The Margazhi music season in Chennai during December-January is a unique phenomenon anywhere in India. During the season, the city is abuzz with hundreds of carnatic music concerts from morning till night. It’s a season both veteran and upcoming singers, music lovers, academicians and students of music eagerly wait for. In recognition of the city’s contribution to classical music, UNESCO in 2017 had included in its global Creative Cities Network. The Indian Express too joins the celebration of the Margazhi season in 2018 by carrying a special package of interviews and podcasts with top carnatic musicians.
We kick off the series with Sanjay Subrahmanyan, arguably the most popular contemporary Carnatic musician.
If the December-January season in Chennai is synonymous with the Margazhi music festival, it cannot be devoid of the extraordinary fan-frenzy that Sanjay Subrahmanyan generates. While the city reverberates in music with hundreds of concerts every day, he stands out like a superstar: a classical musician whose concerts are sold out much in advance, a musician for whom the standing ovations at the end of the concerts never seem to stop and a musician who’s mobbed as if he’s a cricketing sensation or a movie-star.
For the Sabhas, the unique and sometimes exclusive carnatic-music clubs in Chennai, securing his dates is critical to get their economics right, and for the fans, getting tickets to his programmes is worthy of a social swag. Therefore it’s not surprising that he ends up singing nearly every second day.
Sanjay as a music icon is not an overnight sensation, but a rare gem that emerged through more than three decades of relentless pursuit of classical music. By his own admission, he is a purist, but he is also an innovator and unsung reformer par excellence. His music is matchless in that it’s an amalgamation of the accumulated knowledge of carnatic music system over the years and breathtakingly fresh musical imaginations and ideas. Although he had always been noted as a musician of excellence, in the last few years, his popularity has really skyrocketed in such a way that his devoted fans cannot get enough of him. Although this superstardom is most visible during Margazhi in Chennai, it follows him everywhere he goes – both in India and abroad.
Despite the alluring attention from his fans and informed appreciation from veteran music lovers, Sanjay is quintessentially self-effacing. It’s hard to pin him down in a conversation about his music or about himself because he believes that it’s his music, and not him, that should do the talking. Not surprisingly, in the recent past, his interviews have been rare and short. But, in this exclusive interview with G Pramod Kumar in Chennai, he chose to talk freely on a wide range of issues – from aesthetics, innovations, Tamil and technology to the economics of carnatic music.
Here are the excerpts from this freewheeling conversation with the reigning superstar of carnatic music after a very long time.
Your followers expect a lot from you in each Margazhi season. Are you planning many new ragas, kritis, Ragam Tanam Pallavis (RTP) etc? Is there a method behind it or is it just instinctive.
I believe that each season should be better than the previous one; but I am not a restaurant (laughs) to do too many new things. Within the basic structure that we have established for ourselves. we do a few things here and there – say a raga, a pallavi or a composition. Maybe on the day of the concert, I will think of something.
But you had said that you start preparing for the season much in advance
Yes, I do; but sometimes I go with the flow. Suddenly, say three days before a concert, I may get some idea and I would work on that. Usually those things are pallavis, RTPs or some new raga that I would want to sing.
Last year, I sang an RTP in a raga called Manorama, which was a creation of Balamurali Krishna. It was unplanned. The season had started and I had already sung at two or three concerts, but suddenly the idea about this raga came to my mind and I went with it. Usually when I sing a new raga or a new song, I won’t use it in the next two or three concerts. Some ideas will come at a later stage.
Aren’t there any planned surprise elements?
Surprises will invariably be there. For instance, when I sing a raga, most people will expect me to sing a song; but I may sing something else. Similarly, when most people expect me to sing a new song, I may go in for a popular song. And these things are regular.
Are there things that you wanted to try out during the season, but kept postponing?
Yes, it also happens. Mostly it’s related to compositions because I keep trying to learn new songs all the time. In the past, as soon as I learn a song, I would want to sing it in a concert soon. Since I am slightly older now, I am not n a hurry. So I sing at home for a few times, get used to the song, and when I think I am ready, I sing on stage. Therefore, these days, especially the last two years, it takes longer for me to get the song right. I spend some more time on that and I find the results better.
Sometimes I also keep forgetting some songs that I may have sung seven or eight years ago. When somebody reminds me that I haven’t sung it for several years, I will go back and quickly brush up on that. Similarly I may put off things that I would have wanted to sing, postpone making new compositions etc for want of time.
Is there anything specific that you can mention?
I wanted to learn all the 30 Thiruppavais, but could manage only seven or eight. I wanted to finish at least 15 by this year, but no time.
The frenzy during the December season in Chennai for your concerts, particularly in recent years, is phenomenal. Do you also feel it or you don’t care much?
I certainly feel it. As the season gets closer, you start getting emails, messages etc. Of late, there’s a lot of activity and excitement on the social media as well. You also feel the buzz and exhilaration when you go to the concert venues – it’s as if there’s a cricket match.
It’s different from the rest of the year. If I sing at Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai during the rest of the year, there will indeed be a big crowd, but it won’t be the same; you won’t see people waiting outside the venue before the concert for my car to arrive. In December, there’s something extra that’s happening. There’s a certain excitement in the air. It’s electric, the feel of something going to happen.
Even inside the concert hall, you feel the pulsating atmosphere when you sit on the stage and because of all that, the first two or three songs are very tough. I can understand why batsmen get out in the first over.
During the December season, you sing almost every second day. Sometimes on consecutive days. How demanding is it? Does it require a different routine and temperament?
