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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The S. Varadarajan Interview: ‘The harder you work, the more gifted you get. Nothing happens naturally’

S. Varadarajan, fondly called Varadu by both musicians and fans, is a household name in Carnatic music today. As an accomplished violin accompanist and soloist in contemporary Indian classical music, he is noted for his singing violin, a soulful “gayaki” style.

Written by G Pramod Kumar | Chennai | Updated: December 5, 2020 11:47:28 am
S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhiCelebrated violinist of the contemporary generation, S. Varadarajan. (Image by Rajappane Raju)

In the nine decades since it began, the Chennai Music Season that brought a coveted UNESCO recognition and global attention to the city hasn’t been disrupted once. All these years, the resilience of the Sabhas that organise the music concerts and generations of musicians ensured that Carnatic music was celebrated in its highest quality and in abundance every December. No war or natural catastrophe came in their way.

However, for the first time, they have been checkmated by an unusual opponent — the Covid pandemic. The venues cannot open to musicians and the public, and hence the excitement of countless back-to-back live concerts will have to wait. At least till next year.

But the show must go on, and that’s what the Sabhas, the musicians and other stakeholders have decided. The option is digital. Although reduced in scale, the season will happen this year too, but digitally. For a change, this time, it’s not just people in Chennai who can participate in the excitement, but music lovers across the world. Some of the concerts will be free while some are ticketed. Chennai’s music establishment is seeking to ensure that the spirit of its music is intact through this Digital Season as well.

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Celebrating this rich musical tradition of Chennai, we have been carrying long-form interviews by G Pramod Kumar with top musicians of the present and upcoming generations since 2018. As a tribute to their resilience, the interview-series is back this year too. Starting today, we will publish one interview each every weekend till the end of the Chennai Music Season. We are beginning the series with celebrated violinist of the contemporary generation, S. Varadarajan.

S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi Violinist S Varadarajan. (Image by Rajappane Raju)

In 1985, the younger generation of Carnatic musicians in Chennai had formed an innovative collective to find opportunities for themselves, promote their art and gain visibility when the big names still ruled the roost. It was called YACM (Youth Association for Carnatic Music) and many of its proponents and awardees went on to become the stars of the subsequent generations. In its first-ever annual series held in 1987 at the Music Academy, the violin-accompanist in all the four of its concerts was a 13-year-old boy from the city’s suburbs, S Varadarajan.

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During YACM’s annual season next year, he played for three more concerts and one of them was for another young boy, Palghat Ramprasad, an accomplished vocalist today. Noted mridangist Thanjavur Upendran was the chief guest. Impressed by Varadarajan’s prowess on the violin, Upendran instantly took a fancy for him. As soon as the concert was over, he told the boy’s mother: “He must pursue only violin and nothing else. Hand him over to me, I will make him successful”.

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Within a week, Varadarajan got a postcard-letter from Upendran asking him to meet him with his father. Those days, Upendran used to organise a music festival at the Sai Samaj in Mylapore and his invitation was for Varadarajan to accompany renowned musician TV Gopalakrishan, whom everyone affectionately called TVG. All the other accompanists of that full-bench concert were the leading stars of the time: Harishankar on the ganjira, TV Vasan on the ghatam, Upendran himself on the mridangam, Srirangam Kannan on morsing and Trichy Tayumaanavar on the konnakkol. Little Varadarajan was unfazed by the presence of the seniors and the concert went very well.

TVG, S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan in his formative years with TVG. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

Upendran told Varadarajan that TVG was a man with a golden touch and hence he should go meet him. “He encourages talented youngsters,” he said. Accompanied by his father, Varadarajan went to TVG’s residence to express his gratitude. He also expressed his desire to learn music from him. TVG turned to Varadarajan’s father and asked him, “How much would you pay?” “Rs 100,” his father said because that was all he could afford at that time. “You pay me nothing, I will train him for free,” TVG told him with a hearty laughter. It was the beginning of an exceptional relationship that saw the emergence of one of the finest violinists in contemporary Carnatic music.

TVG literally took Varadarajan under his wings. Although he was young, TVG didn’t treat him like a novice and launched him instantly on the concert circuit. He would write to Sabhas and get him concert slots, and also would take him as his accompanist to many places. Under TVG, Varadarajan flourished, and by his own admission, started practising and playing on the instrument “like crazy”. What followed was years of meticulous training – not only on the violin, but also on all aspects of music because TVG was a multifaceted musician who was adept in different genres and instruments – and countless concert performances.

