Scintillating Sanjay – Kohlisque Feat.

Mohan Ram & I are in the midst of finalizing a place for relocating one of our business units and decided we will make the change once the month of Margazhi is over (generally the period between December  15th to January 14th) as Tamils generally don’t conduct important affairs in this month (changing the house or conducting a marriage etc.). A colleague of us asked why do we consider this month inauspicious? I replied, “it is misunderstood as an inauspicious month. Actually in this month, we remain  pious and look towards the spiritual path and thus we avoid all celebrations. Throughout the month, we pray and take the idols of Lords on procession through the streets accompanied by music and Bhajans. Lord Krishna himself has said, ‘In the calendar of months, I am Margazhi.’ So there is nothing inauspicious about the month.” There is an explanation at length given by Sadhguru –  Margazhi – A Time of Stability.

There could be another reason as well. For the serious Carnatic Music lovers, this month, called the music season, presents an opportunity to listen to a concert every day from one of their favourite musicians. So they must have decided that listening to good music should take precedence over other affairs.

If this practice had started only a few years back, I would have said the entire thing was orchestrated by the fans of Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Most of his fans go to every single concert of his during the month and he sings in a dozen concerts in the period, almost once in two days. So they must have decided to stop everything else and get this important event done and thus, must have started the campaign, “Don’t do anything in the month of Margazhi.”

Let me explain. I write a blog knowing a couple of things about the subject and normally, a reasonable amount of reading and checking facts would help me get started. But I have been reading about Sanjay since I attended his concert for the first time on 22nd December and the more I read about him, the more I would like to dig a little deeper. Some of the reviews about him are just as fascinating. In ‘Understanding the Cult of Sanjay Subrahmanyan,’ Mr. Promod Kumar compares him with the inimitable Rajnikanth, the reigning Super Start of Tamil Movie. An excerpt:

“Whenever a Rajnikanth movie releases in Tamil Nadu, thousands of his fans watch it every day, sometimes back-to-back, often at the same theatre. In a few days, they will have memorised the movie’s every minute detail: their hero’s gestures, the punch-dialogues that are meant to hook viewers, and the final denouement. Some of them even beg and borrow for their next ticket.

It’s a cult — the cult of Rajnikanth.

Replace the Rajini movie with a Carnatic music concert and scale down the obsessive fan-base to a few hundred, or a thousand people, and you get another cult: The cult of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, the reigning superstar of Carnatic music. The only difference is the scale, the nature of the art, the aesthetics and the demography.”

Understanding the Cult of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, reigning Super Star of Carnatic Music – Pramod  Kumar.

There are fans who follow him attending his concerts in the State or throughout the country. They plan their travel schedules after checking the musician’s program which is published in his website. I thought’ I would attend at least four of his concerts this season but ended up only attending two, as I did not plan my schedules after checking his.

I think, he is not a prodigy like Mandolin Srinivas or even BMK. He started going to violin classes at a young age but gave it up after about seven years of classes. It was only when he turned eighteen, he took seriously to music and the rest as, as the proverbial saying goes, is history. Oh yeah, in between he trained to be a Charted Accountant as well and after auditing the accounts of clients for few years, he gave it up to take a complete plunge into singing.

He is an ardent fan of Cricket, which is not surprising in India but he is a veritable almanac of cricket statistics. He plays board games with reasonable proficiency and beats his accompanying artists regularly just like Dhoni beats most of teammates in computer games. The captains have this knack of beating fellow team members – we need to check how. But I have not seen anyone, at least not a Carnatic musician, till today, quoting Vladimir Nabokov (yes Lolita fame!) and I saw Sanjay mentioning the famous Russian/American author’s name couple of times in interviews. That, indeed, is very surprising.

I was introduced to his music only a few years ago by a Govind, a friend and colleague of JK. It was a Tamil Kirtana on Lord Muruga. I became an instant fan and bought a couple of CDs. I was only after watching his performance on TV, I became a devout. His expressions were just amazing. One could see he is immersed in the composition and does not think about anything else. His single minded attention to his craft is just as amazing as that of Virat Kohli. Just like the most famous cricketer in the world today, Sanjay is fully focused on the task at hand. For Kohli, it is his bat which does the talking and for Sanjay it is his voice. For both, the success on the stage comes from the thousands of hours of practice that goes behind.

For a man who sings in concerts throughout the year, Sanjay does not seem to repeat any of the songs he sung in another concert which means he has to learn something new all the time and practice it to perfection before he could present it on the stage. Again, I am quoting from an article written by M Ramesh, The Pied Piper of Madras:

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.

