Extraordinary Auditory Experience: Sanjay Subrahmanyan Concert

By Partha Krishnamurthy

HOUSTON: This is not a review. Just a view of an extraordinary auditory experience.

The Classical Arts Society of Houston presented Vidwan Sanjay Subrahmanyan in a vocal concert with Vidwan S. Varadarajan on the violin and Vidwan Neyveli Venkatesh on the mridangam at Sri Meenakshi Temple on Sept 30, 2023.

Going to a Sanjay Subrahmanyan concert is to experience the essence of carnatic music. It is category-defining. It is like a G. R. Vishwanath square cut. Kumbakonam degree coffee; Tiruavaanaikkaval Parthasarathy Vilas rava Pongal (only between 5.30 and 6.30 am, thank you); The tri-color Kadambam garland with jasmine, marikozhundu and kanakambaram for the Gods in the streets of Tiruvallikeni and Mylapore. There are a clutch of few artists that give you the authentic experience with no dilution. Saturday, September 30 was one such; an immersive, outstanding concert by Sanjay, Varadarajan and Neyveli Venkatesh.

CAS President Nalini Sadagopan warmly welcomed the rasikas who had packed the auditorium. She thanked the board members and those who had worked behind the scenes on what was going to be a memorable experience. As Nalini welcomed the artistes, the curtains opened to a resounding applause from the audience.

The visual presence of the trio on the stage was worth noting. The emerald green stage backdrop was lit gently and adorned with a few bells. The stage was a typical rectangle with a sensible elevation. It was covered in the striking traditional Bhavani jamakkalam. Upon this, the three artistes were seated, all of them in white shirts with white dhoti. This look was simultaneously simple and grand. ‘The Men In White’ as Nalini called them were ready to give us the audience a musical extravaganza.

The evening started off with legendary Bhairavi Atatala varnam, viriboni. Talk of starting out with a bang. The kaalapramanam (loosely, the tempo) was brisk, the voice was nothing but sonorous, the violin played the perfect shadow, and the mridangam was speaking with authority both on the right and left, especially the thoppi (bass side). At the artists’ ‘ meet and greet’ event, they commented that they each practice between 3 and 6 hours every day. It showed in the comfort, command and effortless ease with which they took over the stage.

After the varnam, we encountered the sparkling Naattai rendition of a viruththam by Periyaazhwar followed by pallandu pallandu pallaayiratthandu. Sanjay has mentioned that he trained with the legendary Nadhaswaram Vidwan Semponnarkovil SRD Vaidyanathan on channelling the Nadaswaram, in vocal music. One does not know if that was the intended idea in this particular instant, but when the expression of the word “manivanna” reached the upper tonic, it was very reminiscent of the timbre of the majestic instrument.

This was followed by a fantastic Purandaradasa Krithi, kaliyugadolu hari naamava nenedare in HariKamboji. The phrase ‘japa ondariyenu’ was soaked with so much comfort that it is hard to describe how beautiful it was. Interestingly, the lyric goes on to say that “I do not know how to chant, nor to meditate”, yet, the sonic experience was one of pure meditation. The extempore swara prasthara was sparkling. It was most heartening to see this lovely dasa sahitya given a prominent place early in the proceedings rather than being relegated to a minimalist treatment at the end of the concert.

It is impossible to describe how well Varadarajan and Neyveli Venkatesh sync with Sanjay. The experience as a group shows how they anticipate and react to every instance of musical creation, and their camaraderie shows in their real-time on-stage mutual appreciation of their craft.

Sanjay then presented an essay in the raga Hindolam. One of the things felt when listening to this song was that Sanjay does not simply present music. He is exploring music real-time, and invites you to join in on that. He demonstrated how each swaram has its unique place in the garland that makes up that ragam. The Thamizh composition, “maatchi migunda thaaye, arul meenakshi deivam neeye” nicely tipped the hat to the reigning deity of Pearland.

This was followed by the Tyagaraja composition in raaga Gangeyabhushani, evvare raamaiyya. The movements defining this vivadhi raga were delightfully traversed as the swaraaksharams were playfully emphasized.  The mridangam was particularly remarkable for the sowkhyam (comfort), especially the bass side. The swara exploration was in keeping with the gentle sensibility of the raga. A Swati Tirunal composition in Hamirkalyani followed, where Varadarajan’s violin was the always-pleasant companion.

The main piece of the concert was a raga-thaanam-pallavi in the majestic Karaharapriya. The upper sthayi (octave above the tonic) sancharams were novel yet so familiar thanks to the complete fidelity to the raga. The thaanam was expressed with utter clarity, and the control over the gamakas was simply incredible. The violin exposition of the raga by Varadarajan was beyond delightful and brought out the grandeur of Karaharapriya. The pallavi on Lord Muruga was presented exquisitely. In particular, the diction was so precise that it easily accommodated the complex taala structures Sanjay built into the presentation.This also featured the tani-aavartanam by Neyveli Venkatesh. It was a treat, ranging from the gentle to the thundering. The hall had minimal sound absorption, and as a result, as the mridangam gained intensity, one could hear the reverberations all around. The mathematical precision combined with the sollkattu dynamics was a joy to experience. The conclusion of the solo was received with a thunderous applause by the audience.

Following the RTP, Sanjay presented a delicate piece in the raga Mohanam, bansiwaale ne mana moghu. This was followed by a ragamalika viruttham that travelled Saaveri, Sahaana, Subhapantuvarali, Naatakurunji, and behag followed by a beautiful, aadum chidambaramo.

When Sanjay started thunbam nergayil in the raga Desh, there was an audible expression of delight from the audience. The concert started its descent with an absolutely beautiful Sindhu Bhairavi composition, vaa vaa vel muruga. The touchdown was accomplished with a brisk, traditional, nee naama roopamulaku nithya jaya mangalam.

Not surprisingly, the concert as a whole got sustained, multiple-rounds of resounding ovations at the conclusion. Sanjay brings extraordinary competence and knowledge to the stage, coupled with a genuine, unflagging and deep engagement in the proceedings. This translates to palpable energy on the stage and in the audience, and kept the house-full crowd riveted for the duration of the concert. There are some concerts in which YouTube videos may be a substitute. Not so for this. You have to be in the hall to experience and feel what transpired.