15 Jan 2018 15:37 IST

The Pied Piper of Madras

Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan is an innate genius with stage presence

Whistles and cheery screams, a la college festivals, are quite not the things you expect to hear in a Carnatic music concert. Dominated by devotional compositions, a Carnatic kutcheri setting sees markedly solemn audiences. Yet, as Sanjay Subrahmanyan wound up a breezy sequence of notes in Ananda Bhairavi at his concert for Bharat Kalachar during Chennai’s famous December music season, the back of the hall erupted in a riotous yell.

Such liberty with propriety is (as Jeeves would say) susceptible of easy explanation. Those noisemakers were Subrahmanyan’s fans, who had woven themselves into a sort of club; and in such a closely-knit community, a bit of waywardness is more than forgiven — it is expected.

If Subrahmanyan’s fans are no ordinary fans, it is only because the vocalist, who turns 50 on January 21, is no run-of-the-mill hero. The chartered accountant-turned-musician is a cult figure, a veritable Pied Piper of Carnatic music. While most top-billed artistes have their own following, Subrahmanyan’s fans are in a different league altogether. These are people who make travel plans only after checking the musician’s concert schedule, and who travel to other cities only to not miss one of his performances.

An unmissable presence in every Subrahmanyan concert in Chennai is a man — invariably attired in a white kurta — standing in a corner with a large-sized camera mounted on a tripod. Rajappane Raju, an oil industry professional, has an unusual take on Subrahmanyan’s music: “it is best heard through the camera lens”. That way, “I am able to capture his emotions”. Concert after concert, he can be seen clicking away from different corners of the hall, as though to enjoy the music from every angle. Raju then picks out the best third of his output and gives them away to fans who seek them, or puts them on Facebook. In fact, the latest profile picture of Raju’s FB account is one showing Subrahmanyan in frenzied singing, rivulets of sweat streaming down his cheek.

If Raju is the most ‘visible’ of the singer’s fans, there are hundreds others worshipping him in their own ways. Srividya Swaminathan, for instance, maintains an Excel sheet detailing the ragas and songs sung by Subrahmanyan, so she knows exactly how many times he has sung each of them.

Extempore performer

When you deconstruct Subrahmanyan’s cult status, two things stand out.

First is his innate genius. The quintessence of Indian classical music is the aspect of ‘extempore’. Carnatic (like Hindustani) is spontaneous. A typical element has three main parts. The alapana, which is a free-flowing expression of a raga (tune) using non-syllabic sounds (like ‘hum’) while maintaining the grammar of the raga but not set to rhythmic patterns; the percussionist does not play along in this segment. Then comes the song — pre-composed lyrics — but the musician may sing a line repeatedly with several minor variations (sangatis), or take up a line and deliver it iteratively in varied constructions (neraval), with percussive support. Finally, the swara singing, or the extempore singing of bare notes in rhythmic cycles, with percussive support. In all the three segments, the musician innovates on the spot. How far he takes his imagination, without slipping off the grammar rails, defines his erudition.

Subrahmanyan’s imagination is explosive, almost hysterical. The man completely loses himself in his music, the phrases gush out of him, like a gargoyle in monsoon, leaving the listener gasping. You often see his facial features twist themselves into callisthenic contortions as he tries to bring to the tongue an unprecedented combination of notes. There is a palpable ‘wildness’ to his music, like a feral mustang, and the audience delights in these rides into the unexplored corners of a raga. His alapanas are often also marked by strange sounds — sometimes he’d make sounds like a small-necked vessel filling with water, sometimes it’s like he is singing with a mouthful of pebbles.

Taking music seriously

The other significant contributor to Subrahmanyan’s iconic status is the fact that he takes his music extremely seriously. This is evident in several ways.

First, he is learning all the time. He imbibes from instrumental music, particularly the nadaswaram (long pipe). Like long-dwelling (karvai) on a note but abruptly ending it in a higher note — say, long-dwelling on ‘ma’ and ending in ‘pa’.

