Understanding the cult of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, reigning superstar of Carnatic music

Whenever a Rajinikanth movie releases in Tamil Nadu, thousands of his fans watch it every day, sometimes back-to-back, often at the same theatre. In a few days, they will have memorised the movie's every minute detail: their hero's gestures, the punch-dialogues that are meant to hook viewers, and the final denouement. Some of them even beg and borrow for their next ticket.

It’s a cult — the cult of Rajinikanth.

Replace the Rajini movie with a Carnatic music concert and scale down the obsessive fan-base to a few hundred, or a thousand people, and you get another cult: The cult of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, the reigning superstar of Carnatic music. The only difference is the scale, the nature of the art, the aesthetics and the demography.

 Understanding the cult of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, reigning superstar of Carnatic music

Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Photo courtesy Facebook/@sanjaysubmusic

The fandom for a moviestar is perhaps understandable, but what about the fascination with a classical musician? How does one explain the same fervour for attending back-to-back concerts by one artist; almost every day, and for a form of music that's perceived as conservative?

It sounds unreal, but does happen in Chennai.

During the Margazhi season in Chennai every December, Sanjay Subrahmanyan sings in about 12 concerts, almost one every alternate day, and a few hundred fans unfailingly go to every single one of them. A larger number will clock at least half of them, and a still larger number, at least a handful. As a result, Chennai’s Margazhi festival is now synonymous with a 'Sanjay frenzy' although there are a few more names that top the A-list. Every single concert by Sanjay is oversold, each ends with a standing ovation that seems never to cease. And every concert is marked by the regal entry and exit of the star, as he is hounded for handshakes or selfies by both the young and the old.

In fact, this fan-frenzy is not restricted to December or Chennai alone. After a few days’ chilling out, as he describes his short break in his new year note on Facebook, he will be on the road again and many of the fans will follow him — some to Mumbai, some to Bengaluru and some to Thiruvananthapuram. The same trend is replicated on his overseas trips as well — on his concert tour in the US later this year, some fans will travel city-to-city in an annual ritual that they patiently wait and plan for. And every concert is followed by a flurry of fan activity on social media.

Arguably, there’s no other classical musician in India who has such a cult following at present. Although its intensity is most visible in Chennai, particularly in December, the phenomenon is transnational. It’s border-proof and season-proof, and people seem to be in it for perpetuity.

What is it that makes Sanjay so special? What is it that makes his concerts autogenerate more demand? What is it that makes him a Hebert Von Karajan of south Indian classical music? What is it that makes him both a virtuoso musician and a celebrity?

If you really want to find out, you have to be part of the cult yourself — like me, at least mentally. I do want to physically be part of the group that follows him from concert to concert, takes selfies with him and gets to talk to him often, but I find it a little inelegant for my age and vanity because I may have to sit on the dais (those who either couldn’t get tickets or couldn’t afford the premium rows in the hall end up on the dais on either side of the singer), run after sabha secretaries or employees, queue up early morning in front of the Madras Music Academy like one of those habitual migrants in front of an embassy, or sit in the balcony or the crowded back rows.

Still, I try to get to at least 5-7 of Sanjay's concerts a year. Five in Chennai and at least two in Thiruvananthapuram. When you do it for a few years and compare them with the concerts of other A-listers of the Carnatic circuit, you realise what a remarkably exalted experience it is, listening to him live. And if you are lucky enough to get a front-row seat for his four-hour New Year concert in Chennai, which I managed this time, it’s an out-of-the-world experience.

To the uninitiated, Indian classical music can be purposelessly long-winding and boring — Carnatic music even more so than Hindustani, because of the apparent preponderance of written text, mathematics, and predefined precision. For the same reasons, some singers do make it appear boring — as if they are going through a rigid, scientifically perfect, puritanical course — although there have been many stalwarts who found enough room and musical ideas to improvise and produce spontaneous thrills. Many of the popular Carnatic musicians of the current generation such as TM Krishna, Ramakrishnan Murthy, Sandeep Narayan, Saketharaman and Ranjani-Gayatri also do that and they too are exciting to listen to.

But Sanjay beats them by a mile because his musical imaginations are discernibly different and his concert experiences are co-created with his audience, who may instinctively follow the unpredictable paths he takes as he stretches the limits of “manodharma sangeetham” (musical improvisation), whether it’s the “swaras”, the “sangathis”, the neraval and the pallavi. His raga alapanas that explore the colours and the experiential extremities of a predefined scale are so painstaking that the joy they incite is almost painful, while his rhythmic play with notes put you into a rapidly changing full-body metronomic experience. His brigas (brisk phrases similar to the vibrato in western music) generate collective euphoria.

Sanjay’s stage performance is also about virtuosic kinaesthetic that we often see in master jazz drummers or conductors. His gestures accentuate the depth of the musical experience. As performance scientists have noted, “music is a multimodal phenomenon and the observation of movement or gesture is a critical component of the way it is perceived.”

For instance, the way he elaborates and winds up a raga-alapana or a swara-improvisation has an inalienable gestural element that has emerged over years of practise and performance. Moreover, his synchronous connection with both, fellow artists on stage and the audience that rarely gets disrupted, makes his concert a multidimensional experience and a visual delight. It’s a rare sensorial existence that results from the sound, the sight and the rhythm.

For these reasons, for his fans (rasika is the local term), a single concert is not enough. They go for the next, which obviously goads them into another and so on. Thus begins the entry of a fan to the cult. Every serial binger of Sanjay's concerts will vouch that each event is different, not just in terms of the different ragas or compositions he picks for the day or the manodharma exercises, but the variety or unpredictability of sensory experiences.

According to recorded history and anecdotes by senior musicians and music lovers, the only comparable star in Carnatic music before Sanjay was the great GN Balasubramaniam (1910-65), that too several decades ago. He had an enormous fan following among both the experts and lay listeners, particularly among “college kids” as some termed the youth who thronged his concerts those days. What made him exceptional was his pioneering efforts at manodharma, his charming personality, his sartorial finesse, and the consummate musical experience that people had rarely felt before. He was a charmer for the young and old alike. He too was known for his unprecedented brigas that nobody imagined were possible.

Sanjay, a self-confessed admirer of GNB, too seems to be cast in the same mould in all respects. Perhaps watching him in concert makes one understand the legend of GNB better. All that he needs to do now is to cross over from the seemingly endogenous ecosystem that sustains Carnatic music. It’s a historical opportunity that doesn’t present itself very often.

To download music by Sanjay Subrahmanyan, click here.

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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2018 11:03:41 IST