Every generation produces gifted artists – each with a different lineage, expression and intent in the pursuit of Carnatic music. But only one among the many redefines the idea of music and leads the way for the rest to marvel at and learn from. Vidwan Sanjay Subrahmanyan is just that. His uniqueness is the combination of his musical insight and an immensely forthright personality, which made a huge impact on every musician who came up from the ranks in the 1990s. Honestly, for some of us, Sanjay was quite frightening. I use this word in the most positive sense, because he made us realise all the inadequacies in our music, not intentionally, but just with his sharp intellect. To describe his music is quite a daunting task but here is a small attempt. In the last issue of Sruti, much was written about his recalcitrant voice and his brilliant efforts to make it what it is today. But I see Sanjay’s voice as a gift. Forget about all the physical possibilities that the voice brings to music; the human layering of the voice is what makes the music. The life that a swara is given coming from his multi-textured expression
A living legend… and his music now T.M. Krishna is a direct connection with every person on the other side of the stage. A friend of mine keeps using the word “sheen” to describe his voice – a shine, a sparkle, you could even call it a “smile” to the music. I can tell you that most of us would die for this quality. I have always believed that raga music is Carnatic music. When we say this, what comes to our mind is a music presented with expansive improvisational elements, almost like Hindustani Sangeet. But this is not raga music. Raga music is the ability to find in every swara, akara and syllable, that which lies beneath the surface of the raga. A philosophical texture to music (Sanjay may not agree with this expression!) is true raga music. This is also true Sanjay music. I will never forget a Kambhoji alapana by him at the Music Academy many years ago. Honestly at that time I remember thinking that technically his Kambhoji was inaccurate. But I was absolutely wrong; he was discovering Kambhoji within Kambhoji. It was a marvellous, instinctive search that by the end of the alapana had given Kambhoji an experience of what it is. How many musicians can truly do this? I have heard so many artists from the past and the present who will shock you with a flow like the Niagara, sangati-s coming one after another, a torrential downpour, immense breath control – but this is not raga music. This is the sheer intellectual and physical ability to create more and more permutations and combinations. Sanjay’s raga is not this. With the most calm, spaced out alapana, he would make you breathless. This is not breathlessness born from non-stop delivery but from the flowering of every delivery. Sanjay epitomises the essence of raga sangeeta.
I still remember the advice he gaveme in the early 1990s about singing raga-s like Mukhari, Anandabhairavi, Husseni, and Kedaragaula if I wanted to master the idea of raga. “Concentrate on practising these rakti raga-s and all the others will come easily,” he said. How true. To be able to perceive abstraction is always harder than to perceive the obvious. This is essentially the difference between Athana and Latangi. It is this strength that allows Sanjay to sing absolutely any raga with the utmost ease. Singing techniques, he may have developed later, but in my opinion Sanjay needed or needs no guidance from anyone to express a raga. It was in him and it is in him for life.
Many compositions belong to him. We are usually conditioned to say this only about musicians of yore but it is very distinctive in him. Emanadichevo, Kaalai thooki, Amba Neelambari and the list goes on and on. His ability to transfer intellectual acumen to the practical presentation of a keertana, setting it up and so on is outstanding. He has always tried to master all the different technical aspects of music and achieved this with great success. Sanjay is a true all-rounder. But this is only one part of him. Insight is what is truly his treasure, which brings forth the ‘true’ Sanjay and helps him reinterpret every aspect of Carnatic music. At the same time I will be untrue to myself if I refrain from expressing some disappointment as a long time Sanjay viewer. Over the last decade he has taken different routes and explored different avenues, which is of course his journey, but at what cost? Over the last few years, I feel that in some way that “insight” is being hidden behind his urge to create something “new” or “different”. This has caused certain distinct changes in his music. Firstly his gamaka expressions have changed. These sometimes almost seem whimsical, not a natural progression of his creative impulses. Artificial? The essential link within a raga is its gamaka expression and within this lies a huge range of interpretations, but, this range is all within. An expression from outside is necessarily being thrust inside.
This seems to be happening sometimes with his interpretations. In Carnatic music, to present the difficult is difficult but not as difficult as presenting the simple. What are the difficult and the simple? In the context of Carnatic music and specifically in this context I am describing the difficult as understood in terms of that which is unknown or unexploredand the simple as that which is known and explored. Therefore, when he has endeavoured to present the tough vivadi-s, like Kosalam, it is a great feat, but not if it is at the cost of losing the beauty of the simple, a Sankarabharanam. It is also true that a person who could even create abstraction in a Dharmavati is now sometimes missing the abstraction in a Reetigaula. Sanjay has also ventured into singing Hindustani raga-s. This is something that has happened for many generations with Behag, Yamunakalyani, and Sindhubhairavi, all having been absorbed into Carnatic music. But how? They are not scales even after their integration; these raga-s are still beyond a scale and have many essential phrases that define them. Many new phrases have even evolved within the Carnatic interpretation giving these raga-s a huge canvas.
While singing a Bagesree or Patdeep, Sanjay seems to be viewing these Hindustani raga-s only as scales – Patdeep as Gowrimanohari with a lack of ri and dha in the ascent or Bagesree as a Sreeranjani with a dash of ma pa ga or ma pa dha ga in the descent and a lack of ri usage in the ascent. To this he adds the Hindustani accent. Is this Patdeep or Bagesree? These are raga-s defined by specific sanchara-s or pakad-s and therefore when we integrate them, these essential qualities need to be rediscovered within Carnatic music. Of course one may ask, why should it? “Why” can be asked for everything and I don’t have a response. But it is surprising to me when the very person who advised me to sing a Narayanagaula is now making Patdeep a scale.
His vocalisation has also been an interesting feature. While imitations of certain instrumental traditions or even vocal styles are fine in a lighter vein, they do affect both your music and your voice when they become part of your music. Sanjay has been using very curious vocal techniques and some unusual sounds in his music. These have now even become part of what people see in his music, his identity. But in this he has affected the very sheen that is his voice, his raga music. It is indeed very difficult for me to write this piece because any critique from me will be viewed as coming from a rival musician. I am not here to change people’s perceptions, but whatever I have said is because I care immensely for vidwan SanjaySubrahmanyan’s music.
He has been an inspiration. I know we have been compared for many years, even pitted against each other by the circumstances of the generation. But the truth is that I have drawn so much from him and he is to me the greatest musician over the last two decades. A true living legend.
(The author is a leading Carnatic vocalist)