On that Note: Sanjay Subrahmanyan presents engaging stories about Carnatic music in an effortless manner

What would be an ethnographer’s delight, the socio-cultural history that On that Note explores is not projected deliberately. It lurks in every incident Sanjay Subrahmanyan narrates and every note he sings, but is never spelt out.

Lakshmi Sreeram July 18, 2021 09:49:48 IST
On that Note: Sanjay Subrahmanyan presents engaging stories about Carnatic music in an effortless manner

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What is the value of a story? Why is Kathakalakshepam, the telling of well-known stories, popular with adults who have heard the stories many times over? Why are so many sessions of the “Annual Conference” at the Music Academy — with each year including centenary celebrations of at least one musician — unabashedly hagiographical and little Kathakalakshepams on their own?

Stories keep a community together; by telling them and listening to them, the community celebrates its identity in a way that is not otherwise achieved. Stories constitute the weltanschauung of a community, offering metaphors of truth and beauty, of evil and good, of destiny and ambition, aspiration and struggle, success and failure.

It is stories that Sanjay Subrahmanyan offers in an ongoing series of short videos titled On that Note. Taking off from notes in snatches of music that he performs, he shares notes — reminiscences from his life in music. He shares the music and stories with an informality that is as disarming as it is engaging. The concept is original and the presentation classy, credit for which Sanjay shares with auteur Bhargavi Mani and her team.

Its immediate value as story is important and evident, but no less significant is its value as a documentation of Carnatic music as it has entered, and been enriched, by a gifted musician. And Sanjay must be well aware of that, but he wears it lightly. What would be an ethnographer’s delight, the socio-cultural history that this series explores is not projected deliberately. It lurks in every incident he narrates and every note he sings, but is never spelt out.

As in his take on Begada. “I don’t have a favourite raga but if you were to go by how many times I have sung one raga in concerts, Begada will win hands down.” And casually, through the recall of a conversation with his Guru Calcutta Krishnamurthy, he talks of his lineage from Tiger Varadachariar to Patnam Subramania Iyer, and their deep engagement with the raga.

What does it mean for generations of musicians to obsess with one raga? Do we have other such instances? What would it be like to sing just this one raga for months? Is this possibility suggested when we define raga as a scale with specific features and rules regarding phrases and notes etc? Such are the directions in which this story might prod a young student, a performer, a researcher.

On the note of Charukesi he starts off with a line of a rarely heard Kannada composition on Goddess Saraswati, trailing off into a story that sheds light on another aspect of the world of Carnatic music — its rich repertoire of compositions in all four Southern languages, but with Kannada and Malayalam falling behind in concert representation. As a performer, what should your reaction be when a listener walks up and expresses dissatisfaction that you did not include “even one song” in his language? Should you, as Sanjay says he did, “feel like a fool”? Why do listeners need to listen to compositions in a familiar tongue? What does that say of the “classical music” status of Carnatic music? And of music as a “universal language”?

The recent episode on Kuntalavarali showcases other aspects of the world of Carnatic music. We have an amateur Carnatic musician of a grandfather, a well-known critic offering what was possibly a back-handed compliment, a veteran violinist sharing his own struggles with innovation while bemoaning the continuing disapprobation of the trailblazer that GNB was — all rubbing shoulders as he narrates the story.

Sanjay’s stories are very much for the insider, one bred on Carnatic music. Often, the story progresses through dialogues in Tamil that he recounts. Though an outsider cannot access these stories except through subtitles and with a consequent loss of many flavours, the casual, local tone of these videos is a winner – as they say, being truly local is the best bet to being global. Put yourself out there as you are without window dressing, and the world will take what it can.

Athana offers much food for thought. Sanjay narrates an incident of nagaswaram vidwan Kasim introducing him to veteran nagaswaram vidwan Sembaranarkoil Vaidyanathan, whose rendition of Athana and the song 'Summa Summa Varuguma Sukham' in it led to Sanjay eventually becoming a disciple of Vaidyanathan. “…It blossomed into a beautiful relationship and I learnt so many things from him."

Sanjay recalls Vaidyanathan singing the words “ammamma endru…” with an emotional, dramatic flourish that is generally eschewed in Carnatic performances. He recalls Vaidyanathan asking him “Yen Thambi? Should we not sing like that?” “He felt you should let go when you sing,” Sanjay explains. What Sanjay doubtless knows, but does not say, is that such untrammeled expression teases the boundaries between Carnatic music, drama music, bhakti music etc. Consider what Dr V Raghavan wrote: “In art music, which we may call classical, the canons and requirements of art, the rules of balance, harmony, proportion, propriety, concentration on pure artistic resources to the exclusion of adventitious circumstances – these are to hold sway and absolute sway.”

Explicit emotionalism by “letting go” in rendition is generally regarded adventitious and improper in Carnatic music. Carnatic music that we know today was forged out of many musical sensibilities, driven also by identifying what would serve the nationalist cause. In the process, some musical expressions were kept out, and Sanjay’s story reminds us of these.

Equally important is the casual inclusion of a Kasim and a Vaidyanathan in Sanjay’s story, “casual” being the keyword here. While there are unmistakable hints, Sanjay does not even mention that the two men belong to communities other than the one that dominates Carnatic music today. Hasn’t he lost an opportunity to do his bit about the lack of inclusivity in the Carnatic world? Or is there something to be said for Sanjay not acknowledging this issue and many others?

Today, even the community of a traditional music form like Carnatic music cannot stay immune from expectations of inclusivity. And, indeed, we have prominent voices from within the community making an impassioned case. But what is the way to inclusivity? Yes, there is a dominant community, there are marginalisations and exclusions here as elsewhere. But clamouring over this issue or engaging in polemic about the possible injustices may not lead to much beyond ruffling some feathers. Self-depreciation and insider’s criticism may not exactly be real solutions; nor are contrived juxtapositions of Carnatic music with musical expressions of “the other”. Slovenian philosopher Slovak Zizek has argued that often in disavowing one’s privileged position, one subtly universalises it. In self-criticism often lurks self-congratulation. Sanjay steers clear of both in these videos.

Sanjay does not disavow his privileged status; he is not apologetic but, equally, he is not insensitive to “the other”. In fact, “the other” has entered his life in very meaningful, organic and unforced ways as the Athana story bears out.

In these episodes, Sanjay comes across as a musician who observes, thinks, very likely has a stance on many issues. But he only tells stories without pronouncing any moral, which may often be more effective in delivering the moral.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com

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