SubraMania's Bindu and Ambi on drawing from traditional legacy and introducing their own musical innovation

In the lineup of all the artists who performed at the 2018 Jaipur Literature Festival, one of the major highlights was the experimental band SubraMania, who played on 28 January. The members of this two-piece band are singer-songwriter Bindu Subramaniam and violinist-composer Ambi Subramaniam, children of the violin maestro Dr L Subramaniam.

Bindu and Ambi Subramaniam in a concert.

Bindu (left) and Ambi Subramaniam (right) in performance

SubraMania performs contemporary world music by fusing Indian Carnatic music with elements of pop, rock and jazz. Over the years, the band has performed at coveted concert halls, festival and major college events in India, the US, and across Europe, in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands.

They have collaborated with Grammy award-winning artists like Hubert Laws and Ernie Watts, tuba virtuoso Oystein Baadsvik, blues harmonica legend Corky Siegel, and flamenco guitarist Carlos Blanco. Here in India, their collaborations with Indi-pop legend Lesle Lewis and the late Bollywood music director Aadesh Srivastav — for his Global Sounds of Peace project — have been significant milestones in their journey.

This was their first time performing at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Ambi and Bindu spoke to Firstpost about this performance, how they prepare and what it is to be the children of a legend.

On performing at JLF 2018

Ambi: It's interesting for us, we are trying a different set. Typically, our shows can get a bit heavy in their arrangements, so we include the drums, bass and guitar, in them. At JLF, the idea was to play some classical music. We wanted to adapt to that environments. With Frijo Francis on piano and Karthik Mani on percussions, we wanted to use different sounds, tonality and pieces.
All of our songs have different elements. For example, one of our songs has a Spanish flamenco element, some have Hungarian gypsy elements, some have rhythm elements. We will try to use all of that, with a classical base that ties everything together. Essentially, what we do is more Carnatic classical, but we do use some elements of Hindustani as well. Our understanding of the additional elements we use is very superficial, I must admit. We have a better grasp of Carnatic music.

Bindu: We are using a setup similar to a quartet, which means more focus on drums and percussions. Essentially, what we play is contemporary world music. At JLF we will be bringing in different flavours but the overall feel will be soft and intimate, which is what we would do at a college fest or any other youth concert. We've also taken this decision keeping in the fact that it is a literary fest taking place in the beautiful city of Jaipur.

On preparing for concerts at venues like JLF

Ambi: I have played in Jaipur a couple of times before, so we had an idea of how the audience would be. I think the challenge lies in customising according to the audience and at the same time maintaining the integrity of what you want to perform.

In that respect, we are very lucky to work with very versatile musicians. We play at festivals like NH7 Weekender, where the audience is very young and venues are open-air. We also have to play at beautiful world music venues in countries like Spain which have great accoustics. This is where you have to show your versatility as a musician. You have to read the space, your improvisation changes automatically. I think a lot of good performing comes from listening to and absorbing the environment you are in. If you are able to do that, your music will work in any space.

On customising their performance based on where they play

Ambi: There's a very delicate balance that we have to maintain as musicians. On the one hand, customisation is important — every place has a different audience, so there are a couple of things that we modify or improvise. Generally, a lot of our music is improvised, hence it makes it easier for us. You can always feel the audience and proceed in whatever direction you want to go. At the same time, you don't want to change too much because you are playing your sound. If you change too much for every show, then what is your song exactly? What is your sound? Then you lose perspective there. Therefore, I think there’s a fine line to toe.

Bindu: I think it is really important to connect with the audience and know where that audience is coming from in terms of what they are looking for and what they expect. The audience that we have played for so far has been open-minded and I do find that there is a point in saying that language transcends barriers. Because when we perform in Russia in Sanskrit and English, we realise that there is no difference if we sing in Sanskrit or English, because they don’t understand either, and yet, they understand both. You announce that you have a translator standing next to you, and the moment you start singing, that translator is gone — this is when the difference becomes noticeable. So, it becomes really important to communicate with your audience without focusing so much on which language you are singing in. That is the focus of my preparation — the idea that I I must connect with the audience at a basic level, whether or not I am using words.

SubraMania - The Band

SubraMania - The Band

On the difference between Indian audiences and listeners abroad

Bindu: I find a difference in the Indian audience in India and people of Indian origin outside, but not so much in the general audience abroad. The general audience abroad comprises of those who are interested in jazz and world music, and they are fairly open-minded, open to exploring different things. When you have people of Indian origin in the audience, they probably know what to expect, they may be more knowledgeable in terms of the form.

Also, what we do in the SubraMania concerts is not strictly classical music, but our interpretation of classical elements. What we find is that they [NRI audience] feel that [classical music] represents their identity. In our generation, as compared to our parents', it doesn't matter where we were born. Our generation is globalised, we are all multiple things, we are all many identities. We are constantly trying, in urban India, to reconcile the identity associated with sitting with grandma and eating curd rice and then going out with friends to a mall and eating pizza. We have compartmentalised identities. We [as SubraMania] use our music to bring all of this together. So when Ambi or I do something classical, we also have world rhythms and the electric guitar. We don't go in with the assumption that there are classical music aficionados in the audience. We often find the audience to be open-minded and we have observed that they connect at a level where the music resonates with them.

On how women are treated in the industry

Bindu: The issue of gender is something Ambi and I consider important and engage with, even when we are not performing. We find it is really important to be supportive. So when we do our teacher training programmes in our academy, we ensure that we have as many women music teachers as men. We try to bring in some sort of equality that way. I think in music, there’s always been this 'diva fixation' where you have divas, they have their roles, their positions, and I think that is very empowering. Women have therefore struggled less in the music industry that they have in corporate boardrooms, in my opinion. There have always been great women artists, we may not have been given the best treatment, we may not have gotten paid that much, but there have always been women in the field of music.

On the pressure of being the children of music legend Dr L Subramaniam

Bindu: It is terrifying to be the child of a genius. Taking his powerful legacy forward is a responsibility, there's no doubt about it. The good part is you always have someone you can bounce off your ideas on, and that allows for growth. We are very lucky that our parents have allowed us to pursue things that are very different from what they have pursued. So yes, there are 'Oh my God, am I going to be good enough?' moments but also moments when I go, 'Okay, I will make it on my own.' We understand we come from a traditional legacy, but we are not bound or chained by it.


Updated Date: Feb 08, 2018 15:57 PM

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