And rare compositions. Two years ago, after singing a rather uncommon raga called Vanaspathi, he presented a song that went as ‘Vanadurge vanaspathi’. It turned out that this composition, by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, was known to very few, among them the violinist Nellai Viswanathan, son of a disciple of the composer. Subrahmanyan had tracked him down to Tirunelveli, the violinist’s native town, in order to learn the song.

Again, in ragam-tanam-pallavi renditions, all artistes take the audience through a string of ragas, usually four to five of them. But Subrahmanyan has, on several occasions, switched ragas in rapid succession, once in not more than two rhythmic cycles. When you shift ragas so rapidly, there is a danger of slipping back into the previous one, but the man has never faulted. This is a derring-do that only one other singer, Madurai TN Seshagopalan, has performed before.

His performance on stage is backed by tremendous homework. “I still enjoy every minute I spend on Carnatic music,” Subrahmanyan says in his blog. While updating himself is a joy, singing an old song is “like polishing silverware”.

Consequently, his concerts are always ‘fresh’, leaving little room for ennui. “There is always something new in his concerts, and something for everyone” observes Shankar Subramanian, an IT professional and a bhakta (follower).

Another factor illustrates the seriousness Subrahmanyan attaches to his music — his singing is indifferent to time and space. Be it a temple corner, or a premium auditorium attended by the society’s bigwigs, the singing is the same. Sridhar Kalyanaraman, a self-proclaimed “mad, mad fan” of Subrahmanyan, observes that the singer would deliver the last few sundries before the curtains with the same vigour he would mid-concert.

However, the making of Sanjay Subrahmanyan is not complete with just these two characteristics of innate genius and seriousness of effort. It takes many more brushstrokes to complete the picture.

Ask SL Narasimhan (‘Yessel’), who has been a close friend of Subrahmanyan since the vocalist’s formative years. Yessel records all his concerts and helps the artiste put them on Gumroad, a platform that enables creators sell their products directly to customers. He observes that Subrahmanyan is conscious of the microphone. The singer may be lost in his singing but he would be constantly adjusting the distance from the mike to the volume of sound coming out of his mouth.

Also, when most other vocalists keep fussing over the ‘feedback’ they receive on the stage, Subrahmanyan has never been bothered, notes Yessel.

Simple appearance

Another brushstroke is Subrahmanyan’s on-stage mannerisms. He dresses simple, invariably in a white shirt and dhoti — contrasting with some of his more fancifully attired fellow artistes. He is not religious, so there is no holy ash or vermilion on the forehead. Once the concert begins, he means business. There is never a cross-talk with accompanists, nor mini-lectures to the audience — the only speech, if at all, is a laconic mention of the name of a raga. He never seems to need a sip of water during the entire duration of a concert; almost every other vocalist carries a thermos. He never needs a notebook or a phone or laptop to prompt him, even though his repertoire is huge, and even if the song is in a language he doesn’t speak. And after the concert, he is off in a jiffy, but fans who want to connect with him are welcome home. Kalyanaraman remembers spending four hours with Subrahmanyan once, discussing music, poetry and cricket — the singer is a cricket buff.

Even if music is his only means to wealth — he gave up chartered accountancy a decade ago — Subrahmanyan prefers to avoid certain kinds of platforms. He does not, for instance, sing at weddings. He would sing at corporate-sponsored music series, but never at fashion shows or product launches. Moreover, he is an expensive artiste. A sabha insider claims that a Subrahmanyan performance these days doesn’t come for less than a lakh rupees.

Regardless, money doesn’t appear to be uppermost on his mind. “I get off the stage, go home and am already thinking of the next concert, where is it, what am I singing, what do I have to practice tomorrow,” blogs Subrahmanyan. He knows there is a gang of hungry followers waiting for a fresh serving.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)