M. Ramesh – The Pied Piper of Madras. Published in Business Line 12-1-2018.

I have been listening to Carnatic Music for many years though my knowledge is very limited or to put it more bluntly negligible. I usually listen to Chembai, Balamuralikrishna and Aruna Sairam and now to Sanjay Subrahmanyan. But when I listen to his songs, I always have the urge to watch it on video. He brings such a pack of emotion that gives a rare connect to the music as well as the singer. M. Ramesh again:

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.

I was fortunate to watch two of his performances this season, first at Vani Mahal and then at Tamil Isai Sangham. The first lasted more than three hours and the second close to three. For close to six hours he kept the audience to rapt attention, producing the performances only he can.

In those six hours he spoke just a couple of dozen sentences. In the first he did not utter a word and in the second he just mentioned the raga and the composer of the song. While in Vani Mahal he sang Telugu and Tamil songs, in Tamil Isai Sangam from Ragam, Thalam Pallavi to Mangalam he sang only music composed in Tamil.

Sanjay 3
Sanjay Subrahmanyan – December 2019 – Tamil Isai Sangam

His repertoire is not just amazing but incomprehensible as well. Let me elaborate. The earliest of the compositions he chose to sing were from Nalayira Divyaprabandam (Four thousand verses) composed by twelve alvars/Azhvars between 7th and 10th centuries. Then he sang some compositions by Muthu Thandavar (Aarar Aasai Padar). Muthu Thandavar is one of the trinity of Tamil Music, who lived in the 16th Century. And then kirtis of Thygaraja, one of the trinity of Carnatic Music along with Shyama Shastri and Muthusamy Dikshithar (late 18th to early 19th Centuries) to Papanasam Sivan, Subramaniya Bharathi (late 19th to early 20th Centuries).

The challenges are enormous. Even Tamil, Mr. Subrahmanyan’s mother tongue, must have changed many times over a period of thirteen centuries. Many of the words in those compositions are not in vogue anymore. And he does not speak Telugu and Sanskrit the other languages in which these verses are written.

And then he sang them all, hours an end, without a pause or stopping to collect his breath. He did not take a break to even to have a sip of water. That’s just beyond amazing. How could one remember verses written in his language a thousand years ago or in languages he just has a rudimentary understanding.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan, just like every other school/college going kid grew up listening to and humming music composed by Ilayaraja. When he decided to become a full time musician, for a period of about seven or eight years, he listened to nothing but Carnatic Music. An example for single minded focus, if ever there was one.

Even his idol, the great GNB had acted in movies and sung in them. Sanjay had refused offers to sing in Movies. He just wants to focus on only one thing, learning, practicing and singing Carnatic Music in its purest form. That’s why I said his efforts and accomplishments are Kohlisque (just like Virat Kohli). There can be no better examples or role models for the young generation to succeed.

On a lighter vein, I feel, Sanjay could have acted in movies. He has as much charisma as his idol, GNB and today with his salt & pepper beard, he looks more handsome than when he was young.

For his success, even Sanjay mentions the golden 10,000 hours rule, an idea promoted by Malcom Gladwell. But this kind of success comes only if one has a rare and exceptional talent which is then practiced to perfection with ten or twenty five thousand hours of practice.

I asked JK to compile a Kutcheri (a concert) of Sanjay from YouTube videos available in the web. He has produced this list. I have compiled them and uploaded the same in YouTube. Do watch/listen when you get time. The videos are taken from a period of ten years of his performances. You can see how his expressions have changed over this period. While the earlier videos had captured his emotions, through his facial expressions on how is in sync with the verse and the composer, today it much more than that. There is an element of appreciation of the audience, an acknowledgement for a gem produced by the accompanying violinist or the Mirudhangam player, a wry smile, an exclamation mark, an occasional grin with a tinge of sarcasm, a raised eyebrow and more than everything else, the acknowledgement with a slight bow of his head, that he is extremely happy that the audience is yet again mesmerized by his performance. A great repertoire of music and emotions.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan – The Man – The Legend.

You can watch/listen to the full concert by clicking at the video at the end or clink your favourite song from list below

The List: 

  1. Tatvam Ariya Tarama – Reethigowla – Papanasam Sivan 0:9:21
  2. Kaa Vaa Kanda Vaa – Varali – Papanasam Sivan 0:05:20
  3. Bantureethi – HamsanAda – Thygaraja 0:08:05
  4. Thunbam Nergayil – Desh – Bharathidasan 0:14:52
  5. Chalamelara Saketa – MaargahindOLam – Thygaraja 0:07:58
  6. Virutam Aaraar Aasaipadar – Naadhanaamakriyaa 0:06:47
  7. Mannupugazh – Raagamalika – Kulsasekara Aazvar 0:05:37
  8.  Chinnan Siru Kiliye – Raagamalika – Subramaniya Bharathiyar 0:09:32
  9. Thillana & Mangalam 0:05:35























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