Thursday 5 July 2012

My Old Carnatic Concert Review - of Sanjay Subrahmanyam - from 2006

My Old Carnatic Concert Review – of Sanjay Subrahmanyam – from 2006

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 05 July 2012

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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I was just surfing on Google, looking for people who may have referenced my articles, and I found an old concert review of mine from 2006, when I had gone to Chennai from Bangalore on a business visit during the Madras Music Season.  I thought it might be nice to share this review with the larger group that I am in touch with, on facebook and otherwise, so I am reposting that review. 

I have edited it very slightly and added a few headings for readability.  I haven’t corrected any of the information in it either – for instance, I now know that Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha is what used to be Vani Mahal.  I enjoyed reading the review again – I hope you do too.

Kumar’s Review of Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Concert in Chennai on Dec. 14, 2006


I had a chance to visit Chennai on business about two weeks ago, and it happened to be the start of the greatest annual music festival on the planet: The Madras Music Season. This is a music fest of the kind that I have not witnessed anywhere else: more than 1000 music concerts spread over the time of a month, with more than a dozen venues.

The last time I visited Chennai during the season was 1994, so it has been a really long time. But the level of frenetic activity has not changed. I would have liked to, as I did in '94, take 10 days of vacation and spend them full time concert-hopping, trying to catch a lec-dem in the morning and three concerts subsequently during the day, but, alas, I was out of vacation time for this year, and so had to manage my experiences on evenings after long days with clients.

It was still a fun two days, and I caught Sanjay Subrahmanyam at Brahma Gana Sabha one day and OS Thyagarajan at Krishna Gana Sabha the next. (really, the two artists whom I would have wanted to listen to above anyone else ... btw, on a tangent, can you really believe that OS Arun is OST's brother?, ... so anyway, I think that I got really lucky, both being really good and interesting concerts.)

Karpagam Mess in Mylapore

Add to this the joy of experiencing good Tamil food (Udipi food is NOT Tamil Nadu food, BTW ... they put sugar in the sambar, for instance ... how awful! And apart from the authentic sambar, another delight in Madras restaurants is that molaga podi, aka gunpowder, is a standard side in most restaurants ... and it is the real stuff, fiery, rather than the tame stuff you get in the Udipis in Bombay and Bangalore ... hmm ... in Bangalore you DON'T get gunpowder, even in Adyar Ananda Bhavan) in some real authentic restaurants, and you have two unforgettable days in Madras. 

Of course, I can do without the miserable weather in that city (you won't believe that I was getting cooked there in the middle of December ... even Bombay is pleasant at that time), so I will be glad if I got to spend one month of my working year (15 Dec - 15 Jan) in Madras, experience that city and the amazing music, and then go back home.

To briefly finish about the food, before actually heading into the music, there is a great place in Mylapore, I wouldn't think very well-known, where many of the sabhas are, that I would strongly recommend you go to before or after the concerts (if after, skip the tukdas after the main piece/RTP and head for this ... definitely more value for money than that "Chinnanchiru kiLiyE" that you will hear for the 10001st time) that I learnt about from some relatives there. This is an old joint that is at the back of the Mylapore tank, right opposite the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan building there. It is really a hole in the wall, and is called Karpagam Mess (not to be confused with the big Karpagam hotel just yards away).

This is a small family joint that, amazingly enough, has an a/c section, and serves the most amazing ghee dosas I have ever eaten. The surroundings are very humble (when I finished my meal and went to the wash basin, there was no water there, so the attendant stood by my side with a jug of water for me to use to clean my hands, etc. ... not that the place is unhygenic ... just that that day the faucet was not working, but still, a very basic atmosphere), but the food is simply unbeatable. 

They serve the dosas on a plantain leaf, and there is a guy standing close by with a bucket of fantastic sambar, and he keeps refilling your leaf with more sambar as soon as you have finished what is on it. I cannot remember how much sambar I ate that night, but it was a LOT for just one dosa. This place will definitely give Saravana Bhavan or Sangeeta a run for their money. I will unfailingly go back there the next time I am in Chennai.