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TVG, S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan in concert with TVG. Express Photo: G Pramod Kumar

Varadarajan, fondly called Varadu by both musicians and fans, is a household name in Carnatic music today. As an accomplished violin accompanist and soloist in contemporary Indian classical music, he is noted for his singing violin, a soulful “gayaki” style that sounds almost like a deep and emotive human voice that’s rich in details, precision of notes, sangathis and more importantly, the bhava. He aces in all aspects of Carnatic music such as the raga alapana, the neraval, thanam, kalpanaswarams and the pallavi, and remarkably, his violin assumes the voice and character of the vocalist that he accompanies. He’s a musical chameleon on stage. He has no one-size-fits-all formula.

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What also makes Varadarajan famous and endearing is that he is the violinist of choice for the greatest star of contemporary Carnatic music, Sanjay Subrahmanyan. In fact, Sanjay’s concerts are incomplete without him. Varadarajan’s violin is like an inseparable echo of Sanjay’s music, a sound that accentuates the magical experiences that Sanjay conjures up. When he plays for Sanjay, it’s as if they are hardwired, as if their thoughts are synchronised. Add mridangist Neyveli Venkatesh on the other flank, you get a music spectacle that sets concert stages on fire, sometimes more than what a 100-piece western orchestra does. People fondly call them the “Men in White”.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi Men in White – an old photo. (Image by Rajappane Raju)

Although Varadarajan does undertake solo concerts occasionally, he considers himself primarily an accompanist. Probably it’s the possibility of diverse musical styles of singers that he gets to adapt to that keeps him excited as an accompanist. It’s like many violinists rolled into one. “My main goal as an accompanist is to provide maximum comfort to the vocalist. He is the main attraction of the concert and it’s my responsibility to ensure that my music is truthful and it complements his music.”

Varadarajan is a veteran with more than three decades of concert experience all over the world who has performed with all the stalwarts of Carnatic music and different generations, but he remains completely understated. He is also one of the most loved violinists around with a sizeable fan-following, particularly because of his association with Sanjay over the last 15 years.

In this exclusive interview, his longest ever, Varadarajan opens up on his music, his life, career, musical techniques, and what makes him tick.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan, S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan in concert with Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Express Photo: G Pramod Kumar

It’s been eight months since you or any of the classical musicians have performed live in front of an audience. How have you been coping with this Covid shut-down?

Frankly, it’s been quite upsetting. Not being able to perform in front of an audience is not easy. It’s as if we have been forced to give up something precious. But then, there’s no other way than to live with it; so we come out of our blues and keep practising. Since I have a regular job, spending time gainfully hasn’t been an issue. Anyway, we all hope that things would get better sooner rather than later.

To make up for the lost concert-opportunities, have you increased the intensity of your practice, both in terms of time and complexity?

Yes, absolutely. During the entire lockdown, I was playing like crazy. Normally, I practise for an hour or so every day and sometimes even skip a day or two because of office-work; but during the lockdown, I got at least three full hours every day. Now that the office work has resumed, it is reduced, but I am still putting in a lot more time than before.

Are you learning any new things? New techniques, methods?

(Laughs) See, I know exactly what I don’t get, what I don’t have in my fingering or in my technique. So I just keep working on them apart from my routine practice. I have also added a few new compositions and some new varnams.

Since you mentioned varnam, are they difficult to learn?

The varnams I refer to are the rare ones that Sanjay sings. Many of the varnams that he sings haven’t been sung by anybody else. He has found them as fresh pieces and has done all the hard work in presenting them. It’s not an easy task and it’s not easy to play either if you are not familiar with them. Say, for instance, the Kedaram varnam, Abhogi ata tala varnam, Mukhari varnam etc. I haven’t heard anybody else sing them except Sanjay. So, in a concert when he sings them, I wouldn’t be able to do full justice if I don’t know them.

S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi An early photo of S. Varadarajan. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

Coming back to the question of technique, I have read about pianists trying unique methods to strengthen different aspects of their skills on the keys. For instance, strengthening their little finger. Did you try out anything similar to overcome your technical weaknesses because the lockdowns would have given you a lot of “me-time”?

Interesting that you referred to the little finger. To be frank, my pinky is absolutely powerless, I mean my left little finger. I love watching people playing with the little finger because it’s an old technique. In fact, since my pinky is weak, I had to change my style of playing itself. It’s a weakness that I have to work on, and I am doing it.

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Now, let’s go all the way back to your childhood, how you began your musical journey. Compared to most Carnatic musicians, you don’t have a family history of music; how did you get into this?

