Violin virtuoso Dr L Subramaniam on how Indian classical music took on the world stage
Dr L Subramaniam is an internationally renowned violinist and composer, who has collaborated with legendary musicians across the world.
On Saturday, 9 December, the world-renowned violinist and composer Padma Bhushan Dr L Subramaniam performed at the CITI-NCPA Aadi Anant Indian music festival held at Mumbai's iconic National Centre of Performing Arts. He was accompanied by his son and pupil Ambi Subramaniam, and the great blues harmonica maestro Corky Siegel.
There was pin-drop silence in the TATA Theatre when I entered it, a little late, on Saturday evening — except for the quintessential heavy coughing and the usual strumming and tuning of instruments, of course. Ambi (Subramaniam) was on stage and he struck up his first Kriti 'Gananathane', composed by his father in Raga Hamsadhwani.
If the 26-year-old son of the master could play such complex compositions with ease, I wondered what it would be like to listen to the "Paganani of classical music" himself, live on stage. When Dr Subramaniam arrived, Ambi had played another beautiful composition — and then the magic began. The final performance, that also featured Corky Siegel on the harmonica and Frijo Francis on the grand piano, was an orchestral arrangement of Dr Subramaniam's own composition 'Ganga'.
Snippets from rehearsals on 8 December at NCPA:
Subramaniam was born in Chennai to a family of musicians. His father Prof V Lakshminaryana and mother V Seethalakshmi were eminent musicians and musicologists. Lakshminaryana was a huge name in the field of Carnatic violin players back then in the early 1930s. Subramaniam, often called a child prodigy, credits all his feats to his father, who at a very early stage had foreseen the musical genius of his son.
"My father is one of the greatest musicians, probably the greatest in the field of violin in India. My mother used to play the veena and harmonium. So while we were growing up, it was music every day as my father was either practising or teaching my sisters and my elder brother L Vaidyanathan, who started before me. My father would teach me music in the evening; so there was music every time. He was very disciplined, very focused — like a 'karma yogi' — for him, nothing mattered but only music, that too perfectly... So when people said ‘prodigy’ and other things, it didn’t actually matter, because there were a lot of things to learn, perform and do in a short span of time," Subramaniam told Firstpost when we met with him a day before the concert.
Reminiscing over his early days, Subramaniam talks about how his father, during the regular sessions, wouldn't say a word of appreciation and would simply go to the next level, which was often harder. Subramaniam would see his father's other students take 6-7 days learn their lessons and still not get them right, but he would reproduce exactly as taught, the very next day. Considering that reticence of his father and guru, he says, "Without his help, I wouldn’t have been what I am today."
The family soon shifted to Sri Lanka where Lakshminaryana began teaching, performing and then came up with the violin trinity with his sons playing alongside which was a major hit at that time in Sri Lanka. Subramaniam recalls, "Being an accompanist himself, my father wasn't satisfied. Those days, if you played powerfully in one concert you will not be called for the next show as the main artist wouldn't want an accompanist taking all the laurels for the performance. My father wanted a change; more so, he had become a powerful violinist and hence didn’t get many accompanying opportunities. So, he took up a job in Sri Lanka and started teaching. At that time the other forms of art were really popular: Nadaswaram, Thavil being the major musical instruments, and Bharatanatyam, the popular dance form. A concert tradition of playing violin was not very popular in Sri Lanka. So he introduced the concept of violin; we started playing in all temple concerts, in addition to the major concerts. In the regular concerts, my sisters used to sing, my father used to play solo and my elder brother used to accompany him. Ultimately, I also started playing; that's how the paddhati tradition continued."
"He changed the whole concept of Indian violin, which at that time was an accompanying instrument — it was played with vocals, flute, veena and other instruments. Technically too, it wasn't highly developed as opposed to the Western classical music's violin. If you have to be a solo artist there in the West, you have to have a certain repertoire, certain specific skills – bowing techniques, left-hand techniques – that one needs to master. In the Indian tradition, when you are playing an accompanying instrument you are trying to imitate the vocalist or trying to learn the composition and fill up here and there. Hence there was no need to be a virtuoso player. That’s why people in the West thought Indian music was ethnic music, world music, but not classical.
"My father’s sole dream was to play our compositions in the way the great western violinists played. And for that, we should develop, evolve new techniques, which is not theirs but innately ours. So it should be our own original Indian technique — so complicated that it cannot be copied. He would say, 'We should also play like the virtuoso players and our music should also be recognised as 'classical' music, not ethnic or world music. Thinking about all this, back then in the 1930s — his vision was remarkable."
