Interview: Sanjay Subrahmanyan

Posted on November 26, 2006


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‘With Tamil lyrics, I do a Sivaji’

Sanjay Subrahmanyan talks about a documentary on his music, and reveals how he learnt a song rendered decades ago by Dandapani Desikar through… the Internet.

NOV 26, 2006 – SANJAY SUBRAHMANYAN LIKES TO LAUGH.Every so often, our conversation is punctuated by that huge, hearty sound – a wholly unique, wholly infectious cross between the sharp hiss of a pressure cooker letting off steam and the heavy wheeze of an asthmatic. The singer remembers training under his grand-aunt Rukmini Rajagopalan, who was not a performer, and referring to her amateur status, he says, “They still maintained the difference between the Gentlemen and the Players.â€? That’s the cue for a laugh, as is his revelation that he likes doing different things at different points in time, and, “Right now, my obsession is European strategy board games.â€? I get the impression Sanjay is one hell of a jolly chap, one hell of an audience pleaser, but by the end of the interview, I’m left with the nagging doubt that the laughter was perhaps more to keep himself entertained. Because the winding-up question I ask, almost as an afterthought, is why he’s so reluctant to talk to the media, and he responds, “If the press is going to keep asking me questions like whom I learnt my music from, how long my training lasted, what my favourite ragas areâ€? – for the record, Begada, Sahana, Khamboji – “where I have sung, what the difference is between singing in India and the US, why I sing so many Tamil songs, I can just prepare an answer sheet and distribute it, even before these questions come up.â€?

That sound you did not hear is me going, “Ulp!â€? These are some of the exact questions I’ve brought up, hoping not for literal answers, but sometimes the way you dance around a familiar topic can result in illuminating insights. And here he is, pretty much indicating that the entire session was a cliché parade, and if he’s agreed to this interview, it’s primarily to promote the documentary that Prasanna Ramaswamy – the theatre director who’s been working in films for over 15 years, with two independent shorts to her credit – has made on him. “Here there is a specific thing. It’s new, it’s unusual, and so I want to talk about it,â€? he says, jabbing the air in her direction, and when I ask why someone who seems to dislike publicity – or at least, the apparent inanities that it entails – to the extent that he does would want to be the focus of an entire film, he explains, “It’s not that I’m an actor. I was asked to do the things that I normally do. As far as publicity is concerned, she wanted to film me because of her own interest and excitement about my music, and her own interaction with me over 20 years. That is something I value a lot. This whole interview is because of the film.â€?

THE FILM is titled Aarar Asaippadar (Desired Melody), and it begins and ends with the exquisite Nadanamakriya composition it is named after – sung, of course, by Sanjay. Aarar Asaippadar is structured like a concert, proceeding from varnam to virutham, and while Sanjay’s forceful detailing of Shanmukhapriya alone would justify the film’s existence, the quieter moments are equally affecting – like the part that has the singer at his home, looking down from his verandah at the passers-by on the street, as if he were, you know, just another guy, like you, like me, whereas the voice in the background reminds you that that is absolutely not the case. “Many people tell me this must be the first film made on a musician still in his prime,â€? says Prasanna, who still remembers the first concert of Sanjay’s she attended some 20 years ago. “Narada Gana Sabha. 12 o’clock. It was an unbelievable combination of abandon, intellectual rigour, and great leaps of imagination. It took me a few hours to settle down from that excitement.â€? Or maybe she never really did, considering her estimate of having parked herself at an average of 25 concerts of Sanjay’s every year, for the past 20 years, and this prompts Sanjay to ask me rhetorically, “Do you think you can find a filmmaker who is making a film after listening to so much of an artist? That is the kind of understanding that this filmmaker has about this artist.â€?

Prasanna defines Aarar Asaippadar as being about her excitement of this music, his music – but she says it’s neither an academic document of a musician nor a fan’s tribute. “I’m not a fan. I would like to call myself a sahridaya.â€? Sanjay elaborates the concept. “If both of us were to discuss a concert, I’d look at it from a musical point of view, she’d look at it from an experiential point of view, and yet we’d come to the same conclusions.â€? The challenge for Prasanna, naturally, was in translating her excitement – one person’s excitement – to a series of images that would excite a general audience as well. “It was a huge struggle,â€? she says. “I didn’t want to shoot with multiple cameras – not for financial reasons, but I didn’t want that ‘coverage’ quality. What you are looking at here is an experience. It’s not a cut from here, a cut from there.â€? Even the visuals that aren’t about the singer, she didn’t want them to be illustrative or descriptive. “Merely evocative.â€? And that the film is – especially the segment that shows Sanjay picking up the nuances of a mallari from the nagaswaram vidwan Semponnarkovil Vaidyanathan and then fading out of the picture as phrases from a similar mallari are played by nagaswaram artists outside the Mylapore Kapaleeswarar temple; this then segues to phrases from another similar mallari forming the basis for Malavika Sarukkai’s dance practice in her Chennai studio. What is this if not an evocation of the continuum that Sanjay’s music is a part of!