In terms of physical singing, it’s like any other day because I sing every day at home. So, when I have a concert, instead of singing at home I will sing on stage; but the energy is three times higher because on stage, in front of an audience, it’s not like sitting at home. Fortunately, I manage it. It’s been good, I like it, I enjoy it. Actually, I wait for this season every year and I am prepared for it. I know what’s it and I am ready for it.
Breaking down a concert, it’s not as if you are singing at the same energy level all the three hours at a stretch. You have the accompanists to give you the time and relief, they play along the alaapana and the percussionists play big thani avarthanams and hence you get rest here and there. So effectively it gives you enough time to recover. If you hit one six, you can block the remaining five balls, can’t you? (laughs).
PRACTICE AND PRESENTATION
Do you keep an order in mind of the items you are going to present in a concert or pick them randomly from the repertoire that you have planned for that particular day. I am asking this because you sing without a note and don’t even take a break between items.
Before a concert, I mentally make up a list of songs to sing. Till early 2000s, I used to just go there and sing mostly whatever I wanted. Somebody would ask me to sing Todi and I would sing Todi. But after the advent of the social media, everybody knows what I sang last time. I also like to sing many songs. It’s an opportunity for me to build up my repertoire. So, I keep a database, I look through it, see what I have sung in the last three-four years, I try to rotate the songs so that every time I don’t sing the same songs which also means that I will have to prepare more. In other words, I mentally make up a list. At every concert, I make up a list of songs that I want to sing and I stick to it almost 90-95 per cent. Some times it may not go the way I had planned and I may may change one or two songs. In fact, I have a software where I write down the songs I want to sing and after the concert I go back and update it. So, if there are songs that I wanted to sing at a particular place, but couldn’t do for some reason, I will recall and sing them when I go to the same place for a concert next. Yes, for that you have to prepare. I do really prepare.
Do you practise some of the pieces on the day of the concert?
Yes I do. Especially, newer songs or older songs that I forget I. I may not pay much attention to some songs that I have sung many times.
Do you give rest to your voice on the day of the concert?
On the concert day, I don’t sing as much as I regularly sing
Do you also talk less on that day?
That I can’t (laughs). But nowadays, I don’t attend phone calls so much during the season. Much less. Sew WhatsApp is a big boon, you don’t have to talk to everybody.
Do you change the duration of the concert from what was originally planned? Say singing longer than you had planned because of an enabling atmosphere or cut short for some reasons?
Cutting short, very rarely. It may happen some times because of other reasons. Not because of my choice. Very rarely I decide this is enough and stop. I don’t do that. I ask the organiser and if they give me a finishing time, I will stick to it. If they don’t give me a finishing time, I will keep it flexible. Two and half hours is the normal length of a concert and beyond that is always my choice. In some places the audience continue to sit there and they expect me to sing longer, so I also sing longer.
But December concerts in Chennai are invariably three hours, aren’t they?
Not always. Places such as Music Academy and Narada Gana Sabha have fixed times. At places such as Vani Mahal and Brahma Gana Sabha I may do three plus hours.
You had once mentioned that you sing a song a certain number of times before you take it to the stage
Apparently, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar used to sing a song 100 times before he sang it on stage. For me, it’s not the number, but the confidence. For some songs, mostly smaller pieces, I may be very happy to perform in three days; but bigger pieces take time. When it comes to big compositions, I sing daily for about one to two months and then on the day of the concert i just sing. It happens both ways.
I also have read you saying that you used sing 13 songs in a day for your daughter when she was a child.
Oh, that was 13 varnams to put her to sleep when she was small (laughs)
Don’t you do that any more?
No no (laughs)
THE FORMAT AND INNOVATION
Now, regarding the Ariyakudi format, there are some who like to deviate from the standard structure of starting with the varnam and ending with the mangalam. Did you ever feel a need to change it? Is there merit in the argument against a set format? Or do you feel that the format itself is a strength?
See, if others are deviating from the format they have to say why they do it. If they are successful with it, more power to them. I am not anybody to say they shouldn’t. Artists are free to do whatever they feel like. As far I am concerned, I like this format. I enjoy this. There’s a logical progression. Inside the format, there’s so much flexibility and hence it’s so much fun to keep doing things and playing with the format without people getting bored. I am otherwise such a restless guy that I will be the first person to get bored if I know what I am doing is monotonous. So I like working with that.
Because I work with a bigger repertoire and sing more compositions and songs, it gives me more space to work with. Hence, I don’t find the format as a restriction. In fact, I am very happy with it.
And that familiarity with a format is always good. Somebody once said something about Tamil writer Ashokamitran’s fiction – As you are reading his stories, you feel as if you are reliving something that you did, your mother did or that you saw. It’s so familiar. The best music is the most familiar music. It’s the same with taste and colour as well. After all, why is the love story the most popular form of entertainment for centuries? Because it’s the most natural emotion in a human being. Similarly when something establishes itself in a certain way, you are happy with it. Certainly people can break it if they want to. In doing that, if they are successful and if the trend changes completely some things will die out naturally. But today, I don’t personally feel the need.
Have you ever changed the format, or is there anything that was closet to tinkering with the format?
Not that I can remember. Probably some cosmetic changes. For instance, I may sing a main piece without singing the alaapana, I have done that. Or an alaapana and a composition and not the kalpanaswaras when everybody expected me to sing them. I may have sung a mallari when nobody had done it.
