Wednesday, Feb 01, 2023

Sanjay Sabha Live: the gravity defying journey into the unknown

Any description of Sanjay’s music of late has become cliched with superlatives; however it’s safe to say that on Saturday, it was a new Avatar that took his music - technically, aesthetically and experientially - to a totally new sphere.

Celebrated classical musician Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

A celebrated classical musician is unable to sleep after an evening concert and gets up to write a rare emotional note to his audience: “Yesterday was a vindication that life goes on and as artists we need to keep doing what we do. I am a singer and I get up everyday and sing. I do this as I look forward to singing in public, and when I do that I hope and wish you all turn up and make me feel worthy and motivated to give my best. It also confirms and vindicates the work I do every day at home and leaves me with a feeling of exhilaration, emotion and most of all gratitude! All I can say is Thank You Thank You Thank You”.

As he self-admittedly says, it was the “high” from the concert that kept him more or less awake the whole night.

The musician is Sanjay Subrahmanyan and the concert, “Sanjay Sabha Live” in Chennai on Saturday – his return to the big stage after the pandemic-induced disruption of nearly two years.

And what a sensation it was!

Probably something that even his most seasoned fans wouldn’t have experienced before. An intriguing thriller that took one along paths that one was completely unaware of, an awe-inspiring journey into the wild. There were no beaten tracks and it was full of twists and turns. One of those unusual “live in the moment” journeys in which all one had to do was to immerse oneself in the moment and be in a magical experience. The return to reality was when he sang a soulful Ashtapadi followed by the goodbye piece (mangalam) after three hours.

Any description of Sanjay’s music of late has become cliched with superlatives; however it’s safe to say that on Saturday, it was a new Avatar that took his music – technically, aesthetically and experientially – to a totally new sphere. There were indeed early signs that this was going to be one hell of a journey when he began with the Viriboni varnam in Bhairavi. Unlike the usual setting, wherein the Varnam is a sort of a warm-up piece that synchronises the stage as well as the audience, he was in full-throttle right from the start – in tune and pitch. As the audience would soon realise, the remarkable ebullience and power that suddenly erupted before them were not just a harbinger of things to come, but a sure-footed promise that would be over-delivered.

It was during the alapana of raga Saveri and Revati that one felt that this concert had already reached a new magical terrain of experience. His regular audiences are quite familiar with his Saveri, but this time, it appeared to have acquired a new visage of beauty and expansiveness and a new lustre. But when the phrase (Sa Ri Ga Sa Ri), that he uses lightheartedly to connect with his audience, came in late, they laughed together reliving past concert memories.

Revati (Ragam Thanam Pallavi) was gravity-defying. Usually in his live concerts, when Sanjay goes up the octave, he touches only the upper Pa (and occasionally Dha); but this time he went all the way up to the Shadjam, effortlessly and with expressional clarity. And that suddenly opened up the gates to a new magical world. That was a Sanjay one hasn’t seen before in live. Although there have been a few musicians who have traversed three octaves, in Sanjay’s art of experiential depth, it meant a new layer of mystery. And in the same alapana, he did it again one more time. The unknown wilderness was suddenly wide open before one.

Audience during the Sanjay Sabha Live

In fact, the inventive Kalpanaswaras in the second song (Raghunayaka by Tyagaraja) in Hamsadhwani itself had lifted off the audience early enough. Probably even his most seasoned violinist S Varadarajan wouldn’t have anticipated him to begin the swaras the way he did; but then they cavorted together as swaras started getting organised, with some subtle mathematical flavour, from thin air. The Harikambhoji (Pamalai, Papanasam Sivan), Narayani (Bettada Melondu, Akka Mahadevi) and Bhoologakumari (Ranjani, Subramania Bharati) that preceded the Revathi RTP all had elevating features of inventiveness in terms of sangathis, variations, swaras and emotional depth. After all, he is a master of expressions.


Overall, the most notable feature of the concert was its journey into the unknown. Unbridled exploration, wherein the people you take along – including the ones who have been travelling with your for years – are wide-eyed with bewilderment, without violating the integrity of the form is not easy; but Sanjay did it like a daring magician. As the great American pianist and teacher Leon Fleischer had said, “the performer is like an Alpine mountain guy. He knows the way up to the top of the mountain. He takes you there, but his purpose is to make you enjoy the view”.

Varadarajan, Neyveli Venkatesh (mridangam) and Anirudh Athreya (Ganjira) also made the journey enjoyable as they set the stage on fire. The way Varadarajan complimented the voice and the way Venkatesh amplified the rhythm with incredible speed, energy and impact along with Anirudh, were simply outstanding. The Thani Avarthanam was a literal showstopper that evoked one of the longest ovations I have heard in recent concerts.

Besides his virtuosity, what’s really striking about Sanjay is his musical wisdom and social intelligence. In fact, none of the skills matter without them. Fleischer had summarised it quite eloquently when he spoke about the importance of playing every single note in a piece of music even while retaining the big picture: the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Sanjay has the unusual ability to visualise that big picture and the finer details simultaneously. He also knows that uplifting musical experiences are co-created with the audience.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan during a concert. (Facebook/sanjaysubmusic)

What was on show was also brand Sanjay Subrahmanyan, thanks to Bhargavi Mani and her team at Bhargavi Mani & Consultants, who was the architect of “Sanjay Sabha”, the digital channel and now, “Sanjay Sabha Live”.

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And let me quote Leon Fleischer one more time to summarise the concert: “Every piece of music is an adventure in anti-gravity because we are conquering gravity when we make music. The moment music stops, gravity takes over.”

First published on: 13-12-2021 at 11:48 IST
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