You have joined the ranks of timeless musicians like Maharajapuram Santhanam, Nedunuri (Krishnamurthy), K V Narayanaswamy and Madurai Mani Iyer. Does this galaxy of the “greats” intimidate you?
It definitely intimidates me, without doubt. It is also the motivation I need to keep working and may be even step it up a notch.
Carnatic music has reached the crossroads with more talented youngsters on the scene, while others are branching out to experiment with new genres of fusion music. Your take on this?
Carnatic music has always been at such crossroads over the last 50-60 years. I mention this period more because of the documented information that we have to refer to. At all points of time we have had extraordinary musicians coming in, people branching away and traditions evolving. I am just a co-passenger in the travel of this great art form, and I am happy to just bask in the pleasure it gives in being able to practice it.
How do you view yourself as the torchbearer of the younger generation of classical musicians, and how did you cultivate your unique style of singing?
The advice I received from my Guru Calcutta Krishnamurthi was to keep working hard and expand my knowledge and repertoire. Hard work in terms of practice, listening, assimilation, and not being afraid of failure when attempting new things are what keeps me going.
Should musicians break away from traditional styles set by the masters of yesteryears and let in some fresh air? Or, do you believe in the time-tested norms established by them and prefer to continue on the same road?
I think it’s an individual call rather than a system overhaul. Technology changes the system when it is either working or it is not used. Classical arts in that sense have their own pace of evolution and I prefer not to be upset with that tempo. I myself have changed in form and content over the last 15 years.
Are you happy with the way in which musicians and their accompanists are treated in this country, and the public perception that they are mere entertainers?
There will always be issues that need to be addressed in work. I am an optimist. I believe in going with the flow as long as it does not interfere with my work on stage. I am always grateful for the society for encouraging me to practise and make a living out of Carnatic music.
What are your experiences in other countries with regard to the courtesies meted out to artistes from India?
There are differences in the way things function in different countries. Western organisations have a particular way of dealing with artistes that are more in tune with their culture and systems. Yes, some of those things can be incorporated here without losing our own native ways that I have grown up with and have revelled in.