I am an unabashed admirer of Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s music, one of the most transparent and honest artistic expressions I have ever heard in my life. He has been singing for nearly four decades and has scores of avid followers, but I got to know about him only in the early 2000s, and real face to face, only in the early 2010s.
However, thanks to the timelessness of the digital world and shared memories, I could somewhat retrace at least the periphery of his musical journey to understand the contemporary him in perspective and the complexly detailed artistic tapestry that defines his music. As a latecomer to his world of art, I got lucky because what I began watching live was a musician who was at his peak as a powerful compact of musical wisdom and virtuosity acquired over many many years.
For the same reason, like scores of others, I too trip on his live performances. They are unique spectacles where he shares quite a part of his life-force with you. On stage, he’s selfless, emotionally naked, uninhibited, and both boisterous and tranquil. Every time you watch him, you see a unique curation of the parts that he played over the last 40 years and something new too. I call his live concerts the IMAX of classical music. With Neyveli Venkatesh (mridangam) and S. Varadarajan (violin), on his flanks, they are gipping, big-sized blockbusters. And no two concerts are similar. Like hundreds of others, I have levitated with them, danced with them, cried with them, prayed with them and laughed with them. He has been my most watched musician and I was planning to amp up the number of live concerts that I could attend in a year when Covid stopped everything.
The last Sanjay concert I watched live was at the Fine Arts Society in Kochi in March 2020, following the Margazhi concerts in Chennai in November-January 2019 and the Kuthiramalika concert in Thiruvananthapuram in January 2020. After the Kochi concert, I was planning to attend his much-awaited concert at the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Chennai in April-May, and later the concerts at Karamana, Madurai, Coimbatore and Bangalore, that he hasn’t missed for years, before returning to the Chennai season. In between, his loyal overseas audiences were to get their regular fill, not to mention performances at many other places across India as well.
But none of these happened and it’s been almost two years since he performed in front of an audience. With the threat of a third wave of the pandemic looming large, nobody knows when live concerts will return for good.
But can Sanjay stay away from performing and connecting with his loyal audiences this long? Can the latter live without his concerts? How long can he and them wait for the uncertainty to blow over?
The answer is “Sanjay Sabha”, a subscription-based digital concert hall that he launched on his Youtube Channel six months ago. Like the digital Berlin Philharmonic and LA Phil, Sanjay Sabha is an example of how classical music can remain alive even during terrible adversities.
“I was getting frustrated sitting at home and not singing concerts. There was always optimism in the air last year. So, we thought things could open up any time. By September/October I realised that this was not going to go away so easily. That is when I thought up this idea. Initially it was just one concert and a few extra songs every month. It was Bhargavi Mani of
Edge Design House who convinced me to expand my digital presence,” says Sanjay about the genesis of Sanjay Sabha.
Sanjay Sabha is what a typical Sanjay fan or a classical music lover must have been looking for. Twelve concerts in a year – one concert every month – is more than what one could attend in real life (besides the Margazhi concerts). One doesn’t need to jostle for those hard-to-get front row seats because every seat is on the front row, and the multi-camera, high-quality production values ensure that you miss nothing. Premium content in the comfort of one’s home. That’s a great deal.
I loved Sanjay Sabha right from the first episode. Each concert is carefully curated and also presents one with an opportunity to experience his renditions of ragas and compositions that one might not have heard live or even as a recording, in addition to the regular gems of Carnatic music that have a Sanjay touch. For instance, I haven’t heard his Vachaspathi live, that too a Swathi Thirunal Kriti. I haven’t heard his Navarasa Kanada either. Similarly, I have heard only a song in Chandrakauns, but never an Ragam Thanam Pallavi (RTP), that too a Tamil Pallavi. I also haven’t heard his RTPs in Kalavati, Revati and Dhanyasi. In fact, there are many more. Besides the new and rare ones, there are his regular masterly renditions of Begada, Kalyani, Natabhairavi, Mararanjani, Keeravani, Jyothiswarupini, Madhyamavathi and so on.
Every concert by Sanjay is noted for an intrinsic, yet discernible intelligence and experiential diversity. He doesn’t repeat and he ensures that there’s variety in terms of ragas and their moods, languages, composers and also styles of rendition. These inalienable elements of Sanjay concerts find their reflection in Sanjay Sabha too. And the high quality digital format ensures that it’s quite intimate.
Sanjay Sabha offers two types of memberships – Patrons and Supporters. Patrons get to view a 90+ minute concert every month, some exclusive videos created for them, and also early access to the free videos that Sanjay regularly releases on his Youtube Channel. Supporters get early access to the free videos. In addition, there are two unique productions called “On that Note” and “Short Notes’ that all get to watch.
A universal element that makes classical music special, regardless of the form and genre, is the depth of experiences that an artiste goes through over several years, both as a student and performer. That in fact makes anecdotes and biographies of classical musicians extremely moving. Their lives are inseparable from their art and are replete with personal stories of compositions, scales, performances, places, people and their own creative journeys. I remember reading Zubin Mehta’s arresting description of how, as a young man, he got his first ever awe-inspiring glimpse of Herbert Von Karajan through a half-opened class-room door in Vienna; and Anne Sophie Mutter recounting instances of Karajan pushing her to the “edge of what you could comprehend at that very moment” from the age of 13.
In his charming style, Sanjay generously recounts many such amazing personal stories in On that Note that make a lot of sense in appreciating his music – from his growing up years till now: about ragas, compositions, languages, people, gurus, masters of music, occasions etc. They are not just stories, but a magical deep dive into his fascinating world of Carnatic music in about two minutes or so at a time. Although all the episodes so far have been engrossing, the story about a Nadaswaram player revealing to him how to sing a raga using the Sa-Pa-Sa framework when he was young is simply stunning.
Sanjay is phenomenal in improvising with Swaras. In Short Notes, one gets to experience that Sanjaysque swara-summary of a raga in an attractive and snappy way. It’s dramatic: the accent on certain notes, the modulation, the dynamics, the suspense and so on – all under 30 seconds. What makes them special is the tantalising hook that he leaves you with. There could be an Ilayaraja hidden in it or a past master. Or a hint at an iconic composition or a distinctive phrase. Going by the roaring response in social media, Short Notes is clearly a crossover hit.
Although it’s the necessity of Covid that made Sanjay go seriously digital, he seems quite happy about its impact. “The response has been terrific and we are excited to continue with this. We are confident that this will continue month on month even when things open up.” He adds: “The credit for this goes to Bhargavi Mani and her team and MT Aditya Srinivasan (audio and sound).”
Will he also add old concert videos or audios to Sanjay Sabha? “Yes that is also a possibility, but nothing concrete at the moment.” What about strengthening the presence on platforms such as Spotify? “Yes audio platforms do offer better traffic especially since the older concerts were never video recorded with a digital audience in mind. They were mostly for archival purposes.”
That he would continue Sanjay Sabha even after normality returns is very promising. By then, hopefully he would be able to periodically include the recordings of some of his live concerts too. Way back in the 2000s, Sanjay was one of the early pioneers of digital and hence it’s not surprising that his new digital Avatar is that of an explorer of newer ideas and new possibilities.