More than 15 years back, I sang a Viruttam, Thanam, Thiruppugazh instead of an RTP. Just one off. They were just spur of the moment impulses and not preplanned. Similarly, I once sang a pallavi for a TV programme and at a concert next day when I started the ragamalika, I got this idea of singing all the ragam in the list of songs that I sang the previous day and I went ahead with it – A ragamalika in all the ragas that I sang the previous day. This was just an inside joke. Somebody had actually recognised it and even pointed it out to me. It was not a format change, but some creative urge. Once in Bangalore, I sang three pallavis continuously in a logical progression. Such things give relief to the audience.
There was one pallavi I sang which meant “can people who know the truth, understand what’s maya?” I sang the pallavi first in Sahana and then when it comes to “maya”, I changed the raga. Then when it touched the word “truth” I returned to the original raga. Then I l changed the raga for “truth” and said, maya becomes truth and truth becomes maya. It was fun.
On the spot?
(Laughs) Yes, truth and maya, it was like stand up comedy. It was fun.
You can indulge yourselves in these things. Once I created a raga on the spot. I was singing this pallavi – “engal kannamma nagai puthu rojappoo” and I came up with a scale in my mind. I was singing in Charukesi, so I used some of the notes of Charukesi and sang a ragamalika swara. When I finished, people asked me the name of the raga, I said if it’s not there, you can call it “rojappoo” (rose). Because the pallavi line was rojappoo. Another time I specifically worked to create new raga called “dravida kalavathi”. I did it consciously because I wanted to use one particular scale and combination of notes.
And this is possible because of years of singing and embodied learning, isn’t it?
Yes, and also because you are thinking about it all the time. See, it’s like what the writers or painters do -when you are so immersed in the art form such things do happen. Main thing is when the ideas strikes you, you cannot be be afraid to try them. That’s the only way it can come out.
Don’t you ever feel scared to try out the musical ideas that strike you while on concert?
No, not at all. That’s one thing I learned from Day 1. If something strikes my mind, I will do it. I won’t worry about what could happen later. If your foundations are good, what strikes you will be in tune with what you are capable of. Like my Guru always said, if you try something, it will be within your mindset. Your mindset is already formed with a particular structure which is the foundation. So whatever you do will be in tune with that foundation and that’s how it will come out. Whenever I try something, I always find that it’s in tune with the aesthetic framework that I am working with all the time. And it just adds a little bit here, a little bit there and over a period of time, that framework itself becomes bigger or wider.
Are there times when you haven’t reached where you wanted to reach?
Oh yes, plenty of times, That’s a constant quest, it will never stop.
And have people noticed it?
Yes. I myself will make it noticeable to them through my expressions. I never hide my emotions. if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, what’s there?
Do you remember that sangathi that you employed in “Saravanabhava” in Shanmughapriya at the Omallur temple concert in Kerala. It was so unique – so physical and dramatic. How do such things happen?
When you sing some songs over a period of time, you add these things. Some of them come from memory. The moment you start singing that song, some things will occur to you just like that. Some of them are not part of your actual learning, but you have added over time. Some days you don’t want to sing it, some days you want to sing it. Some days you sing it and from there, you get another idea. Then you add to it. These things always happen.
Are there times when you felt that you could go and on with a particular raga alaapana, swara improvisations or pallavi?. If at all you felt it, have you gone ahead with it or restrained yourself. See, I as a listener, I had wished many times you didn’t stop a particular piece – means, going on and on like some jazz musicians do. Is it possible? Also Hindustani musicians spend more time on a raga than Carnatic musicians do.
We have done it. The point to note always is since you are a performer and there are people listening, you can only trouble them so much (chuckles). Just because you are in the mood or you are into something that makes you feel good, you cannot indulge too much. For instance, I have sung a raga alaapana for 40 minutes and an RTP in Todi for one hour and forty minutes. That day, I told myself that I wouldn’t stop until I am done with it. Similarly, I may have taken a smaller raga, which usually doesn’t last for more than four minutes or so, and gone on to sing for 14 minutes which itself is large in the context of that raga and my collective memory of that raga.
In terms of Hindustani, that system itself is built on that premise. You can do it if you want to, in our system as well if you are able to hold a note like that etc. Then you need to train yourself differently. The ambience should be appropriate and the people should have the patience to listen. You may have to change so many things if you want that. In fact, some people have asked me why don’t I sing long alapanas like in Hindustani. I usually tell them to listen to Hindustani for that (laughs).
PURPOSE AND MEANING OF MUSIC
What struck me the most about your evolution as a musician has been the passion – that too from a very young age. You had said how you would be riding a bicycle from one concert to another, while loudly singing to yourself, how obsessed you were with the music of the masters. What exactly was that passion?
I grew up listening to music. Music had always been in the air. My mother used to sing, my aunt used to sing, my father had a tape recorder playing music all the time etc. It was like the food you ate, the coffee you drank. It was a part of my body and my system. When I look back, it’s been probably the only constant in my life.
When I was in college, I started playing cricket, I gave up; I used to collect stamps, I gave up; I gave up many such things; but not Carnatic music. That was a constant. By the time I finished college and started doing Chartered Accountancy, I kind of knew that I was going to do music, that I was not going to give it up. There had always been this doubt whether you would click or not and whether it would be financially sustainable or not, but the passion and the craziness of music never stopped. Even at that time when I would be reading, going out with friends, watching movies or playing cricket, music had always there at the back of my mind. I was always singing or listening.