Modern Sabhas in Chennai

Back to the music season. Much has changed in 12 years. For instance, the Krishna Gana Sabha, which I visited during this trip, is now air-conditioned, and looks a lot better than it did 12 years ago.  Apparently, they redid both the acoustics and the interiors. Very nice. The auditorium has wicker chairs, which, at first, I thought would be crude and uncomfortable, but they turned out to be the most comfortable seats I have ever had the pleasure of sitting in, better than all the second-rate cushioned chairs that we think of as comfortable normally but that we always feel like shifting in. But I digress.

The concert that I am going to talk about was at the Brahma Gana Sabha (it did not exist in '94; btw whatever happened to the Rasika Ranjani Sabha? I did not see any mention of it in the newspapers ... did it get scrapped?  That was another run-down sabha at the time, where, to add insult to injury, I heard a forgettable concert by Gayatri on veena, but that is another story). There are also a bunch of other sabhas that I had never heard of at the time, like the Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha. Where are all these sabhas coming from? In '94, the Music Academy and Narada Gana Sabha were the only two that really looked polished; now all of them have been spruced up.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Now to Sanjay. I first heard Sanjay in 1994 at the Music Academy in an afternoon concert. I remember hearing a beautiful Janaranjani (nADAdinamATa) and a bEgaDA by him that day, and I was very impressed at the time. I said to my friend who was with me, an older gentleman and a veteran listener, at the time, that Sanjay had the makings of a great musician, and he echoed that opinion, both then and in every conversation we had since then.

Well, Sanjay has not disappointed in the years since in terms of his progress towards that summit, and this concert definitely underlined that point. Sanjay in 1994 was an upcoming young artist; he had been on the concert circuit for a few years, but then there were many who were at that level. Not everyone makes it to the next level, of being a major star. Sanjay has now definitely reached that level. There is an ease and a mastery of the medium and the art that is immediately obvious when you see and hear him now. He has become a seasoned veteran. 

In this evening's concert, Sanjay was accompanied on the violin by S. Varadarajan, the mridangam by B. Satishkumar, and the morsing by Bangalore Rajasekhar.

The Concert

The concert began promptly (as do all concerts in Madras during the season; they really run on a tight schedule and cannot afford to be tardy) at 6.30 pm, and Sanjay began, rather unusually, with "nAda tanumanisham" in cittaranjani. which he sang well for 20 minutes. This was followed by raghunAyaka in hamsadhwani, which was notable for unusual sangatis.


He followed this with an elaborate kannaDA ... now how many people will elaborate on this rAga?  After a nice AlApana, which he stopped at just the right time to avoid getting repetitive, but long enough to show his ability to improvise, he sang a dIkshitar kriti, "gIticakrarthasthithAyai." This raga, especially the AlApana, showed that this was a musician at the height of his creative powers. Highly enjoyable.


The next piece was a composition in dharmavatI. A long AlApana, after which the violinist displayed admirable musicianship in his solo AlApana, was followed by the composition "aRuLvAi angayar kanniyE ... unmai uyar guNangaLellAm uLLam adhilE" (who's the composer?.... btw, the concert had a LOT of Tamil songs).


This was then followed by an elaborate kAmbhOjI, the main rAga of the concert. Again, Sanjay tried to do a lot of things with the AlApana. Unfortunately, IMO, this fell flat. The thing about kAmbhOjI is that while it is a rAga with a lot of scope, when you have heard a lot of versions by a lot of great musicians, it is hard to come up with new and creative melodic patterns in it. To do something new in something that well-worn requires a lot of creativity. On another day, Sanjay might have been able to rise to the occasion, because he is capable of it, but on this day he simply wasn't up to it in this particular raga. It was clear that he was trying too hard.

But it still showed me what I have seen consistently in his music over the years ... he is not afraid to try new things, to truly create, something that most of his peers are afraid of, in case they fail. Sanjay can fail sometimes, but he is never afraid to try. As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Sometimes it works brilliantly, sometimes it fails miserably. You can't have one without the other.