SANJAY describes his interest in this music as one of those “typical, middle-class, Tam-Brahm things. While growing up, it was studies, sports, music – but studies came first. There was no way you could stop your education till you were self-sufficient, even if you had other interests. But my musical education remained constant, though there was no intention that I would be a musician,â€? he says, adding that his isn’t a family of musicians. “They were all rasikas, basically. And I was as much a rasika of music as I was of cricket. If anything, I had ambitions of playing cricket, at least for Tamil Nadu. I really fancied my chances, even though I was a batsman who never scored runs.â€? That laugh again. “Then in my teens, I became more interested in music. I started learning to play the violin, and continued till 1982.â€? Apparently, when he was one-and-a-half, he exclaimed at a Lalgudi Jayaraman concert that he wanted to play the violin like the maestro. “My mother took me seriously and, some years later, she dropped me off at the nearest violin class.â€? But after a while, his guru left for the US, and Sanjay suffered a couple of accidents – one from “playing football in a basketball court with a tennis ballâ€? and the other from falling down in the steeple chase pit at Rajarathnam Stadium. With those injuries, Sanjay could no longer play the violin, and he shifted to training in vocal music, under his grand-aunt.

Around the time, while trying to convert his father’s collection of spool tapes to cassettes, Sanjay chanced upon a master’s take on a song he’d just learnt – Maragadavalleem by GNB, accompanied by Lalgudi Jayaraman and Pazhani Subramanya Pillai. “I just couldn’t stop listening to those tapes and trying to sing like those artists,â€? he says, and then reflects on an angsty, what-am-I-doing phase while at college that made him realise that music was it. “I said, ‘I’ve played cricket. I’ve played chess. I’ve done trekking. I’ve done acting.’ And the only constant over 10 years has been Carnatic music.â€? Even during exams, he’d go for music lessons, and attending concerts was a year-round passion. “And the YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music) happened at around the same time, and they literally pushed me into the system.â€? There’s, of course, a difference between learning (or listening to) music and wanting to perform that music in front of an audience, but Sanjay says he was always a performer. “In the sixth standard, I went for an oratorical competition. I had to recite Mark Anthony’s friends-Romans-countrymen speech. My legs were jelly, yet I got first place.â€? From then on, he was on stage all the time. “If there was a fancy dress competition, I’d wear a lungi and go as a drunkard. It’s magic – if you have ten people sitting in front of you and watching you do whatever you want, you want to do it again and again.â€?

HE’S been doing it again and again for over 20 years now, and Sanjay says he still sings for himself first – and only then for his audience. “It’s a composite process where, initially, the artist creates the music, then the music goes to the rasikas, then the feedback comes from the rasikas. So I cannot think of the rasika before I start singing. But once I start singing, I have to feel the pulse, the vibration with the audience. That is when they come into the picture. There are days this doesn’t happen, when I know I am not doing a good job. There are days it happens in abundance.â€? How he senses this vibration, he says, he cannot put in words. “It’s an experience. Suddenly the atmosphere gets charged, and you can see the change. Then whatever you do, you’re in the zone. You have to search, you have to strive to get to that magical moment.â€? I ask if he tailors concerts according to audiences, especially when he’s invited by, say, World Music Institute to represent Carnatic music – he did so, in the “Masters of Indian Musicâ€? slot – and Sanjay shakes his head. “When you are representing your music, you are expected to present the best elements of your music. And whatever I sing here is already representative of this music, so how can it change? That’s what I said. What I pick does not depend on the audience. The process of picking a song in Paris or Lille or New York is the same as picking one in Bombay or Delhi or Mylapore Fine Arts.â€?