Yes, my family doesn’t have a history of music. The only musical legacy that I can claim is that my mother used to attend concerts. However, my father always wanted the three of us to do something in art in addition to our regular studies, and Carnatic music was the natural choice. He sent my elder brother for training on the mridangam and my sister for vocal music. I was the next in line and hence he asked me to learn the violin. That’s how I started when I was seven.

To initiate me into music, my mother took me to an old Guru in our neighbourhood. All that I remember about him was that he was a very kind man. He passed away about three months after I joined him and hence I had to shift to another Guru called K Sivaraman who used to play a lot for Sudha Raghunathan those days. I learned for two years under him, but had to find a new teacher again because we moved houses. The new teacher, Kanchi Janardhanan, heard me play and said he would start from Sarali varisais, the basics. So, at the age of nine, I had to start all over again. Since I had learned the fundamentals earlier, the progress was fast. The foundation he gave me was amazing. In three years, he asked me to play in concerts with him.

S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi Violinist S. Varadarajan with his first guru. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

You must have been just 12 or so. Did you practise a lot those days?

Not really (laughs). Probably, not more than an hour a day. But once I started playing with him in concerts, the practice became more regular

Perhaps that’s when you would’ve started enjoying music, right?

Yes. In addition, the response of the audiences also inspired me. I became aware of what I was doing. That’s when I became obsessed with music. Those two years, as I began accompanying some artistes in local concerts, both my interest and practice picked up big time.

A decisive transformation happened when I started learning from TVG sir in 1987. I was 14 then. it was certainly a new experience in terms of my musical journey – a new realisation of what music meant to me, new perspectives, techniques and also a deeper understanding of all aspects of music as well as performance. Under TVG, I was not just learning violin, but music in its totality.

He was an extremely gracious and kind teacher. I would go to his house on the weekends. From Chrompet in the suburbs where we stayed to Besant Nagar, it was a long commute by cycle, train and bus. I would stay with him for the entire day. He would teach me for a couple of hours and then I would listen to him teaching others on vocal, mridangam etc. I would also be playing silently with them.

The music world knows your dedication to TVG. I remember you saying a few years ago that if there was a god in music, it’s TVG for you.

Yes, I can consider him only as my god because he has been absolutely selfless both as a teacher and a human being. While training under him, he added a lot more techniques to my playing style. In fact, several new things. On top of that, he also set me up on the concert circuit quite early in my life. He would call Sabhas and recommend me for concerts when I was still in my teens. Remember that he was a “kingmaker” and the Sabhas took his word seriously. That’s how I started performing regularly in the concert circuit quite early. He was my passport to the Sabhas. In fact, I had performed at the Music Academy in 1987 itself, the year I joined him. He called up big artistes of the time such as TV Sankaranarayanan and TN Seshagopalan and asked them to use me in their concerts. I also played for many of TVG sir’s concerts as well. Imagine the enormous confidence and stature that he had provided to a boy of just 14-15.

TVG, S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan shared an inseparable bond with TVG. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

There’s this unforgettable experience of his kindness that has left in me a deep sense of devotion to him. In 1987, I got a letter from the Music Academy that I would be playing for Yogam Santhanam, a disciple of ML Vasanthakumari. I informed TVG sir about it and the first thing he asked me was if I had the right clothes for the occasion. He asked me to stitch new ones because performing at the Music Academy was a landmark for any musician. His next question was about my commute to the venue. I told him I would go with my mother by bus. Instantly he told me that he would drive me to the venue because he feared that my clothes would get crumbled and dirty in the bus. “Can you imagine any musician of his stature driving his student to his concert?” After reaching the venue he even came all the way to the green room and told Yogam that his disciple was playing for her and that she better be nice to me. That’s how he hand-held me. “Who would do all this? TVG sir is part of my life. He is everything for me.”

Under TVG, who was a master of many instruments and styles, you also would have picked up his versatility, haven’t you?

Yes, an interesting thing that many people don’t know is that he plays the violin too. His grandfather was a violinist and hence it’s close to his heart. In his classes, he would sing and I would play; but when I wouldn’t get the technique right, he would take the violin and show me how to play. The first time when I saw that, I was blown away because we all knew him only as a vocalist and a mridangist. But realising that he was a master on the violin too – that too at that level – was mind-blowing!

TVG dabbles in Hindustani too. Did you also learn Hindustani from him?

No, I thought it would be a distraction. I wanted to master Carnatic first. But I had played for his Hindustani concerts a few times.

When you are adept in Carnatic, wouldn’t it be easy to learn Hindustani?

Yes, the styles will complement each other. Some singers have a Hindustani touch when they sing ragas such as Sindhu Bhairavi and Behag. Knowing such techniques would be good to accompany them.