And once you are on stage, it’s worse than any other form of addiction. You want it, you crave for it. You can’t miss it any more. It’s not like you have a limited shelf space. You can go on singing. And you never stop. So, you always feel the need to get back on stage, see the people and communicate your music with them.
I had discussed this once with a Tamil writer. He said when he finishes a novel, there’s an emptiness, that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. In comparison, the advantage of a performing musician is whatever you do, you get the reward immediately. So, as I am performing, I get the reward right then and there. Because of this, there’s always the motivation for the next concert. You always look forward to the next concert.
I find it scary. Singing such intricate and sophisticated music in front of people, particularly when you are young.
Yes, it’s not easy.
Fortunately, in India, we have the culture of performing classical music. Initially nobody knows who you are. When you get on stage in the early years, the audience will be your mother, your aunt, your neighbours, classmates etc – everybody whom you know and they want you to do well. Only when you go out slowly, out of that circuit, you will feel hostility. Some times, they don’t want you, they don’t like your music. You have to win them over. Some times winning them over is just about one sangathi, or a swara, one moment. After that, whatever you do, they are on your side. You can see that transition actually happening right before your eyes. You have to work with them.
I remember going to a two-day concert in Tirunelveli many years ago as a young man. I had finished singing the first day, and on the second day it was a new audience. It went well. The next day, another singer was performing and he asked me how the the audience was. He was much younger and wanted to know things like if the people there liked slow music or fast music. I said, they liked good music. I had figured out by then that it was not about judging who they were, but what you did. Today, why do people come to my concerts? Because of what I did and what I do, and not because I know what they want. If the latter is the case, I might as well run a store to cater to what they want. I am not doing that. I am trying to share something that’s beautiful. If people like it, they will listen to you. If you can get that feeling as a performer, you can win them over.
What exactly are you trying to pursue when you sing? Is it the emotion, the essence of a raga or something else or a mix of all these?. And how far will you go towards that? For instance, Kishori Amonkar used to say that her pursuit was for the perfection of a particular note, that she keeps at it until she’s satisfied.
Several things. I am very grounded. I am a very earthy kind of a guy. For me, everything is visible. When I sing a phrase, I can see the notes, I know the notes, and I am working with the notes.
Do you mean you can literally see the notes?
Yes. It’s almost like you can visualise them as you are singing, even my gestures will show that I am trying to go here and there. I don’t hide it. I am doing it all the time. That’s as far as the raga is concerned. You like music, you enjoy some phrases, you enjoyed other people singing those phrases, you want to repeat those phrases and recreate the beauty in that raga. About 50-60 per cent of that comes from this collective memory that everybody has.Then there is a 20-30 per cent that you have contributed from your lifetime, and there is about 20 per cent that just spontaneously appears before you as you sing. It’s not even planned, you were just exploring it. All these things are in a sense notes. The raga, the phrases etc are part of those notes. It’s not something abstract or something that’s unknown. Yes, it’s so visible. In fact, much more than visible.
Compositions are slightly more tricky because the accompanists are also in the picture. There’s rhythm, time, notes. words (text), the rhythmic nature of words, the meaning and philosophical context, the emotion, the religious context and so on – everything comes into play. Then it becomes slightly more complex. So you can’t be completely sure the way you sing a raga or a swara. Here, you have to manage everything – you have to remember the lines, some times you have a doubt which means you have to think of the line all that time, once you know the line you want to involve the line better, you do it better when the language is familiar etc. And if there are elements in the meaning that I can communicate, I draw on that as well. Since there are so many variables as well as others (accompanists) involved, sometimes the rhythm overtakes, sometimes the melody overtakes and sometimes the sahitya (lyrics/text) overtakes. You don’t know on that day which component is going to stand out. Then you are putting more effort on that aspect as opposed to other things.
Further to my earlier question, are there occasions in a concert when you hadn’t reached where you wanted to and had given up?
Is it because of the setting or because of the day?
You can’t pin point. If you do an analysis, you may say the mic was not okay or you were not in the right mood, the voice was not good etc. It could be anything.
But unlike many others, you don’t pay much attention to the mic and sound system. And most of the time you get it right.
Usually I don’t bother much because if people can’t hear you, they will tell you. I have trust in people (laughs). But I can’t sing without a mic because you can never judge the throw. We are not used to it. You never know what’s the right volume. I sang only once without a mic, at Wigmore Hall in London.
How important is the element of emotion in your music? Say bhavas such as bhakthi, compassion, love and so on. Is it really possible to be expressive without embodying the emotions? I ask this because some singers try to dismiss the emotional element – for instance when one sings a composition about Krishna – and say that they just pursue the music and the bhava automatically happens.
Why do you want to sing about Krishna in the first place? When I sing something, I try to bring emotion to the content, especially in Tamil. It’s a culture that I grew up with. Right from the age of five I used to sing shlokas in my house, we do all that. In this context, your personal belief system is irrelevant. You are here to do a job and if the job is to sing about Akhilandeswari or Lord Muruga, Krishna or Rama, it has to show. Otherwise there’s no point. You might as well sing abstract music, you don’t need to sing these songs.
Why should you sing Thyagaraja? See, Thyagaraja, Deekshitar or Papanasam Sivan composed music with a particular mindset. You have to bring that emotion when you sing them. When you play Bach, you can’t call it jazz. It’s composed in a Christian environment and it brings out that ambience. It comes along with it. It’s a package. If you listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing about Allah, you can’t say you can’t listen to Allah. If you don’t want to receive it, that’s your wish. I won’t judge others, but I am quite convinced about it and about what I do.
