Thursday, November 03, 2005

On why I like Sanjay Subrahmanyan's music so much...

Sanjay Subrahmanyan is my  favourite Carnatic (South Indian classical) musician,
by a long way. I have quite a few of his recordings in my possession. I also have
quite a few of his live concert recordings. His music fills more than 30% of
my 40Gb iPod!

It is not as if I listen to only Sanjay Subrahmanyan.Some of my fellow
concert-going-friends have often accused me of having an unnecessarily
"Catholic" (and perhaps even an undifferentiated) taste in music. I
listen to anyone and everyone without fear or prejudice. But there are
few that challenge and stretch me.

I don't really need to justify my liking for his music to anyone really!
But recently, I asked myself "Why so?"

Primarily, to me Carnatic music has to engage the heart as well as the mind
(simultaneously). Although many musicians do reach and simultaneously engage
the mind and the heart, Sanjay's music is certainly engaging and challenging
and certainly makes me want to continually enquire and search for a far
deeper meaning... Beyond that somewhat simplistic explanation, I have
nothing more to profer by way of justification or explanation for why I
like Sanjay's music.

More generally, when it comes to performing artistes (or sports people) in
the end, for me, it is all about a combination of (some of) the following
  • to excel in ones field and to continually want to excel,
  • having a huge dollop of self-belief and yet, retaining humility,
  • demonstrating utmost integrity in public and private life,
  • showing leadership in all aspects of life (performance life and private life),
  • continually demonstrating passion for what one does,
  • a steely resolve to succeed despite the odds -- not for the sake of success itself, but in order to make a contribution,
  • a desire to make lasting impacts (to society and/or to ones profession) and
  • a constant and demonstrable need to continually learn, grow and innovate.
It is for the above reasons that I admire:
  • A. R. Rahman
  • Sachin Tendulkar
  • Rahul Dravid
  • Shabana Azmi
  • Steve Waugh
It is for the above reasons that I used to admire Ganguly (who was, in my opinion
the best 'leader of men' in Indian cricket and perhaps even the 'first true leader
of men' in Indian cricket).

Sanjay Subrahmanyan has an utter and total dedication to the classical Carnatic
idiom. He has an absolute and utter belief in his own abilities and his own chosen
path to 'success'. He has the self-confidence to pursue those goals. He has belief
in the path that he has chosen -- which includes the constant desire (that I feel)
to creatively innovate within the norms of a strongly codified genre. Rather than
look at those norms as a burden, a shackle and a constraint (which, unfortunately,
many of today's musicians do), Sanjay has not only believed in it, but also used
it to stunning effect.

There is, I believe, a foundational structure in his performance career.

"To innovate contiunually and to search for more meaning within the norms of
a strictly codified genre".

This position that he has occupied today, I feel, stems from an absolute inner
confidence. An inner confidence in his own abilities, his own drivers and his
motivations. An inner confidence that shuns wanton adulteration and denigration
through mediums such as (con)fusion music, jugalbandhi music, kalyana (marriage)
katcheris, etc.

There is foundational principle at play here; a principle that was seemingly
established at a very formative stage in his career as opposed to one that
was arrived at after a timeless journey of introspection; a principle that
was deliberate as opposed to wanton; a principle that was designed and
crafted as opposed to one that was randomly chosen.

Therefore, there is a sense that I derive from listening to him that one can
stick to basics, within the bands of pragmatism in the modern-day milieu of
instant gratification and a fast pace of life.

Examples of these are
  • a strict belief in classical traditions,
  • singing with a tambura and not an electronic sruthi box,
  • to not resort to needless speeches while on stage -- especially those that unnecessarily magnify ones own contributions/genius in a garish and outlandish manner -- and therefore, focussing on the greatness inherent in the music itself (unlike some of his contemporaries that adopt a patronizing stance towards their audience),
  • not referring to notes on stage,
  • a constantly neat appearance on stage that shuns extravagance (the focus, therefore, is on the music and nothing else),
  • providing percussion accompanists with a taniavartanam (solo percussion segment of a Carnatic classical music concert) in the first half of the concert itself,
  • wearing crisp-white on stage,
  • not succumbing to the need to splash a dash of ash on the forehead and not being frightened of the consequences of him being seen, perhaps, as a non-believer, etc.
While these traits could have been seen as a throwback to the 50s in the era where
cricket, Bollywood, internt-chat and download-gratification dominates, these traits
have become stunningly popular and a near-cult-following has ensued.

The refrain in his case is "simplicity and yet depth; basic and yet profound".


  1. Nice one! Your writings are so cool! As a fellow Carnatic music fan, it is a pleasure to read your work! :-) Do keep it up and awaiting the Ragas in film music article... I did one, ages ago...but only on Sindhubairavhi! Yes, it was the easy option at the time, so muhc to write about ;-)


  2. Absolutely right Mohan sir. Sanjay sir is by far the best musician out there. I am a huge fan and I have some 30 GB of sanjay sir alone :).The brilliance and chastity of his renditions are non-pareil. I have had so many moments feeling fortunate and blessed to be in the same era of this genius and listening to him. Vaazhga Sanjay Sir, Valarga carnatic music!!