Have you ever learned or tried Western violin?

No, that’s a major regret. See, I still feel that my bowing technique is not very good. I have this “complex” that it’s my weakness. To overcome that, I do want to learn western. If you look at the western violinists, you notice that their bowing is so smooth. So clean. A lot of our musicians also do that. For instance masters such as TN Krishnan, MS Gopalakrishnan (MSG), Lalgudi Jayaraman and Nagai Muralidharan sir.

S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan getting an award. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

What’s special about that?

How they hold the bow. The position. The flawless way they move from string to string.

How did some Carnatic musicians that you named pick up such a bowing technique because they too would have been trained in the same Carnatic way?

Holding the bow right should have come in the beginning itself. I probably held the bow wrong when I began learning. In the 1990s, I realised my bowing was not good, so I worked hard on it myself for about five years and I am still not very happy.

Do you mean to say that it affects the tone and the sound?

The bowing is the main part in playing the violin. It has to be musical. I wasn’t happy with the sound of the bow touching the string. The shift from one string to another shouldn’t be heard at all. I was very clear in my mind that only music should come out of my violin. I didn’t want noise.

But we don’t hear any noise when you play. So, where’s the problem?

(Laughs) I have practised a lot to ensure that. It’s is the same instrument, but it produces different sounds in the hands of different people.

What about tonality?

It depends on the instrument.

How do you practise? Do you use techniques from other forms of music like some vocalists do?

No, I use only Carnatic phrases. In my practice, I usually start with the varnam, which I usually know. When I practise the raga, if I slip a phrase as I start developing it, I would repeat it continuously till I get it right. I mean just that phrase alone. Some times it will be ten times, some times 50. Point is I have to get it right before I can move on. If there are jantai (double notes), I will go for 25 repetitions or even 50 or 100. If you do it regularly, the phrases and notes will stay with you forever.

The advantage of a violinist is that you can visualise the notes, gamakas and the nuances clearly because you have to precisely reproduce them on an instrument.

Yes, it’s an advantage. You know the places and hence reproduce the notes exactly as they are.

But it must be difficult in Vivadi ragas. More difficult than for a vocalist, isn’t it?

Good that you referred to Vivadi. Yes, for violinists playing the notes that are almost indistinctly close to each other is very difficult, particularly when they are fast. In fact, you have to train and trick your mind regarding the position of the notes. Otherwise you play the wrong note and miss the vivadi flavour. You have to master that fingering. Nagai Anna (Nagai Muralidharan), MSG and other stalwarts have done that extremely well.

In fact there are two schools of thought of playing the violin, not just the Vivadis, but also other ragas. Some play the fast phrases without the gamakas. I can’t agree with that. (Sings a fast phrase to demonstrate). See, in this phrase there’s an inbuilt slide, a gamaka. If you play without that – I mean play only the plain notes – you don’t get the beauty of the phrase. I belong to the school of playing them with the gamakas. It’s indeed a challenge, but more attractive and soulful.

In the case of Vivadis, it’s an extra challenge – playing the dissonant notes without losing the slides and oscillations, that too when they are fast. When the musicians sing Vivadi ragas with the gamakas and the violinist play just plain notes, the audience will find it strange. It will be a dampener for the vocalist too. He will feel something like this: “I am singing something and you are playing something else.” Of the contemporary violinists, Nagai Muralidharan has accompanied all great musicians who excelled in Vivadi ragas. He is an exceptional master at that.

Do you have a good repertoire of Vivadi ragas?

Yes, I guess so, because I have to play with Sanjay, who has made Vivadi like normal ragas and added remarkable emotional quality to them. He has done detailed alapanas and even RTPs on Vivadis. So, to accompany him, I too have to be equipped (smiles).

What’s your overall approach to being an accompanist?

My primary goal on stage is to give maximum comfort to the singers. Play exactly what they sing so that their musical imagination is not curtailed or disrupted, but enhanced.

Unnikrishnan, Venkatesh, S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan with Unnikrishnan and Venkatesh. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

Suppose somebody sings a phrase in Saveri. Some musicians would expect you to repeat the entire phrase, some just the middle to the end, while some others, only the end part. It depends on their style and aesthetics. So, when you play that full, half or say one tenth of the phrase, it should be exactly what they sing. If you change it, they wouldn’t like it because it disrupts their flow. But people like Sanjay, even if I change a bit by mistake, can take off from there and develop it further. But as a matter of principle and practice, you shouldn’t do that. You should play exactly the way they sing. By accompanying them for a long period of time, you would understand how much you would have to play – whether to play full, half or a small fraction. With some musicians, it’s instinctive for me. I can gauge from the way they react. For instance, if I feel that they need to catch breath, I may play a full phrase.