So do you actually feel those emotions? As a listener in the audience, I certainly feel them
Yes definitely. Our iconography and imagery is something that’s so hallowed. For instance you take Muruga. Muruga and Tamil, are so intertwined as a concept in the Tamil psyche. Similarly the concept of Nataraja and Chidambaram. Even Mr Karunanidhi (former DMK leader and chief minister of Tamil Nadu), who was an atheist, actually had read Azhvar and Nayanmar and had said that their Tamil was so beautiful. Why? It’s not just because of Nayanmar, there’s something in the way the language is fused with the imagery and iconography. After all these icons are manmade. We only created Nataraja. When you read a Marvel comic book, you actually believe in the superman. You know it’s fantasy, but you still believe it because there’s conviction in the way it’s presented. That’s what you have to do as an artist as well. You have to believe in it to convey it and people will feel it.
MUSICAL IDEAS AND IMAGINATION
In terms of musical imaginations and improvisations, how much of your concert is pre-planned and how much is spontaneous? Do you get new musical imaginations or ideas often — say for the same raga — while in concert? Some say about 70 per cent of their concerts is unplanned.
It’s about 15-20 per cent. Suppose when I sing a raga, 80 per cent will be the content that I had already sung at some point. It is like recalling something. On the day of the concert, in front of the audience, you may add or change things. If I sing Todi, it’s still Todi; but I may not have planned to sing a particular sangathi that particular day in a raga alaapana. But those are things that I have already done – they all are there in my collective memory. Maybe there are things that I had sung in other concerts.
It’s like accumulated innovation
Exactly. If you compile 15 Todis of mine and put them through a software, it will tell you how much is spontaneous or new. Today, we have the technology to do it.
Even in Kalpanaswaras?
As a listener, I find the kalpanaswaras astonishing because of their complexity and spontaneity.
It’s again like driving, swimming or cycling. Wherever you go, you will land correctly. It’s like swaras doing this. Doing it is like second nature. Of course, training is important.
Some times accompanists, say the violinist, also give you inputs
Yes, we have that free flowing space. Mridangam also prompts and you respond. You don’t overplay it or build it up.
TRANSFORMATION AS A MUSICIAN
You have been singing professionally for more than three decades. How have you transformed as a musician?
My concert planning has changed a lot. When more people are listening to you, you feel duty bound because you can’t take them for granted. These things are part of a natural progression of time and age. So, I am more careful now. I work much harder compared to when I was younger. In fact, it’s the opposite of a general belief – I started working harder much later. Definitely, I am working much harder now.
Harder in the sense?
Practising more or working more. Thinking about compositions and generally working much harder in the last 10 or 15 years. I have always worked hard, but in the process of evolution, what is more exciting for me personally is that I now understand a lot of dimensions about voice which I didn’t know for a long time. For too many years, I have sung in a particular way. In the last few years, I have been working on a few aspects of my voice and I find some changes in the way I sing.
Are you are doing it yourself or with somebody’s help?
No, just myself. It’s like one of those days when I get up and say, what am I singing like this and why can’t I do this and why can’t I do that? And you understand a few things and you remember how some people did it or how great people sang. Then you realise this is what they did and this is what you are not doing. So, you understand certain dynamics. Then you start practising and you actually start seeing it working. There may be some practice methods you had ignored when somebody would have told you when you were young. Things like that. You want to sing with a little more ease, expending less energy because you are older, and you want to sing longer. You can’t sing like a 20-year-old or 30-year-old any more. But for that the voice has to be ready. That way, for the last two to three years I have definitely changed the way I use my voice. The result is that I am singing more easily. Earlier I used to struggle in the upper octaves; now I am singing fairly more comfortably.
Haven’t you ever thought of collaborating with others? Say, for instance, jazz because that offers a common ground for innovation?
I am so happy doing Carnatic music
But don’t you find parallels with other streams of music? Particularly with improvised music.
There are indeed parallels between all systems of music. Even planned music – you can compose and present. Music is universal. if you want to collaborate and make it sound in a new or different way, you can.
I don’t listen to too much of unfamiliar music. There are so many things that you are exposed to in terms of arts and entertainment. Music is the last in that list because that’s what I do every day (laughs). I may listen to some music when I watch a movie or listen to the background score, but I don’t sit up and listen. There was a time when I listened to other forms of music deliberately. When I started out, besides Carnatic, the only music I was exposed was Tamil film music and little bit of Hindi film music. When I started singing in concerts for almost 20 years, I heard no other form of music than Carnatic music because you wanted to know more and more about it.
After Ilayaraja, I stopped. Ilayaraja represented my growing up years. By the time AR Rahman came, I was out of that domain. About 15-20 years back, I went through a solid phase of listening when I heard rock, jazz, western classical, ghazal, Pakistani, Hindustani – everything. I was trying to see if I was missing out on something by not exposing myself to other forms of music. For about four to five years, I was doing all that stuff. Then I stopped listening to music and started reading. After that I have been reading a lot. I had given up on reading because of lack of time. I also started looking at art, films and so many other things. My interests started changing.
Do they influence your music?
Directly, no; but indirectly, you get ideas. For instance, the way things are presented. The meticulous planning that they undertake, it’s amazing how they plan and do things. You want that sense of order while doing something. When you do things with that purpose and planning, you see the results. You understand this from a lot of other art forms.
Not necessarily music?
Music also. You see it in western classical and other forms, yes.
