Thanks to the teleserial Ramayan, Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s first Carnatic concert in New Delhi almost never happened.
In 1988, Subrahmanyan was just shy of 20. “The concert was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University,” he says. “After I settled down in my room, there was a knock at the door.” It was sarod maestro Buddhadeb Dasgupta. “He asked me my name, and then said he’d be performing after me.”
The following morning, Subrahmanyan and his troupe reached the venue—a shamiana (tent) at JNU’s football ground. “It was early February, freezing cold,” Subrahmanyan recalls. “There was nobody there—everyone was glued to their televisions, watching Ramayan. We only began at 11.30am, once Ramayan ended.”
Virtuoso: Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Photograph: Arjoon Manohar / Mint
Twenty years later, Subrahmanyan returns as the centrepiece of a festival of classical music, not only in warmer weather and without any blockbuster television for competition, but also as one of the leading male vocalists of his time.
Subrahmanyan’s singing is, in all honesty, not Carnatic Lite. There are others whose music is more immediately accessible and attractive, who occupy the stage in grander physicality, or whose voices are more glamorously malleable. Subrahmanyan is first celebrated for his strict classicism, and to the lay listener, the appreciation of strict classicism is a journey rather than an outright gift.
But Subrahmanyan makes it worth your while. He builds ragas in a manner he has made his own, with deliberate and delicious intelligence, occasional mischievous phrases and trademark jarus—plunges from one end of the scale to another. He executes lesser-known ragas with comfort, and he has an oceanic repertoire; I’ve attended many concerts at a stretch without hearing a single repeated piece.
Notably, as the senior musician R. Vedavalli once said, Subrahmanyan has that most sought-after quality in Carnatic music—gnanam, which alludes to his vast knowledge of the music’s theory and form. All this adds up. To the extent that Carnatic musicians draw fan followings, Subrahmanyan has drawn a large one.
On 26 August, Subrahmanyan performs as part of Ganjam’s Flights of Fantasy, a three-day music festival. He will be preceded by the cheerily innovative violinist brothers Ganesh and Kumaresh. Their concert is likely to be thoroughly classical, but the brothers have previously played Carnatic roles in world music ensembles. Played at its most precise, as they play it, the violin’s sharp sound is a wonderful match for the precision of Carnatic music. The brothers are both quick-fingered and dexterous; their faster pieces are energetic and addictive; their slower pieces can be deeply contemplative.
On 27 August, V. Haripriya and V. Shanmukhapriya present another concert of siblings in tandem. Known as the Priya Sisters, they revisit the city that gave them their first big break. “In 1990, we’d just started to sing, and somebody passed on word about us to a gentleman at the Madras Telugu Academy,” says Haripriya. “After he listened to us sing, he asked if we would like to perform at the Spirit of Freedom concert in Delhi.”
As a pair, the Priya Sisters function well, and they have found particular popularity over the last few years, as their music has grown into pleasant consistency, and their partnership has settled. Some note the balance between Haripriya’s verve and Shanmukhapriya’s serenity, and invariably the sisters are applauded for their impeccable Telugu pronunciations in their renditions of the songs of the composer Tyagaraja.
As a coda, Haripriya is keen to emphasize the accessibility of their music. “You don’t have to have a very deep knowledge of Carnatic music to enjoy it,” she says. “It just needs a good ear—just the ability to distinguish bad music from good.”
The Flights of Fantasy festival of Carnatic music will be held from 25-27 August at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com.