The coordination between the violinist and the vocalist contributes to the manodharma aspects of a concert. In areas such the neraval and kalpanaswaras, the violinist could either enhance the imagination of the vocalist or disrupt his/her flow of thoughts. How do you strike a balance?

Most vocalists will have a plan in their mind. If the violinist plays something different from that, it will disrupt their plan and they will get stuck. You will have to be extremely mindful of that and follow their path instead of yours. As an accompanist, you have to be 200 per cent loyal, no matter who’s playing. You have to make them comfortable.

But some violinists do deviate. Why does it happen? Is it because they are not skilled enough or they are trying to be creative?

Most times, it’s lack of concentration. You are not listening properly. And some times, you don’t have the technique to reproduce the sangathis of the vocalist properly. It can happen to me as well. If you can’t handle it, just play the base note. I think only MSG sir played exactly what every musician sang. He never had a problem. For him, the coordination between the mind and fingering was 200 per cent. He could transfer to his fingers and the bow whatever came to his mind. I may have a thousand ideas, but what comes to my fingers are only a few. It’s also about the mastery over the instrument.

Do the vocalists have an advantage here? In their case, they can vocalise whatever imagination tells them; but in your case, you have to reproduce them physically on an instrument.

There’s no question of advantage or disadvantage. If I am trained enough and I have the musical knowledge, I should be able to reproduce whatever I hear or whatever comes to my mind. In fact, I shouldn’t get on to the stage before I am ready with those skills. If you think you won’t be able to handle a certain musician’s way of singing, don’t accept that concert. If somebody sings with amazing manodharma, it’s both a challenge and a risk. I can be inspired and excel, or I can get exposed. Moreover, I may pick up ideas that I may use in other concerts. It’s a constant learning too.

While accompanying the raga alapana, I truthfully follow the singer. However, some times by the slip of the fingers or something I may deviate a bit, but a singer like Sanjay would note that it was not purposeful and would pick up on that and continue. When one sings swaras, I can make variations that will complement the vocalist as if it’s a continuum. However, I would still stick to mostly what the vocalist sings because that would sound nice to both the vocalist and the audience. It sounds particularly good for swaras that are sung only once, and small phrases. Sanjay is so intelligent and aesthetic that if I make some variation or embellishments, he would take the cue and make it something that’s even better. And it would keep going for sometime before we decide to move forward.

Such situations are thrilling even for people who are not used to Carnatic music: you adding just an extra sangathi and Sanjay picking up from there.

Yes, exactly; but one has to be careful that it doesn’t go overboard. Both he and I ensure that it doesn’t exceed a certain threshold.

Your alapanas as an accompanist are exquisite and often allows a revisit of the experience that the vocalist has just created, even as you leave your stamp on the raga. Could you elaborate a little more on that?

Lalgudi Sir is my role model for that. He is the one who revolutionised violin accompaniment. If you listen to a recording of Lalgudi – say Kalyani, Todi or Khamboji – you can tell who the singer is from the way he plays. For instance, if there are brigas, it will be GNB; if there are karvais, it will be Musiri Subramania Iyer; and if it’s free flowing, it will be Madurai Mani Iyer. In other words, he would play the raga in the style of the vocalist that he was accompanying. That was a pathbreaking innovation, and a huge challenge too.

S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan getting felicitated by Lalgudi Krishnan. (Image by Rajappane Raju)

My point is that an accompanist has to match the style of the vocalist. About 70-80 per cent of a raga doesn’t change and certain phrases are absolutely unavoidable, however innovative you are. So, I have to play those phrases in the style of the vocalist and then give my interpretation of the raga too. For instance if I play for Thamarakkad Govindan Namboothiri, I have to adapt to his tempo and style of sustaining the notes. I remember a concert in which he was singing the Kamakshi Swarajathi in Bhairavi in such a slow tempo. If I don’t slow down to his level and match his laya in my alapana, it will sound completely out of place. In short, my alapana will have the basic phrases of the raga and my interpretation, but will reflect the style of the vocalist.

Madhyama kalam (medium speed) is easy, but slow speed is difficult. You have to really focus. As I said before, my ultimate aim is to ensure that the vocalist is happy. I won’t compromise on that at all. Some times, even when the mridangists play on their own inappropriately during a song I get a little uncomfortable. In such situations I feel sorry for the vocalist as well as the audience. What actually matters the most is the listening pleasure of the audience. if you don’t respect that, what’s the purpose of pakkavadyam (accompaniment)?