But he does think about his audiences – for when I make a reference to the new things he keeps trying out, he says, “In an entire concert of three hours, if I am able to sing even one sangati that I have never sung in my life, I’m happy. It could also be a new song or a new pallavi or a raga I’ve never handled earlier. That keeps the audience interested.â€? That also keeps him interested. “If I get bored, I’d stop singing.â€? Another thing Sanjay tries is to revive a raga or a song that has not been sung in the recent past. “Six-seven years back at the Music Academy, I sang Kaana kannayiram. I don’t think anyone has sung this (Neelambari) composition since Musiri (Subramanya Iyer), some forty years ago. Somebody in the US called this data mining,â€? he laughs.â€? Now I’ve been singing Oh oh kaalame, in Sahana, which was popularised by Dandapani Desikar. I happened to hear AKC Natarajanâ€? – the clarinet maestro – “hum the lines of the song once. I liked it. One day, I found this song on the Net. I downloaded it, learnt it, and started singing.â€? Another fine little story he relates in this regard involves Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. “My guru Calcutta Krishnamurthy once said that Surutti was dying and Narayanagaulai was already dead, and he added that Semmangudi sings Narayanagaulai very well. So I went to him and learnt Sriramam (Narayanagaulai) – and I got to learn another uncommon song as a bonus, Srisukra bhagavantam in Paras.â€?

SANJAY may be doing the musical equivalent of archaeology, but this doesn’t get highlighted in the reviews he gets. If anything, all we keep reading about is his voice. “I guess that’s the first thing people notice in a singer, the voice,â€? he says. “When they talk about Yesudas or SPB, they exclaim, ‘What a voice!’ SPB’s innovations and his brilliance come to the fore only later. Only if there’s nothing to react to in the voice do they start looking at the music or the costume or the hairstyle…â€? And Sanjay knows where I’m going next. What’s with the baby-walrus moustaches and the rock-god hairstyles? “I guess it’s just mid-life crisis,â€? he shrugs. These are the last few things you can try out before you turn forty.â€? Musically, though, there are no plans for experimentation. “I’ve learnt Hindustani music for two-three years, from Pandit Krishnanand. They have a lot of rigour in their system, but I was so into Carnatic music at the time that I didn’t feel the same way towards Hindustani,â€? he says, and confesses that even the music he listens to is fairly limited in range. “Outside of my music, if I have to listen to anything, I listen to Ilayaraja. The kind of music that he created was really magical. Otherwise, I listen to Hindi songs. I like Rafi’s voice. And a bit of Kishore. That’s it. I’ve tried a bit of western classical and opera, even ghazals, but that didn’t do much for me.â€?

Sanjay feels that this may be a reason he’s considered a “seriousâ€? artist. “I haven’t gone into fusion. I haven’t gone into films.â€? And, yes, he has been asked – by Vidyasagar, by AR Rahman, and most recently by Yuvan Shankar Raja for Pudhupettai. All Sanjay says is, “Not now.â€? For one, he doesn’t have the time. That’s why he had to give up, the online music forum he maintained along with Carnatic Summer author (and friend) V Sriram. “I was crazy about the nuggets of information on the Internet, and at one time, the only forum for musical discussion was rmic (â€? But the discussions there were mainly about Hindustani music. “I felt we needed something for Carnatic music. I was also experimenting then with web designing, and so came about.â€? Ultimately, finances became a problem, as did time, and it died. But Sanjay has another kind of Carnatic music forum going – with his students. “I’ve been teaching for about 10 years now, and some of my students have even started performing.â€? But he says there is a disadvantage in learning from practicing professionals, and it’s not just the teacher’s busy schedules and travel and overall lack of time. “The students can get led into the style of the performer, and may not be able to get out of the teacher’s shadow.â€? But couldn’t this be seen as carrying on a legacy? “If it’s the same thing, you don’t need it,â€? says Sanjay. “I’m still young enough to carry on my legacy. I don’t think the music field can take two or three Sanjays,â€? he laughs.