And this change was brought about by Dr Subramaniam as he travelled the world over, collaborating with some of the biggest names in the realm of Western classical music — Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Stéphane Grappelli, Stevie Wonder, Jean-Pierre Rampal, to name a few. Explaining that shift, Subramaniam says, "All of a sudden some of the greatest musicians – Menuhin, Grappelli, and others started listening and collaborating; they all belonged to my father’s generation. I was asked to play with orchestras, write my own music. I was asked by Lord Menuhin to play together at a United Nations’ concert in New York. So, things were changing, and they were because my father brought in. There was constant pressure, as we were competing in a field where the instrument is theirs, unlike other exotic Indian instruments which they are not aware of. They felt (or at least they believed) they knew everything of the instrument and that they had mastered it. In order to bring our music to their attention, something different had to be done."
Subramaniam, apart from the numerous musical titles, honours, degrees, also has an MBBS degree to his credit. Though he never practiced medicine, his love for science and his mother's insistence on him completing a graduation course (that too MBBS) made him finish his education in medicine. During his four years of MBBS, there were instances when he was lured into the world of professional music by many greats, but his mother maintained her stand, and today he couldn't be less thankful to her, as it only opened other doors for him in the future.
When asked about his father's "technique" that suddenly was taking the world over by storm, Subramaniam revealed the element of magic was the "expression of tone" that his father worked on and brought into the Carnatic violin. He explains, "The basic thing is you have to bring life to any note that you are playing; it will not only change you but also change the listener's tone — that is the biggest truth in music. You can be technically perfect, you can know thousands of compositions, but if you don't bring life to a single note then you are playing dead music. That had a huge influence on me. So, we worked on it — the tonality, the right-hand control, adding that extra dimension to the note using techniques that were our own – putting pressure on the bow in a certain way so that it adds depth to the note, or using the left finger to exert pressure on the strings. In addition to that, there’s an inner voive that guides you — what notes to play, how to play, how to approach a note and how to get out of that note."
Subramaniam's international projects have been extremely successful in their own right, but at the same time, he brought Carnatic classical music onto the world stage with his concept of Global Fusion, which allows music from across the world to synergise and prosper. He has written and created works for the world’s greatest orchestras The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, the Swiss Romande Orchestra, The Kirov Ballet, The Berlin Opera, to name a few.
Explaining that musical merger with the western world, Subramaniam says, "We have a microtonal approach, we don’t follow tempered scale approach like in western music. We collaborated with the Western stalwarts, not because of the Carnatic music. They don’t need any Carnatic music; they have their own classical music. In the West, when people learned Western classical music, they wouldn’t listen to any other school of music, leave alone Carnatic which in itself is so vast for them to grasp and comprehend. But these people collaborating with us was a turning point. We wanted to get our music to the global platform."
Subramaniam is considered the first among Indians to introduce the concept of jugalbandi between Hindustani classical and Carnatic music. He created this now-immensely-popular duet with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in the US. In his career, he has worked with the biggest of the biggest names from Indian classical music (Hindustani and Carnatic) as well as Western classical music. He demystifies the whole notion of highbrow perspective associated with the classical music and explains how a concert is a collaborative effort and each accompanist has immense value to the whole show. "Whenever you are performing with anybody, everyone has to give their best. You have to figure out a space for this; after all, it is a joint venture. Even if a thambura player is out of tune, the whole show will be spoilt. Even that thambura playing in tune is also an expression. You have to understand their boundaries, limits, plus points and then collaborate to bring up something new. Everybody should be heard, and everyone should show their best —irrespective of gender, caste, creed etc," he continues, "There are seven notes, what we do is basic permutation and combination. Diversity opens possibilities. If you keep the music exclusive, people will get bored as that will only bring in repetition and redundancy. With diverse players, from diverse backgrounds, the music gets a different perspective; that adds something."
Subramaniam, whose other passion is photography, is often busy writing compositions, books, recording albums, shooting for videos and travelling around the globe on his numerous concerts. He is hopeful of the next generation taking Indian classical music to greater heights and wants his father's legacy to continue. As for budding musicians, he advises: "There are two types of musicians — the most popular and the greatest. Aim for the latter, because if you strive for greatness, popularity will follow. But the other way round is seldom possible."
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