In terms of realising your musical imagination during the alapana in a concert as an accompanist, do you have a threshold? How do you limit your manodharma from not going overboard?

The first thing about the violin solo in a concert is about time management. If the vocalist takes about 10 minutes for his/her alapana, you shouldn’t take more than seven minutes. You have to be very clear about that. On some days when you are hands are so good, whatever you want is happening, that day your manodharma will be perfect. Even on such days, I will tell myself: “although things are going so nicely, you will have to stop”. See, we play Sa to Pa, Pa to Sa and then Sa to the upper Ga. So, while playing Sa to Pa, I may get some ideas, and on a particular day if I feel that I have played far too long in that zone, then I will immediately go into the next and final segments to keep the overall timing under control. If the manodharma is happening well during the first segment, I won’t restrict myself; but I will ensure that I make up for that extra time in the subsequent segments.

How do you manage to play ragas that you are not familiar with?

For the violinists, it’s all about the notes. You figure out the notes while the vocalist is singing and play them even if you are unfamiliar with the ragas. I have played some ragas without even knowing their names. We are trained for that.

How does it work? You pick up the notes on the spot and create your own phrases?

See when the vocalists sing, there will be some attractive sangathis that the audience also would have noticed and appreciated, they will get registered in our minds too. So, in our turn to play back, they come out automatically.

Oh, that’s tough

Yes (laughs), then only you are fit to accompany. Generally, whatever the vocalist sang will be in our mind. The violinists have the advantage of a superior swara sense. It has to be better than the vocalist, then only we can accompany. That’s our tool.

Means, whatever you hear is automatically converted into notes in your system, like in a computer.

Yes, sort of. That’s the way we get trained. We are taught music first through notes, then only by singing and how to bow.

So, like in western music if you are given music as notations can you sight-read?

Yes, absolutely. That’s how we learn new songs.

Even the vocalists will have that skill, right?

Yes, indeed. But unfortunately, the new generation is increasingly losing that skill. They learn it by the ear and less by notations.

S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan conducting a workshop for kids in Singapore. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

But some violin-accompanists do miss some notes and sangathis of the vocalists in concerts

Some singers are so uninhibited that they sing whatever occur to them, which at times some violinists may not be able to reproduce fully. Some singers will see if their violinists are able to handle them before going in that direction by singing one or two phrases.

It’s also about confidence. The violinist needs to be very confident to play with singers who can produce things spontaneously. And that confidence comes from skills and relentless practice.

What’s your approach to pallavi (Ragam Tanam Pallavi – RTP) singing?

Seshagopalan Sir once told me that a lot of accompanists, including mridangists, complain that the vocalists practise the pallavi quite well at home before the concert, but don’t tell them what to expect. According to him, the accompanist should be self-sufficient and should be prepared to play anything. “When the vocalist sings the Pallavi, you wait, listen, try to get a hang of it, even wait till the neraval and get it into your system before start playing. If you are not ready to absorb the pallavi, play at three speeds and also play the swaras, don’t get on to the stage. Your basic requisite is to prepare yourself. Listen to a lot of pallavis, practise them.” That’s exactly what I do. I guess, that’s what others also do.

And neraval?

Neraval is even more difficult . You have to really practise all the sangathis and possible variations. The trick of pallavi-playing is not in the swaras, but how you play the sahitya (the literature). You have to really embody the lines of the pallavi. You get the Sahitya embedded into your mind and reflect it as swaras. When you do that, you will actually be singing. The same thing happens while playing the keerthanams as well. Only if the sahithya is in your system, you will be able to play neraval well.

What about the Ragam and Tanam? Some violinists make their Tanam sound different from that of the vocalist.

If you practise well, Ragam is not a problem. Tanam is difficult to play in the “singing style” – I mean it should sound exactly how the vocalist sings. But some violinists use the staccato style using the “Tanam bow” because that’s relatively easier. In the Tanam bow style, you cut the bow, and the “gamaka” disappears. I don’t do that. As far as I am concerned, everything that an accompanying violinist does should be in the “singing style”. So when I play Tanam, I ensure that it sounds exactly like that of the vocalist.

In Neraval, do you put different sangathis than what the singer is finishing with?

Yes, it’s not the same all the time. While accompanying, it will be the same, but when you play your bit, it doesn’t need to be the same. There can be give and take. With a singer such as Sanjay you can take such creative liberties because he has the exceptional gift to develop from where you deviate or modify.