BESIDES, Sanjay points out that he isn’t a teacher in the traditional sense, as he’s working on his own music and his own progress. “Some people want to come and interact with me and get whatever they can from me. That is all. I am more like a PhD guide.â€? He says he enjoys these sessions, as they give him the chance to practice – other than the practice he normally does, “Maybe for an hour, two, three… Not much before a concert, though. I just warm up a bit in the afternoon.â€? By then, he has a mental map of what he’s going to sing, and he starts getting into that zone at some point in the evening – before the concert. “Of course, something may upset that plan. I can go into a concert thinking I’m going to sing a Thodi, but my voice may not be up to it, or I may not be able to handle it. So I may choose something different.â€? And sometimes, changing the song at the beginning of the mental map could upset subsequent items – a few of which are certain to be in Tamil. “There’s no conscious decision to balance Tamil and Telugu compositions,â€? says Sanjay, “but I like Tamil songs. Tamil is a language I have grown to love much more in the last few years. You spend 35 years reading the English newspaper every day, getting access to all kinds of English literature, and ignoring Tamil almost completely.â€? Only when his children started going to school did Sanjay realise what he was missing out on.

That – and a concert he gave for the Devan Trust. “I was given a complete set of Devan’s books – Thuppariyum Sambu, and much more – and that’s when my whole concept of literature changed.â€? It also helped that Sanjay’s guru was big on Bharathiyar. “I used to learn a lot of Tamil songs from him. Then in the early eighties, during Maargazhi maasam, I used to go every morning to the Sethalapathi Balu and Papanasam Sivan Bhajan Group. I became really sensitive to the language, and I picked up the expression and articulation of Tamil words mostly from Sethalapathi Balu – from how he sang the viruthams and all.â€? Besides, Sanjay’s family used to insist that he sing a virutham or a sloka at the end of every concert. “All that kept my interest in Tamil going.â€? As an aside, I ask him why the Tamil composers haven’t gotten the haloes that the Trinity have been conferred with, and he says, “Thyagaraja was a revolutionary composer. He changed the landscape of music. But today, he’s not treated as a musician, he’s a saint. In India, we have the tradition of imposing divinity on the things we revere. We also have this obsession with three – like the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. Today, Cleveland even celebrates ‘St.’ Thyagaraja Day,â€? he laughs.

THERE’S more laughter when Sanjay invokes Tamil cinema’s most celebrated thespian during the course of an anecdote. I ask if he tries to highlight this aspect of divinity – in the composers, in their compositions – while he sings, and he says, “The aesthetics of the music consume me most. When I sing, I’m thinking of the Thodi, of the Bhairavi, of the beautiful ragas. Yes, I do try to articulate the religious sentiments if I am familiar with the words. I am not exactly comfortable with Telugu or Sanskrit, but with Tamil lyrics, I try to do a Sivaji.â€? But this frivolity is all surface, for if there’s something Sanjay is thought to stand for, it’s his respect for – and adherence to – parampara, or tradition. He feels this is because the compositions he sings have been handed down over generations, and because he tries to associate some of his music with some of the old masters. “But there’s no specific thing that can be pigeonholed as parampara, and it’s not static. Whatever’s been handed down is something that underwent changes over time, and we are also going to try and change it.â€? He cites the Hamsadhvani composition Vatapi ganapathim as a classic case. “Dikshitar never composed 15 sangatis for the song – only one or two. The rest were added by musicians over time to make it more attractive.â€? Sanjay admits there’s good and bad to this process – you can lose things, you can gain new things. “Ultimately, time will pass a judgement. But because art is so subjective, you just have to keep living with these changes and growing with it.â€?

After his mention about the old masters, I ask if there’s anyone specific. “I am regarded by some as a GNB guy,â€? he says, adding that there are people from other schools who don’t look highly upon GNB, and therefore have a bias against his – Sanjay’s – music, “even though I have come a long way from that single-minded GNB obsession to a much wider introspection of the art form.â€? Some of these people are the critics, and Sanjay says they’ve been saying the same things about him for 20 years. “My repertoire has changed. The way I sing my ragas has changed. Nobody has highlighted these changes at any point. I don’t know if critics are sensitive to these things. If you find something new to criticise me about, I’d read it with a bit more interest. Why has somebody been around for so long? Have they been able to highlight that?â€? Sanjay says he still has his first review, for a concert in Bombay, and it screamed, “Ineffective articulation.â€? I tell him I’m surprised he still hangs on to these things, and he replies that he has to, if only to attach them to his passport to get visas, and he narrates a story that makes him collapse into his biggest laugh of the morning. “I once had to have a change of status in my visa. So they called me. An officer asked if I was a musician. I said yes. He asked me to sing something. I sang a bit of Thodi. He said, ‘Sing something with words.’ So – right there, in the middle of the American Consulate – I burst into Kaddanu vaariki.â€?

Copyright ©2006 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Music: Classical