Now you seem to be more and more tolerant of popular music, or film music. I saw you praising SP Balasubramaniam (SPB) and P Susheela on Twitter.
SPB and Ilayaraja are childhood heroes. Other than that, I don’t even know the latest film songs. But there are good guys. I know they are doing good work, but I don’t listen to them much. See, everybody works very hard. So, I think everybody has a place. Let them do what they want and people will decide. In arts, it’s ultimately people who decide what’s good or bad. If something fails and some people want to prop it up, then that is politics. I trust the intelligence of people. I will never put down people and say they are idiots. Ultimately, these things organically find a way of becoming popular or becoming good. I am seeing this in my own experience over time.
What’s so special about Ilayaraja. Why do you like him so much?
See it’s that nostalgia, that age.
In the seventies and eighties, when he came into the scene, everybody thought he was the greatest. Today when you go back, it’s still so fresh in your memory. It takes you back to those days. Identification with that time period is so strong that you don’t rationalise the music. There is the emotional connect that is too strong. Today, I see some of those films and find that they are outdated, but not his music. It’s very interesting. In those films, you may think that the make up is bad, the scene is so tacky and that they are badly shot etc, but the music sounds just great. One of the reasons is that he had brought in a sense of blending of genres and had achieved some kind of perfection which is amazing. It never sounded perverse or out of place.
RISING POPULARITY AND STARDOM
In the recent years, your popularity has skyrocketed and people don’t seem to be getting enough of it, even if they get to attend many concerts of yours. I am an example. Do you also feel the increasing intensity or quality of appreciation?
I don’t react much. It’s not about them, isn’t it? They are happy, they are excited and they are enthusiastic and it gives me the motivation. If society was having famine or floods, what can an artist do? I am grateful for that.
Do you like them to be well informed about music?
I am not specific about that. I can’t say how they should listen. If they listen I am happy and thankful. I cannot say you listen to this ragam like this or like that like some music album sleeves suggest. At least 7-80 per cent of the people who listen to Carnatic music have some knowledge about it, they want to know more about it and involved in it etc, which is good for us.
Now more and more people from the periphery are coming to your concerts
In my experience, your concert experiences are unique because they are co-created with the audience. There’s an air of participation from the audience and then the whole thing — you, the accompanists and the audience — becomes one unit in which all are strung together by an invisible force. Do you feel that pulse as well? Personally, I have been part of such experiences many times. How does it work on you? Does it make you adventurous some times?
This is very important. I remember watching this movie 20 years back in which Roan Atkins is acting as a priest. He goes to give a sermon for the first time and somebody advises him that he should try to make eye contact with people who are responding to him and avoid those who are rejecting him or doesn’t seem to like him. This is something that I have always done. You are always making contact with them or communicating with them.
Performance is all about communication. And it’s also about making people feel that we are all part of it. A shared experience. So, for that I can’t close myself off from the audience. To that extend I am always in tune with them. I can close my eyes for a few seconds, but I can’t sing the whole concert closing my eyes saying it’s a spiritually immersive experience. I don’t believe in it. This sense of participation is what makes it a live programme. When I heard great masters in the past in a small auditorium of 100 people, the ambience had been electric because of the communication. The way they were singing, responding etc. I have seen that so much.
INFLUENCE OF MASTERS, TRADITIONS
You’ve been singing since your late teens. Could you please say something about the major influences in your music – I mean teachers, traditions, habits, past masters and icons?
Several people. For me everybody had something to offer. Sometimes you miss out on them at an earlier stage, but then seek them later. I don’t want to specifically name anybody now although I had mentioned a lot of people in the past.
GNB was a childhood hero for me and family. Today, my discovery of music is more from written notation. Today when I discover music of people, I find so much, names that I don’t know. But when I look at the work they have done, I can see the kind of mind they must have had. The way they had worked. There’s a lot of great music that’s left behind for us to tap.
So from the written notation, without any other references you have been producing a lot of music?
Yes, I have composed, tuned and learned a lot of songs from written notations where there were no recordings available with anybody.
No reference at all?
Nothing. My guru was like that. He used to teach songs like that. So, I work with these songs, take it from scratch.
If there is a skeleton, I keep the skeleton; if there’s a fully formed thing, and if it’s within my aesthetic understanding, I retain it. Sometimes, when I like the lyric, but I don’t like the tune, I may change it, but keep the meter. Sometimes, the lyric may be hard. For instance, poems that are not meant for music, say vachanas or something like that. Recently I sang one vachana in Bengaluru by Akka Mahadevi. I had set it to music in Narayani raga, but on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I had heard a version somewhere, but I didn’t like it. So, I used the same way of splitting the words and the structure, just changed the ragam and transposed it into a new tune.
You sing a lot of concerts in Kerala, have you done anything similar Malayalam?
I want to work on Kathakali padams, but the language is slightly tough. Probably, next project (laughs). I really want to do it. I have done one or two by Swathi Thirunal.
Are there techniques of masters that you are particularly impressed with?
Yes indeed. Mannerisms, sangathis, phrases.
Can you name some of them
Madurai Mani Iyer, MD Ramanathan, Balamuralikrishna, GNB, Ramnad Krishnan…so many musicians. It’s an inside joke (shows a stylistic mannerism of Ramanathan). I learned Swathi Thirunal’s “Jagadeesha Sada” from MDR’s recordings and retained this mannerism too.
Even the speed?
The speed was beyond the capacity of my voice. I would break it down.
