It is the only honour that really matters. It is the Nobel Prize of Carnatic music.

Stars of Margazhi 2015 a versatile vocalist and a dancing diva
Features Carnatic Music Thursday, January 07, 2016 - 17:52

Every year, the famous December Margazhi music and dance festival season becomes a time to acknowledge artistes of merit. Several organizations and individual philanthropists give our awards to musicians and dancers. Out of all these awards, very few matter. In fact, when it comes to Carnatic classical music, just a precious one: the prestigious title of  ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ bestowed by the Madras Music Academy. It is the only honour that really matters. It is the Nobel Prize of Carnatic music.

This year the prestigious title of ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ was conferred upon Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Sanjay joined the list of those who received this honour before the age of fifty. In the nine-decade history of the Music Academy, this precious honour has gone to only thirteen such musical stalwarts.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan was born in January 21, 1968 in Madras to Aruna and S Sankaran. From a very early age he began taking violin classes from Prof V Lakshminarayana. Prof Lakshminarayana, for those of you who have forgotten him, is the father of the famous violin trio brothers; L. Vaidyanathan, L Subramaniam and L Shankar. From 1984, Sanjay began his vocal music training. First with Guru Rukmini Rajagopalan and later with Guru Calcutta K S Krishnamurthy, Sanjay groomed himself to be a fine vocalist. He also trained with SRD Vaidyanathan. However, his training in violin didn’t go futile. It was to aid him in his vocal music in his career later. Sanjay debuted as a vocalist in 1986.

Sanjay receives the Kalanidhi award from Prof Manjul Bharghava

His steady growth and rise to the top is an excellent case study for those interested in Carnatic music in modern times. Several critics who had pronounced him as a ‘voiceless’ entity, had to eat their own words. One of Sanjay’s biggest contributions to the growth of Carnatic music is expanding the very repertoire of the genre. In addition to singing the compositions of the famous Trinity and known composers, he unearthed several unknown composers and set to tune their music.  The Tamil Isai movement gained freshness with Sanjay’s contribution in the modern times. At 47, Sanjay is the youngest Kalanidhi in the 21st century. Sanjay is also a qualified Chartered Accountant. In fact, he gave up a plush career to take to his passion for Carnatic music. An excellent documentary ‘Aarar Asaipadar’ was made on him by noted playwright and director Prasanna Ramaswamy.  Sanjay as a teacher has also trained a whole bunch of young talented singers.

December 15, when the 89th annual music festival opened, Sanjay delivered his presidential address. You can see the speech here:

As a part of his duty, Sanjay sat through fifteen days of Vidwat Sadas. Every morning for two hours, two different lecture demonstrations were conducted at the Music Academy.  Scholars and experts from various fields of music, dance, drama, Sanskrit, indology, history and more were invited to present serious research papers. Sanjay wielded his mastery on these subjects with his expert comments. Hundreds of Rasikas turned up for these. In the last decade, one didn’t see another ‘Sangita Kalanidhi Designate’ speak so eloquently as Sanjay did. On the first of January this year, in a glittering award ceremony, Sanjay received the title of ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ from the Madras Music Academy. Young mathematical genius Prof Manjul Bharghava from Princeton University gave away this award.

The Academy never had a separate dance festival until a decade ago. Dance was a part of the larger music festival. Several legends like T Balasaraswathi, Yamini Krishnamurthy and others danced in this festival. In fact, Balasaraswathi is the only dancer to be honoured with the ‘SangitaKalanidhi’ award as she was also an excellent singer. The Music Academy’s dance festival is in its tenth year. For the last five years, they have instituted an award. The ‘Natya Kala Acharya’ award has now grown to be the most prestigious of all awards in the dance world. The older recipients of the same award are veteran dancers like Padma Subramanyam, Sudharani Raghupati and Chitra Vishweswaran. Last year the award was given to Leela Samson. This year the Academy honoured the one and only Alarmel Valli with the same award.

Alarmel Valli is iconic. In this day and age, you cannot talk about Bharatanatyam without mentioning her name.  She epitomizes the best of whatever you want to see in this classical dance form. Born on September 5, 1956, to Uma and Muthukumaraswamy, Valli hailed from an affluent family. Her exposure to dance began when she was bowled over by the performance of Balasaraswathi at the Academy. Soon she began training in dance.  With intensive mentoring in the Pandanallur tradition of the dance form from veteran masters like Pandanallur Chokkalingam Pillai and later his son Subbaraya Pillai, Valli was an early bloomer. At the age of ten, she debuted in the Madras Music Academy in the Margazhi season. In that era, all dancers had to learning music as well. She took her musical training from the legendary T Mukta.


Valli receives Natya Kala Acharya Award

In 2004, she was awarded the ‘Padma Bhushan’, by the President of India. In the same year, the Government of France conferred on her the Chevalier of Arts and Lettres. Amongst numerous awards received, are ‘Padmashri’, the Tamil Nadu State Government award of Kalaimamani, the ‘Grande Medaille de la Ville de Paris’ from the City of Paris and the Award of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademy. In 2004, The Films Division of India commissioned a film on Valli for the Indian National Archives called ‘Pravahi’, directed by Arun Khopkar. The BBC also made a film on her. In 2012, 'LasyaKavya - The World of AlarmélValli', a film on her by Sankalp Meshram, won the National Award for Best Film on Art and Culture. You can watch the official trailer of the award-winning documentary here :

Valli’s contribution to Bharatanatyam is multifold. She is the international face of the dance form today. She epitomizes the grace and grandeur of the style. Her in-depth research into Tamil Sangam poetry increased the existing repertoire of the dance form.

Both the Academy’s awardees this year have been and continue to be great inspiration to the younger generation of artistes. In Carnatic music, Sanjay is an excellent example for the younger generation of artistes, especially those who hesitate to give up a professional job and take to music full time. He has proved that it is possible to make an excellent career out of pursuing your passion. Valli has proved that if you choose dance as a career, there is a whole wide world out there to receive you, if you are hardworking and aim for nothing but perfection. Hope both of them continue to inspire many generations of artistes to come!

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at

Images courtesy : Madras Music Academy , Krishnamurthy 

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