Courage and artistry in London:
Sanjay Subrahmanyan at the Wigmore Hall (March 9, 2012)

- Bruno Kavanagh

March 14, 2012

There are times when you want to stand up and applaud a performer not just for his artistry, but for his courage. Friday night, in London, was such an occasion: I and nearly five hundred others joined in thunderous applause for Sanjay Subrahmanyan, following his magnificent recital at the Wigmore Hall. As we cheered, the singer stood facing us on the platform with an almost bemused smile, as if he couldn't quite believe the warmth of the reception he was receiving. When finally the applause died down and he was allowed to leave the stage, a tangible buzz remained in the hall – that indefinable crackle of energy that inhabits a sabha when the patrons know that they have witnessed something beyond the ordinary.

And this, I should stress, was no ordinary sabha: this was the Wigmore Hall, arguably the most prestigious chamber music venue in the Western world. Since opening its doors in 1917, it has hosted performances by virtually every major name in Western classical music. Its intimate size (at 480 seats it's roughly the same capacity as the Museum Theatre in Chennai) and pin-drop acoustic make it a place where every serious musician wants to be heard.

Non-western music at this venue has historically been rare, to say the least. Sanjay Subrahmanyan is the first Carnatic musician to perform at the Wigmore and only the third Indian – following Ravi Shankar forty years ago and sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan in 2010. However things are changing: Khan has become something of a favourite and, following his astonishing concert two years ago (which I attended, and I'm delighted to report that it's available on CD here), he was invited back to undertake a full residency, another first for an Indian musician. As part of the engagement he was asked to curate a series of concerts by hand-picked performers representing different aspects of the Indian musical landscape. To represent the Carnatic tradition, Khan had originally invited Sudha Ragunathan – but some weeks ago the Wigmore's website informed us that she was suddenly indisposed. Into the breach stepped Sanjay Subrahmanayan. I live in New York – but Sanjay Subrahmanyan at the Wigmore was too good to miss. I decided that I was due a trip home (I am originally from London) and bought my tickets on the spot. A few days later I found myself sitting ten rows from the front of the Wigmore, nervously waiting for Subrahmanyan to take the stage.

Why was I nervous? Well, for one thing Western audiences are more exposed to Hindustani music and tend to find it more accessible than Carnatic for various reasons – not least the self-perpetuating cycle of greater familiarity. Amjad Ali Khan was himself on the bill for the second half of the concert, and I suspect many of the non-Indians present had come to hear his famous sarod. But as a Westerner with some connections to Chennai (my wife's home town) I felt a bit like a sports fan: I wanted 'my team' to put on a good show, especially in front of my own people. I wanted English music lovers to be opened up to the extraordinary riches of the Carnatic vocal tradition, through exposure to an outstanding performance. Being one of them, I know they can be a demanding crowd – and tonight, anything less than the very best would leave them cold.

I needn't have worried. In Sanjay Subrahmanyan, the Carnatic tradition was blessed with a supreme ambassador, enthralling the audience with a performance of immense power, subtlety and humour. With scarcely any warm-up, his voice was immediately soaring and swooping between a rich baritone register and high tenor. In deft interplay with his violinist, again and again he created beautiful forests of notes, taking us with him down winding paths of musical invention before leading us into bright clearings: suddenly, from all the virtuosity and embellishment, would emerge a single note, clear and solid, held for longer than one would have thought possible. His voice filled the venerable auditorium with simple, beautiful sound. And, as he sang, it was impossible not to feel the intensity of his connection to the music. In that magical and mysterious way that only the greatest artists can achieve, he carried us with him on his journey. Subrahmanyan is a performer in the best sense of that word: while he is never playing to the gallery, never trying to please us, he none the less has the talent to communicate not just through his voice but through a vast range of expressions and body language. One senses that his artistry is a deeply felt, internal experience for him. But he is never cut off or remote: he never appears to sing just for himself and not for us. In this way, he makes his bhava available to us – and this, again, is my understanding of true rasa.

His accompanists must be mentioned, for their role in this triumphant evening was indispensable. S. Varadarajan (violin) gave us a breathtaking performance, his virtuosity and musicality delighting listeners from both East and West (one well-heeled English lady next to me announced she was 'transported' by a solo passage of great complexity and grace). And on mridangam we owe a special debt of thanks to Neyveli Venkatesh. Why? Because – I have saved the best till last – the concert was entirely unamplified. The stage was utterly bare, and the natural sound of Subrahmanyan's projected voice, Venkatesh's hands caressing the skins of his drum, and Varadarajan's bow on his strings were allowed to meld and soar together without the mediation of any electricity. Regular readers of this website may be aware that the subject of amplification in Carnatic concerts is something of a bête noire of mine (previous jeremiads can be found here and here). But there are important points to be made: I appreciate that, in the era of microphones, it is very difficult to ask a singer to perform to 500 people unaided. Venkatesh did a marvellous job of modulating the sound of the mridangam so that it melded perfectly with the naked voice – both high and low sruti – and the violin. This was real music-making, within a noble tradition stretching back many centuries, and confirmed my belief that we need not accept the microphone as an integral part of the classical instrument in the 21st century. With good acoustics, an attentive audience and outstanding musicianship, it can be done. Sanjay Subrahmanyan did it. The entire musical world – Western and Eastern – can salute him for his artistry, and his courage.