To be a member of Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s inner circle, you need to be fond of board games or, as in my case, at least profess to be interested in them. Playing these with him in my view, gives an insight into the man. He would have mastered the rules of every game by heart and will never need to look at the guides again, even if he were playing one of them after a long time. When asked to explain them to a newcomer, he will be patience personified, even going to the extent of playing a few dummy rounds till the novice has got the hang of it. Once the game starts, he will bring his sharp intelligence and focus to it and invariably be a step or two ahead of all other players in his strategy to win. The end result is usually a foregone conclusion. But even in the midst of it all he will watch for the laggards and help them with advice so that their scores improve.

Having heard Sanjay first in 1993, I have slavishly followed him to most of his concerts. And I am not the only one; a regular and growing coterie follows him from sabha to sabha like the migration of wildebeest. There are several others I know of who follow him to all concert venues within the United States, apart from being fixtures at all his performances during the December season at Chennai. Why do we do this? There can be no common answer but we all agree that we are addicted to the emotional and intellectual high that his concerts give.

In the 1990s, those of us who heard him knew that we were listening to very good music via a husky voice that struggled to match the intellect that goaded it to great heights. His repertoire was large even then, for he would surprise us with long forgotten gems. He had listened to almost every artiste who performed in the 1970s and 1980s and in the process assimilated various aspects of their art while eschewing what was not in his view aesthetic or feasible.

It was sometime in the early 2000s that he took a decision to focus on his music to the exclusion of all else. There had been many calls on his time – his profession as a chartered accountant and his desire to run a music web portal for instance. All of these were given up and what remained was a never-ending introspective study of music. A few years were spent in exploring the beauties of the vivadi (dissonant scale) ragas and he gave them the same importance as he did to the popular ones. This period also saw him build up an awe-inspiring repertoire of Tamil songs. After a long time, Tamil audiences, who make up the bulk of Carnatic music patronage, heard rare pieces in their own language and could laugh and weep with the lyrics even as the music took them to great heights. There were coast-to-coast Carnatic concerts in the US where over 27 performances saw not a single main raga or song being repeated. Audiences marvelled at his memory and repertoire.

Sanjay’s initial grounding as a vocalist was through two gurus – his grand-aunt Rukmini Rajagopalan and the musician’s musician, Calcutta KS Krishnamurthy. While these gave him the capabilities to make it as a top-ranking singer, it was his tutelage under the veteran nagaswaram artiste SRD Vaidyanathan that made his music extraordinary. This association began in the 2000s and lasted till the guru’s death. It was SRD who initiated Sanjay into the mallari – hitherto a nagaswaram staple. He brought in sonorous phrases in raga renditions, broadened Sanjay’s vision and added several songs to his stock. This training coincided with a sudden efflorescence in Sanjay’s voice – it became powerful. When asked about this transformation, he denies having consciously done anything about it. He invested time in his singing and the more he sang, the better his voice became. It was perhaps in 2007 or so that Sanjay rendered the difficult and demanding piece ‘Koniyadina napai’ at the Music Academy festival in December in the best nagaswaram manner. Those in the audience sat up to realise that what they were hearing was not just excellent music, it was superlative. Since then it has been a steady climb to dizzying heights of creativity and popularity thanks to hard work and a keenly cultivated musical intellect.

His annual Margazhi Utsav concert conducted by Maximum Media is an instance of all that he invests in his art. For the past eight years he has been presenting thematic concerts where the bill of fare comprises unheard of or rarely heard composers. And he sings the songs with not a single aide-memoire on stage – not for him scraps of paper or an iPad.

A typical Sanjay concert follows the traditional format. Its hallmarks are a healthy combination of popular and rare ragas, with songs to match. Tamil once dominated the language of the lyrics but nowadays we see that the honours are shared with other languages. It is as though the maestro has made his point and left it at that. The ragam tanam pallavi, which is the test of any musician’s virtuosity, sees Sanjay at his best. The extensive raga alapana is followed by an equally expansive tanam, something that most musicians render mere lip service to. The pallavi, whether in a complicated tala or a simple one, always leaves an impress on the listener.

No concert of Sanjay’s can be rated as below par. His performances always see him seeking to establish a rapport with the audience early on. The ‘aha’ moment is sure to happen sooner or later. There are of course certain venues where there is a greater chemistry. He is an artiste with a keen sense of history and occasion and the sheer heritage of some locations sees him rise to greater heights than usual. His brilliance and creative genius means the accompanying artistes have to always be on the alert at his performances. Sanjay has experimented with several accompanists, for all of whom he extends the greatest respect on stage. Of late, audiences have demanded the repeat of some popular combinations and the maestro has given in to that.

Off stage, Sanjay is an intensely private individual. He will not perform wedding concerts. His passions are cricket, board games, history and Tamil literature. To this has been added physical fitness in the last decade or so. A dedicated guru, some of his students are popular artistes in their own right.

That in a (largeish) nutshell is this musician who this year will be given the Sangita Kalanidhi by the Music Academy, Madras. The annual award, instituted in 1942 and given retrospectively from 1928, is the highest accolade in Carnatic Music, something that musicians will give their eyeteeth to receive. The trend in the last three decades has been to award it to ‘veterans’ (read old musicians well past their prime). Sanjay joins a select band of 13 who received it before they reached 50.

The author is a music historian based out of Chennai