But your tempo is slightly faster than the others
But he is much faster. In fact, very fast. I can never sing at the speeds (with clarity) he sang ragas and brigas. So I break it down or just give an accent.
How did GNB sing like that? Was it natural or he acquired it
From what I read, he was endowed with that kind of voice from the beginning. He sang so fast, but kept it under control. That’s what my Guru had said. But he also worked a lot on his music. Unfortunately, he had a lot of health issues later and worked in those difficult circumstances.
By the way, how do you produce those unique sounds in your concerts? Some of them are really unusual.
You can call it my idiosyncrasies.
Does it happen on the spot, or do you practise on them?
It just happens. I don’t practise them. If you listen to me practise, you will wonder how does this guy sing a concert. it will be plain and ordinary.
Some times you produce sounds like a snake’s hiss, for instance. What do you call them, sangathis or brigas?
They are sound mannerisms or eccentricities. Those are frills.
But these must be your innovations because I haven’t seen anybody else doing it.
You have to have less inhibitions (laughs).
You are actually emotionally naked in front of people.
See, I am on a high. It’s adrenalin. Somebody asked me, with reference to psychedelic rock, if I had tried some substance to get high, I told him that I get so high on stage that I don’t need any substance.
After the evening concerts, do you find it difficult to sleep?
Ayyo, it’s the toughest part. It takes a long time for the high to come down.
So, when there are concerts on consecutive days you have a problem
Next day, getting into a concert will be slightly difficult. Some times it takes a couple of songs. It depends, the ambience and crowd also matter.
Over the years, you have mainstreamed Tamil compositions into Carnatic music in a big way – now you have exclusive Tamil concerts like Tamizhum Nanum on December 8. In fact, it’s a major political point where you disprove some typical charges against carnatic music. Did it happen naturally or is there a story or motivation behind it? I have heard you saying that you enjoy singing in Tamil.
There are two aspects, one is my personal interest in the language, which is apolitical, purely a love for the language. Second is I believe I sing these compositions much better than I sing any other language.
There was a political issue before my time. In the 1950s and 60s there was the Dravidian movement, Tamil isai movement etc which were combated by the other side. By the time I started singing, those things had gone out of the public debate. Nobody was talking those things, but people were unfortunately not singing enough Tamil songs. The moment I started singing Tamil songs, people told me that it was what they enjoyed the most. Then I thought to myself why were we missing out on the chance to get more people to concerts. I just continued on the same way.
Fortunately, my teachers were also strong proponents of Tamil songs. My grandmother said whatever I sang, nothing would match singing in Tamil. My guru was a student in Annamalai University at the time of Tamil Isai movement and he actively participated in singing Tamil compositions. He had told me that there was nothing like Brahmin and non-Brahmin in music, it was only about good music. He knew a lot of Tamil songs and taught me them. So for me, it was a very natural progression.
And I was not happy when people came and told me that I should have sung Thyagaraja kritis instead of Tamil songs. For instance, when I sing Senthil Aandavan in Karaharapriya, they will say I should have sung Ramanee Samana Evaru. I would say thank you, and that I would sing it in the next concert. It’s not that I am not going to sing Thyagaraja because when people like it why should I stop?
When I go to Andhra Pradesh they would like you to sing Annamacharya and Badrachala Ramadas more than Thyagaraja and Shyma Shastri. That’s what Balamurali did, what MS Subbulakshmi did. Once you reach out to more people, you bring more people to the art. When you go to Karnataka, there’s nothing wrong in people there expecting you to sing a few Kannada songs. In Kerala, the audience is so attuned to listening to anything that they don’t insist on Malayalam. Probably, in future, they may. For me, that’s my next work. They like Pakkala, Ksheerasagara etc and don’t care what language it is. They like good music. I am sure if I sing Malayalam, they will appreciate more and say you sing more.
Do you plan to incorporate contemporary Tamil text? I mean, new Tamil writing.
For me, it’s very important that the language should aesthetically blend with the music. First there should be meter. In Tamil, they stopped writing in meter because of the new age poetry and all that. So, without meter it’s very difficult. I have been looking at it on and off, but somehow I haven’t been able to find the right text. For me, Tamil stops with the 1960s – Bharathiyar, Bharathi Dasan and after that I haven’t explored much because even till then there is so much content. Older texts such as that of Azhvars and Nayanmars are also there.
And many of them you set to tune based on written notations, right?
Some of them, not all – about 50 per cent. I compose every year.
What’s the process of your compositions?
When I compose, mostly they are metered texts. Some of them may also have tunes. Some times I choose a different ragam, than what it has been set to, because there are 1500 pieces in that raga. I take that liberty. Since mostly they are composed, the meter and structure are there. If I am not happy with the tune, I change. For instance, the song “Paname” was originally composed in Sankarabharanam and I changed it to Mand.
By the way, some thought that the “Paname” song was related to demonetisation
(Laughs) I had no idea, suddenly after the concert some called it the “Modi song”. I was totally stunned. Contextually it clicked like that. Now I sang a song on books called “noolai padi” – I tuned that song from scratch. Somebody gave me the lyrics of Bharathidasan and asked if I could sing.
RAKTHI RAGAS AND LIGHTER RAGAS
There was this advice that you once gave to a famous younger musician on rakthi ragas – how exploring Rakthi ragas well could help improve the alaapana of other ragas
See, it’s like this – you can writer whatever you want, if you know your grammar and your language. It’s the foundation.
