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Maha Guru T.H. Subash Chandran

by Akshay Anantapadmanabhan

(written for Indian Fine Arts Academy San Diego (IFAASD) 17th Indain Music & Dance Festival)

When I think of Subash mama, the first three words that come to my mind are guru, ghatam and bhakti. If I were to associate him with a divine sage, I would think of Maha Periyava (Kanchi Paramacharya) and if I were to associate him with a God, it would be Sarasvatī (Goddess of knowledge, music and art). For all who knew “Subash mama” (as we fondly call him), I think the above stanza would suffice to completely define our guru, Sri T.H. Subash Chandran.

T.H. Subash Chandran putting talam

I was first introduced to Subash mama in New Jersey by one of his prime disciples (and my then guru Dr. Venkat Natarajan). In my very first interactions with him, little did I know that he was a maha vidwan of Carnatic music, a wizard on the ghatam and an inimitable konnakol exponent. An artiste who had performed with the likes of Smt M S Subbulakshmi, Sri Madurai S. Somasundaram, Sri Dr. M Balamurali Krishna, Sri Mandolin U Srinivas and any established name in the Carnatic field. An artiste who had performed with Yehudhi Menuhin, Stephen Grapheli, renowned drummers Tony Williams, Max Roach. An artiste who received global recognition through his enthralling konnakol and ghatam performances at prestigious venues and stages that only a select few artistes have experienced. Stages such as the United Nations and along with the NY Philharmonic with conductor Mr Zubin Mehta, Norwegian Philharmonic, USSR Philharmonic, Oslo Philharmonic along with renowned violinist Dr L Subramaniam. There may be a handful of artistes then and now who can match this type of experience and aura. And yet, he sat there and was just a jovial grandfather figure to me when we first met. 

Subash mama drew me to the art one step at a time and shared his love for music through his appreciation of music. The frequent  ‘bale’ and ‘sabash’ that I thought were just things he said during classes, were actually him appreciating the potential or possibility of that one note in his head. When Subash mama listened to music, whether it was that of a legend or that of a student he actually morphs into a composer and rasika combined. He would always think of what type of music would be possible from what he was listening to. So from the first time a student played for him, Subash mama was able to decipher a unique path for that student. The possibilities are beyond what anyone can imagine. A student who started to learn mridangam, has become an established kanjira artiste. A student that came to learn ghatam became an established morsing vidwan all under his vision. So not only did Subash mama know how to play the mridangam, kanjira, ghatam, morsing he could also just pick up a new instrument and rethink its technique.  He taught thousands of students and yet he taught something unique for everyone. Eventually, every student can learn something new from another student. It is hard to imagine how he had created so much content, music and art that is all multipliable. And in this lies the divinity that we experienced through a humble ‘gem’ of a person.

T.H. Subash Chandran playing ghatam

At a later stage in my learning experience with Subash mama, when I started playing for kutcheris, I had organized a workshop for him in New York city. Perhaps speaking the English language was not one of his fortes, but when it came down to communication of ideas while teaching, I was always baffled at how he did it. We had attendees who only spoke Spanish, some who only spoke English and no one who understood Tamil. He asked me to sit with him to translate to the audience but I did not need to say a word at the workshop (aside from reading his introduction). During the course of the workshop, the students could recite konnakol in tisra nadai, kanda nadai, misra nadai. Need I say more? 

Subash mama could teach any percussion instrument without even playing it. And it stemmed from his teaching style which was embedded in vocal percussive art of konnakol. In my two decades of learning mridangam from Subash mama, he has picked up the mridangam only a handful of times while teaching. I did not realize how amazing this was until I started teaching. But imagine teaching an instrument to a student without actually playing it! He would always ask me to follow his konnakol. The bhava of percussion was built inside the intonation of his voice. To a large extent, he followed this logic for his ghatam playing as well. While there is the gayaki style for melodic instruments, I think he built a similar style of percussion playing. He always told me that my playing needs to speak. And if you hear his ghatam playing, you can hear it talking (and pretty eloquently as well)! Subash mama learned from his father Sri TR Hari Hara Sharma (disciple of Tanjore Vaithiyanathan Iyer and creator of the Tanjore tradition of mridangam playing). He also learned ghatam from KM Vaidyanathan and mridangam from Palghat Ramchandra Iyer. After playing mridangam and ghatam up to a point in his career, he chose to stick to ghatam as his main instrument. Performing with the likes of Sri TK Murthy and Sri Umayalpuram Sivaraman, while being a mridangam artiste himself allowed him to absorb many styles of mridangam playing technique. With this absorption, grand musical lineage and his gayaki percussion style through konnakol, he formed a unique sound and tradition of his own, that he has passed on to so many disciples across the globe.  

T.H. Subash Chandran with his guru

A visionary and a thought leader, I would say Subash mama was really ahead of his times. To be able to command an identity as a ghatam artist, especially three or four decades ago, was rare. The only other artist who did it was his older brother, the illustrious Sri Vikku Vinayakaram mama who really dedicated his life to ghatam and made it stand out. They really set the bar in the context of taking South Indian percussion to international audiences. 

I would be amiss if i did not dwell a few lines on his bhakti for Maha Periyava. Regardless of which part of the world Subash mama was traveling in, Periyava poojai and dhyaanam were never missed. Everyone who he traveled with also got to know Periyava through his bhakti. Families that he stayed with also became followers of Periyava on their own accord (including mine). He didn’t just teach music but also became a life guru and influence for all around him. I have always asked Subash mama before taking any life changing decisions. Probably the biggest one for me was moving to India for music in 2012. In his daily penance, he connected directly with Maha Periyava and would share his thoughts based on his meditation. His stories about Periyava probably deserve an article on its own, but it's safe to say that Subash mama was always in thought and prayer of Maha Periyava.

2020 marked the end of 21 years of association with a guru who guided me through some of the most crucial aspects of my life and 2024 makes it 25, because his teachings continue to grow and find new dimensions for me. I always thought of him as a mridangam guru and family but when I look back at how he has shaped my life, I realize now that he is indeed someone beyond. All I know for certain is that if he were somehow paradoxically alive today, he would not have asked for a better way to go -- on the day of Maha Periyava Jayanthi. In most circumstances, I would think these types of moments as a coincidence but for anyone who really knew Subash mama and his unmatchable bhakthi for Maha Periyava, there was no better day for him.

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