I always recall this anecdote regarding the “creative freedom” that’s available to the violinist during the neraval and raga alapana. Sanjay’s grandfather Sri Thyagu, a great music aficionado, asked me long ago, in my formative years: “Why do you play the same way the vocalist has sung the raga? I have already heard him sing and I know what it’s. Now, show me what you have to offer.” There was this great violinist called Thiruvarangadu Sundaresan, who used to play a lot for MS Subbulakshmi. The legend was that if MS took about 10-15 minutes to sing a raga, he would finish it off in three minutes even while making it special. It would have some delectable sangathis that you would never forget. “Why don’t you play like him?,” Sri Thyagu had asked me. TN Krishnan and MSG also used to do that. I do keep his advice in mind.

When you go to higher speeds in korvais (in RTP), how do you manage the equilibrium? To me, they are amongst the most exciting moments of a concert, but it also makes one anxious about how it’s going to be rounded off, the kuraippu and how you are going to land together.

For me, kanakku (mathematics) in Carnatic music is so fascinating. I think I have a natural flair for that. You don’t need to tell me in advance the kanakku you are going to play, I can pick up on the spot. I enjoy accompanying musicians who dabble in creative mathematics. That’s what makes Sanjay special. For that matter, I also like playing with Saketharaman. I am quite attentive to where the singer takes off – not necessarily from the beat, but coming back to the beat. For that, you have to keep looking at the vocalist. Some times even from their gestures you can make out which way they are going to go. You will need to even adopt a very attentive posture for that. Old masters are my inspiration on such things. You may have noticed that some great master-accompanists sat facing the vocalist than the audience. Some times people ask me why I am not looking at the audience; I tell them that I can’t take my eyes off the vocalist. It’s part of my job.

Also Read | The Saketharaman interview: ‘Bhava is very important in music. My ultimate goal is spiritual’

Do you also feel the thrill that the audiences get when the pallavi reaches the crescendo?

Of course, yes. When some singers pull off certain extempore korvais, the thrill is multiplied.

S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan with flute maestro N Ramani. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

Is it easy to follow them in such situations?

I will try my best; otherwise, I won’t even attempt. In korvais, primarily it’s the mridangist who has to be with the vocalist. Even if he doesn’t play the same kanakku as the vocalist, a groovy sarvalaghu can create an equally good or even better impact. As I said, if the kanakku is new and he pulls it off, that thrill and euphoria are unmatchable. If I can reproduce it, I too feel absolutely great. Of course, I will be disappointed if I couldn’t figure it out on stage and on such occasions, I will have to play it safe to keep the overall proportion and balance right. Internally, I won’t be happy for sure.

You have played with stalwarts such as Seshagopalan. Can you recall some learnings from him?

His concerts are longer, particularly the US concerts. I remember this 1998 concert at Purdue. He sang Neelambari as the main raga. Those days, I wouldn’t be able to play such ragas for more than a few minutes even though I had been playing concerts for over ten years by then. He sang the raga for 15 minutes. I tried to learn the notes he was focussing and the ones that he was taking off from for his elaboration. It was a revelation that even a raga such as Neelambari could be developed in such detail! The raga alone, with his and my turns, lasted 45 minutes. The Sa to Pa alone would take 15 minutes those days. It would be so elaborate. His music showed me that you could play such and such phrases in such and such notes.

If I can play Todi for 25 minutes today, it’s because of him who first showed me the possibilities, and precisely where and how. He would also sing a lot of kanakkus. He had told me once that for him to publicly applaud somebody in his concerts, he/she has to be exceptional. So I used to work hard to get this “sabash” – I have hero-worshipped him. If you play ordinarily, he would say, “you are not playing the raga, you are playing the tune. Why should somebody who plays average music play with me?”

How far can a musician go in terms of taking risks on stage?

See, one has to gauge the absorptive capacity of the audience and shouldn’t cross that limit. You have to understand the taste and sensibility of the audience. That’s where Sanjay is the king. He knows his audience. He never goes out of proportion.

In Sanjay’s music, I feel that each and every note is dripping with emotions and that’s why it goes directly to your heart. Very intelligent and inventive music that’s incredibly expressive too. I often feel that it works only in his voice. How do you reproduce that on an instrument?

I know Sanjay for long and hence I know what he means with his expressions. When Sanjay sings, I am the first rasika sitting closest to him, I am the happiest person around. So, I will have to get that bhava, the expression on my violin. Otherwise, whatever he sings will get spoiled by me. When I reproduce a phrase by him, I have to reproduce it with the same expression. It has to come from within. If I don’t do that, I may become even an obstacle between him and the audience. I have been playing with him since1994 and hence I guess it happens organically.

How did you start playing with him?