Our rakthi ragas are the foundation to our music. Even today, I sing them regularly. I still sing, Kamboji, Todi, Bhairavi, Sankarabharanam, Sahana, Mukhari, Begada etc. If you are not good enough in these ragas, you cannot make a career. You cannot make a career only with light ragas. Where’s the variety? Ultimately you can create your own niche audience and sing Bhagesri, Sindhu Bhairavi, Behag etc, but for how long? You still need to have your core content. It doesn’t mean that I am dismissing the lighter ragas, it’s just that you build yourself up from here.
Do you also spend more time on lighter ragas? Do they have enough scope like the heavy ragas?
I have also sung pallavis in patdeep, tilang, bhagesri, behag, brindavani saranga etc.
Is there enough meat to explore in these ragas? Are there enough phrases?
You create them. What are you as a musician for? That’s your job.
Sometimes singers finish these lighter ragas in five minutes
Time is again a perception. It’s about satisfaction. How much to get out of it and whether you are gratified with what you do is the question. If it’s unfulfilling, there’s always something left to be asked for. There was a period of time, when I sang only Hindustani ragas for Pallavi. I was singing Madhuvanti, desh, tiling, bhagesri, rageshri, jaunpuri – nearly about 15-20 ragas – regularly for RTP. Others have also done it. For example, TN Seshagopalan had sung a long desh.
If you break down the content, maybe it’s repetitive – a software can tell you how many phrases were repeated and how many were expanded. The point is about the experience. Irrespective of the duration, what’s the experience that I provide and what’s the experience that I get – that’s what counts. You can finish it in two minutes and people could still be happy. I have heard that Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, who had a great fan following, was so inconsistent. He would sing two phrases very well and his fans would get up and say enough for the day. It’s the overall experience that counts.
DIVERSITY OF THE CONCERT STAGE
You have been performing in diverse settings (Sabha halls, temple settings, rural areas, hot and humid dingy halls, international venues with good acoustics etc). Is there a difference in the experience? In simple words, do the settings matter?
I don’t have a fixed feeling that a concert atmosphere should be like this or that. See, last month I sang at a place where the noise from the road was very high. After some time, it bothers you, you don’t know what to do, but that’s India, you have to live in such circumstances.
But that concert was successful, wasn’t it?
Yeah, I like singing and people like listening and that’s most important, but this can bother you sometimes. At such places, I would sing a few times and tell the organisers that they should try somebody else next time. I have done concerts in such places many times over the years.
At temples, there could be a lot of festival noise too
Sometimes they can irritate, but you know when you go for a temple concert or a festival concert how the atmosphere will be. It won’t be a surprise. You know it, hence you are okay with that.
SHARING, USE OF TECHNOLOGY, MARKET FOR CARNATIC MUSIC
Another striking thing I noticed is the profusion of your music, that too free, on the internet. You never forbade recording and sharing of your live programme by people while many others resisted. A spin-off of that was that sharing enriched the experience of your fans and it has created a never ending demand. I have met crazy fans of yours who have never heard you live, but knows your music so well – all because of the countless YouTube uploads.
You know why I didn’t resist free sharing of music? Because there’s no money on the audio sales. The market is gone. There was a time when people made money from records. After the 1980s, HMV doesn’t even pay royalty; then we started getting lump sum payments, but companies made more money than the artists. After some time, it became more and more easy to record by the general people. And I found resisting it pointless. There was no money coming.
Don’t even the commercial online platforms generate money?
Hardly. For an album to get $1000 takes so long.
Is it because the audience is very limited or because people are recording and sharing.
Because the audience is limited. The total commercial value of Carnatic music is so small. If you look at the total quantum of money in Carnatic music, it will be pittance. A department store will make more money than all musicians put together. So, where’s the money? For me, I want the audience. If it’s bringing more people to my concerts, I am happy. I will make my money there. In fact, that’s the only way one can make money.
So, there are no other avenues possible?
Live is the only chance.
Must be scary for the new singers opting for music as a career
Tough. The total number of concerts happening has gone down in the last 20-25 years. Overall number of the audience is more or less the same, but the number of opportunities has come down. I sang many more concerts when I was a 20 year old.
Better paid concerts?
No, in terms of stage experience. There were more gigs available for us.
One reason is probably because the 25-50 age group is missing in the audience
They have been missing for the last 75 years. You can’t expect them to spend money and time on something that’s not a necessity for them.
Is the popularity of Carnatic music is increasing or is it static?
Static. I can see a lot of people on the fence coming in; but overall numbers, I am not too sure.
Can’t technology be used to expand the business of music. Say by putting the otherwise restrictive Sabha tickets online.
See, the Sabha concept is very unique to India. They have a problem, they don’t know how many tickets to put online. They do put some online, but not enough. And not all concerts get sold out.
Your new year concert tickets are online and hence it’s easier to get tickets and they are sold out too
The New Year concert is not a Sabha concert, it’s fully ticketed.
I think if you democratise the access, there will be more sales of tickets
That’s why I am starting this Tamizhum Nanum. About 900 tickets were sold online and only 200 were call ins. It’s handled by an event management company.
Is it your idea or theirs (event management company)?
Idea is mine, but we planned it together
Not that people haven’t done it for carnatic music, but not for pure concerts. Earlier it was for thematic, branded stuff. That way, it’s the first time.
Do you listen to the new generation of carnatic musicians, upcoming singers?
I keep a watch on everybody on YouTube. They are all very talented. They work very hard. Each one is on their own path. Very skilful.
I wish them all the best and I hope they will be successful. That’s all I can say.