But he admirably made up for this in the composition, "Adum deivam nI aRuLvAi iRanDu pAdam tUkki nin tiru pAdam tanjum ena unai adandEn viri prapancam" (apologies for any mistakes).  Really, really good. A long, and very nice neraval (unfortunate most musicians today don't want to do this very pleasurable thing, the neraval, and jump straight to garden variety swaraprasthAra) that displayed some fine musicianship, followed by swaras of mixed quality.  (I think this was a Gopalakrishna Bharati composition. It lasted about an hour in total.)  Overall, a nice main piece.

hamsAnandi RTP

He was back to peak form in the next piece, an RTP (rAgam-tAnam-pallavI)  in hamsAnandi. He was in complete command here. The tAnam was phenomenal. I felt sorry for the violinist, who had a thankless job. He tried gamely, but could not come close. It really was not his fault; it is really hard to follow an act such as this. Sanjay seemed to realize how well he was doing here ... there was absolute confidence and a swagger about his performance that you can understand only when you hear him do the kinds of things he did that day ... the ideas simply seemed to come to him from nowhere.

The pallavI was "karuNincarA lOkAdhAra" ... but don't think of this as an authentic pallavI exposition. No anulOma or vilOma anulOma or trikAlam or anything like that here.  Maybe he got tired of all that, but the pallavI was simply a rAgamAlika of kalpanAswaras. 

He got the audience excited by singing the pallavI swarakalpanas in each rAga in the melodies of the most popular compositions in those rAgas: so, for Shuddha dhanyAsI, "enta nErcinA," kalAnidhi, "cinna nAtana", naLinakAntI, "manaviyAlakin," for bahudhArI, "brOvabArama," and so on. And I don't mean just the pallavis of the songs...for example, he would sing "karuNincara lOkAdhArA" for the "shRI vAsudEvA" anupallavi of "brOvabAramA" as well. The other rAgas were SahAnA and one more that I don't remember.


Then the short pieces, which, surprisingly, were still enjoyable. A composition in a rAgamAlika, by Subramania Bharathi, followed by a viruttam in rAgas nAdanAmakriyA, sindubhairavI, and sAma, was followed by "nArAyaNA naLinAyata lOcana", a pApanAsam sivan offering in sAma, and then a tukDA of Gopalakrishna Bharathi, "ghaNTA maNi Adudhu," in kAnaDA. The last tukDA in the concert, before the mangaLam was, unfortunately, the infamous "English Note."

Must We Really Have This English Note???

I love Madurai Mani Iyer, and think of him as one of Carnatic music's greatest and most creative vocalists, but I cannot ever forgive him for introducing this abomination into Carnatic music (Yes, I know that it was one of the Dikshitars who started this nonsense a long long time ago, but really, that was his response to colonial rule and an early fascination with western band music ... this junk should really have no place in modern, polished, sophisticated Carnatic music, and MMI did Carnatic music a great disservice by reintroducing it.) It did make him popular, though!  Shows that even the great ones are not beneath pandering to the audience.

Some folks might say that, after all, it is just an entertaining and popularizing device, but it really is just light/pop music.  If this is acceptable, why not go all the way and sing "nI varEnA vA, varATTi pO, nI varalEnA un pEccu kA" in a concert? Why blame Unni for singing "ennavaLE" in a Carnatic concert then? Anyway, that's my pet peeve for you.)  After all this wonderful music, you end up in this morass? It's like having a fabulous dinner and then having plain oats for dessert.

An Evening to Remember

So, overall: a very satisfying, enjoyable evening in Chennai that was worth every paisa of the Rs. 300 (the cheapest class of ticket that was available at the last minute, after I returned from my meeting with the client ... but hey, I got a terrific view ... now this is a good and a bad thing ... the good is that you get to see the performers up close; the bad is ... that you get to see the performers ... well, Sanjay ... close. Not that he is bad-looking; but you don't really want to see him while he is singing ... his face goes into all these contortions that you think something is wrong with him ... now that is not really a pleasure) that I spent.

And that ghee dosai at Karpagam Mess was just the kind of ending to make this a perfect evening.



1 comment:

  1. However, my sister, who was at the driver's seat, was proud to announce that she has seen the movie in the Hindi language on April 28th, 2017.



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