There was this Ramanavami festival in Mattancherry in Kochi, where I was already signed up for playing with singers Lalitha Krishnan and Anuradha Narayanaswamy. Sanjay was also scheduled to perform. Since I was already there, the organisers asked me if I could play for him as well.

It was an opportunity I was waiting for because I had never played with him before. I had played with all the other leading musicians of that generation such as Sangeetha Sivakumar, Bombay Jayashree, Unnikrishnan, TM Krishna and so on, but not Sanjay.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan, S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi The men in white in their early days. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

The curious thing about some concerts in Kerala is that it’s hard to please the audience. Unless you really excel they don’t respond, they won’t even give the customary applause. But that day, when Sanjay sang Mohanam, there was a deafening applause. Those days I used to play the violin differently, probably I was influenced by MSG a lot. After the concert, he asked me why I was playing like that. He sang many sangathis for me that I hadn’t been playing and asked me, “why don’t you play like this?” I vividly remember that I was playing the Kalyani of my world and and how he opened a lot of new possibilities. “Why do you restrict yourself to a certain style?,” he asked. “Such a style has already been established, why don’t you develop the raga differently?” he asked me while singing to me some different phrases. That was a turning point in my career.

When did the association become more regular as we see today?

From 1994 to 1998 when I was playing for him, there were others too. From 2000, we started touring Europe every year and we got to know each other better when we spent more time together. Looks like the chemistry worked. We care for each other’s music. I have been accompanying him on a regular basis for 15 years now. From about 2005, we three – Sanjay, Neyveli Venkatesh and myself – have been together.

Oh, is that how the “Men in White” happened? Was it planned?

(Laughs) No, it just happened. Sanjay never says these things.

But, it’s like a brand now. Like a trio in western music

He has a lot of regard and appreciation for our music and we also have the same, but in much higher magnitude. He’s like a mentor to us and we look up to him. You get to learn a lot from him and he is one musician who keeps sharing a lot of valuable insights with us. Our synchronisation is so natural that we would know if he was happy, fully happy or exceptionally happy during a concert. If it was bad, he would tell us that too.

How do you reproduce some of his unique voice techniques?

On certain days when Sanjay is in his zone, I am at a loss as to what else to play in the raga because his alapana would have been complete. On those occasions, as soon as he finishes, I would tell myself, let me see what I can do.

Some of his phrases – for instance his briga phrases – are tough and you have to really practise beforehand.

What about sounds that that don’t come easily on violin – like the drupad style deep intonation?

Yes, they are hard to get on violin. All you can do is to get close to that. Go tangentially and get close to that sound.

Who are some of the past masters that have influenced your music?

Madurai Mani Iyer, Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, S Kalyanaraman, KV Narayanaswamy, Alathur Brothers, GNB, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, TN Seshagopalan…there are so many of them.

TVG, S Varadarajan, violinist, Chennai margazhi, S Varadarajan margazhi S. Varadarajan in concert with TVG. (Image from Varadarajan’s personal collection)

And the contemporary violinists that you look up to?

Nagai Muralidharan, Mysore Nagaraj, MS Sundaresan, Ganesh Kumaresh…

What’s the ideal that you try to pursue in music?

What comes out of my violin has to be pure music. My ultimate aim is that there shouldn’t be anything in music that my fingers can’t handle. I always keep small goals. For instance, this year, I would like to to go up to the higher octaves more comfortably.

I sincerely think that I haven’t fully explored the violin. Even now, I am confining myself to two and a half octaves. I have to go up. I have to improve my fingering and bowing techniques. If I want to play whatever comes to my mind as a soloist, I have to equip myself much more. I am aware of my deficiencies

Any regrets so far?

That I haven’t played for Mandolin Srinivas. He was one musician whom I adored and was in awe of for his sheer hard work and the music he produced. He would practise for 8-10 hours a day. How could music refuse to bless such a person? He was exceptional. There was nothing that he couldn’t play.

Tell me more about your family and their support.

As I said before, it was my parents who initiated me into music and took pains to ensure that I stayed the course. Now, it’s my wife Sobhana Varadarajan and my brother S. Raghavan without whom I couldn’t have been this single-minded, particularly with the hectic concert-schedule. In fact, even in my formative years, my brother was fastidious and he always used to push me to raise the bar.

And my last question. People loosely use the term talent and gift in art without giving any credit to the hard work artistes put in. In your opinion, how much is gift and how much is practice?

I don’t believe in natural gift. It’s all practice. It’s all hard work. If you work very hard, you will get that gift. For me hard work paves the way. The harder you work, the more gifted you get. Nothing happens naturally.

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