Notes Across Nations: Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s Australia tour

By Indira Laisram
Noted Carnatic singer Sanjay Subrahmanyan

Sanjay Subrahmanyan likely requires no introduction. As the renowned contemporary Carnatic singer from India, his soulful renditions have enchanted many familiar with the genre. Connecting over Zoom from Chennai, India, Subrahmanyan shares captivating anecdotes and insights into his craft, revealing his excitement about his upcoming Australia tour.

Interestingly, Subrahmanyan’s connection with Australia runs deep, as he made his first trip to the country in 1995. “Apart from the concerts and the music, just the sheer breadth and the nature of the continent and the country, the landscape—everything was breathtaking,” he says.

While that visit with his wife, when he was a 27-year-old, remains one of his cherished memories, Subrahmanyan has made several subsequent visits. However, every time he returns, Australia never ceases to amaze him, he shares. “Every time, I find something new to savour and take in apart from the concerts.”

This time, Subrahmanyan is visiting Australia for the first time since 2017. Asked how he is tailoring his repertoire for the audience here, he candidly says, “My repertoire is standard conventional material taken from my own experience over time and what I have been singing over the past so many years (almost three and a half decades). So, it is not going to be anything different from whether I sing in Chennai or the US or Europe.”

Subrahmanyan, renowned for his vast repertoire and versatility, reveals that for a long time, he used to sing spontaneously during his concerts. “Then I made a conscious decision to plan my repertoire. With the advent of the internet, people were constantly posting content online. If you tended to repeat songs, you risked being dismissed as having a limited repertoire. So, I challenged myself to explore more songs and compositions.

“The Carnatic music database contains records of 20,000-30,000 compositions sung over the past 100 years, readily available for musicians to explore and exploit.

“For me, the challenge is always to discover something new and different, while also revisiting past compositions and striking a balance between the two,” he continues. “I maintain my own database of songs I have performed. For instance, I keep track of what I have sung in Melbourne in the past, ensuring that I incorporate ragas that I haven’t performed in the last ten years.”

Delving into Subrahmanyan’s musical journey, his approach to interpreting and presenting classical ragas like Todi, Kalyani, Khamboji, and Sankarabharanam emerges as a fascinating aspect. He elaborates on the challenge of keeping his interpretations fresh and innovative with each performance, highlighting the importance of maintaining a comprehensive database of compositions.

These ragas, often referred to as the ‘big five,’ have inspired countless beautiful compositions over the years by various composers, he says.

Subrahmanyan explains how immersing himself in these compositions provides him with small musical ideas to build upon, likening the process to discovering a captivating storyline in a seemingly mundane incident. He describes how a single line or phrase from a composition can serve as the spark of inspiration, allowing him to craft intricate alaaps and weave them seamlessly into his repertoire.

His performances are renowned for their sense of freedom and abandon, a quality that admirers often marvel at. Delving deeper into his approach, he sheds light on how he cultivates this sense of spontaneity while ensuring the integrity of the music remains intact.

“I’ve been fortunate to have teachers who instilled in me the value of freedom, encouraging me to break free from constraints and limitations. Moreover, the support and encouragement from my family, who have always urged me to follow my instincts, alongside friends who offer guidance and encouragement, have been instrumental in nurturing this sense of freedom within me. It’s the environment in which you live and grow that naturally fosters a spirit of freedom,” he says.

During the pandemic and between projects, Subrahmanyan ventured into collaborations with Coke Studio. Recognised for its fusion of diverse musical genres, the show seamlessly merges traditional classical, folk, Sufi, qawwali, ghazal, and bhangra music with contemporary hip hop, rock, and pop music.

One such venture, “Anbenum Peruveli,” emerged as a post-pandemic endeavour in collaboration with a music composer.

Subrahmanyan reflects, “I had time to contemplate my musical journey spanning over 30 years. Post-pandemic, I made a conscious decision to step out of my comfort zone and explore genres beyond my usual scope. As a result, these collaborations came to fruition.”

Additionally, Subrahmanyan delved into recording for a Tamil film for the first time, a creative pursuit he thoroughly enjoyed exploring.

Subrahmanyan has always been accepted by fans worldwide. Rest assured, his attempts to reach different audiences were not without tensions. However, he hopes as far as possible fans in Australia are not disappointed with him yet again. “I trust they will accept what I give. I have faith in their ability to receive what I give,” he sums up.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan performs on Sunday 17 March at the Alexander Theatre, Ian Potter Centre for Performing Arts, Monash University (event details here).

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