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Home Personality Interviews Dr.L.Subramaniam - The Paganini of Indian Classical music

Dr.L.Subramaniam - The Paganini of Indian Classical music

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“Music is a vast ocean and no one can claim to know it all. The more you know, the more you realise how little you know. It is an eternal quest.”
--- Dr.L.Subramaniam


“I find nothing more inspiring than the music making of my very great colleague Subramaniam. Each time I listen to him, I am carried away in wonderment,” said Lord Yehudi Menuhin.

“In the West, I have heard only one other music which is as meditative, serene, powerful and yet equally joyful – that of Johann Sebastian Bach” says a leading critic of Subramaniam.

Subramaniam, India’s violin icon, “The Paganini of Indian Classical music”, “the God of Indian Violin” is the serenity of an Indian musician combined with the magnetism of a western “star”. Constantly propelled from Singapore to Paris, from Delhi to Los Angeles, he has conquered every audience with the elegance and virtuosity of his style. His career as a childhood prodigy brought him into contact with the greatest musicians and he soon imposed himself as a master of the violin. At a very young age, he was honoured with the title “Violin Chakravarthy” (emperor of the violin). No other musician can boast of such diverse repertoire and collaborations, or even such mind-boggling techniques. Till date, Dr. Subramaniam has produced, performed, collaborated, conducted and released over 150 recordings. 

Dr. L. Subramaniam is the only musician who has performed/recorded Carnatic Classical Music, Western Classical Music, both Orchestral and non-Orchestral, and also composed for and conducted major Orchestras, collaborated with a wide range of some of the greatest musicians, from different genres of music including jazz, occidental, jugalbandis with North Indian musicians, world music and global fusion. He has established himself as a force that is strongly Indian, but universal in nature and approach.

Passionate about music, Subramaniam was also dedicated to Science. He studied medicine, finishing his M.B.B.S at Madras Medical College and registered as a General Practitioner. Subsequently he did his Master’s Degree in Western Classical Music in California and he finally decided to dedicate his life to music. From then on, his artistic activity was to spread in many directions. No one else is as qualified as Dr. L. Subramaniam to experiment with new concepts and different ideas because of his stable foundation in Carnatic Classical, Western Music, Orchestration and rhythm. He is the creator of the Global Music concept.

Attracted by his unusual musical phrasing, several western musicians wanted to play with him. He willingly lent himself to these exchanges, which represented for him a no-man’s land, which allowed him to explore the field of improvisation. In this atmosphere of live exchanges, the musical differences and similarities became obvious to him and from then on they organised themselves brilliantly. Since 1973, Subramaniam has made historic collaborations and recordings with people like Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Steven Seagal, Ruggiero Ricci, Arve Tellefsen, Herbie Hancock, Joe Sample, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Al Jarreau, Jean Luc Ponty, Earl Klugh, Larry Corryel, Corky Seagal , Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, John Surman, Maynard Ferguson and Ravi Coltrane.

Today, he is the founder/director of the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival, the biggest global music festival in India, in which this spirit of encounter, which he has always enjoyed, is strongly expressed. The Festival has brought some of the greatest artists from around the globe together on one stage. It is held annually, primarily in India, but has also been held in different parts of the world.

Not only is he the most outstanding Indian Classical Violinist, but also an exceptional composer who has established himself as the foremost Indian composer in the realm of orchestral composition. In 1983, he crossed other frontiers, that of western classical tradition. “The Double Concerto for violin and flute” combines western scales and micro intervals. “Spring – Rhapsody” is a homage to Bach and Baroque music. Over the years he has written and created works for the worlds greatest orchestras The New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta (“Fantasy on Vedic Chants”), the Swiss Romande Orchestra (“Turbulence”); The Kirov Ballet (“Shanti Priya”) The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (“The Concerto for Two Violins”); The Berlin Opera (Global Symphony), the live concert of which was broadcast simultaneously over 28 nations for millions of people. His latest orchestral composition is entitled ‘Astral Symphony’ for full symphony orchestra and soloists from different musical traditions, once again emphasizing the concept of Global Fusion.

This living legend's concerts are truly marvelous landmarks, which are a real inspiration to the audience. The album, “Conversations” and his orchestral composition “Fantasy on Vedic Chants” have become milestones and serves as a reference and guide for any composer exploring the concept of fusion. One can hardly believe that such technique and emotive playing can exist.

He is one of the very few men who need no introduction at all. Known the world over for his music, he is as humble as can be. Getting an opportunity to meet him is in itself a great experience, sitting and speaking to him for a long time is yet another that I cannot put in words. He was in town for the Laxminarayana Global Music Festival.  “Should I order some tea or coffee for you”, he asked. When I replied in the negative, he asked again “Are you sure, you don’t want any?” Goes on to show that he is as down-to-earth as you and me, inspite of his greatness world over.

In conversation with the Great Master himself:
Going back in time, in spite of being a medical practitioner, what made you give it up and get into music; ‘taking the risk’ like how many term it?
Partly because of my father. He was a very great violinist. My mother was a great inspiration. She was a singer and used to play the veena. All along, from our younger days we were involved in music. When I was in my second year of medicine, my father asked me to play for a German musician. He asked my father to send me along with him and told him that I had great potential and in two or three years time would get international recognition. So my father said okay and I was fine with it too. In those days violin was an accompanying instrument and not such a powerful solo one. When we came home, my mother said ‘Nothing doing, you will have to complete your medicine’. It was because if things did not work out, then there would be my education. So that made my father and me sad, but later on I realized how wise it was. Because if I would dropped everything and gone to Germany and played music, I would have played Western music and not Indian music. So I then decided that once I complete my medicine I would study Western music and composition and create international recognition for the violin, which was my father’s dream. So I waited, completed and even worked for some time. Then I immediately got two scholarships from the US to do my master’s in music. I was trying to get a music degree in India but it did not work out. I went to Madras University and they told me to go to Annamalai University, get a diploma and then come. So I said that ‘I spent six-and-a-half years getting a medical degree and if I spend another six or seven years for my music degree, then I did not want to do it.

What has been the source of inspiration for you, to create such masterpieces, time and time again.
Many times, some event in the family leaves an impact. Zubin Mehta asked me to do a composition for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and it was the time my mother had passed away and I was in a stage of depression. My father said ‘all along you’ve made people happy with your music, why do you want to quit now.’ So with that, I wrote the ‘Fantasy of Vedic chants’ for my mother. For my father I wrote about the concept of reincarnation about the body and soul. I love water and I like going to Norway or Kerala, and get inspired by the mountains and water. I wrote ‘Global Symphony’ for Viji when she passed away, which was a whole concept of music started by us to create a new genre of global music. Before that it was just jazz, rock. Many times a strong emotional perspective makes you express.

With the Indian Philharmonic Orchestra coming to India for the first time, what can the crowds expect, since they come from such different diversities.
The concept of creating an Indian Philharmonic Orchestra has been on my mind for some time, to not only play Western music but also global music, which is a totally new genre. There are a lot of orchestras that play Western and other compositions but there is not a single orchestra that can play music with an Indian flavor or any other combination of different cultures to create an understanding  between human race and peace. We want different compositions to be played by our orchestra to spread the global fusion concept. For that we wanted to create an orchestra, so Dr. Michael Koehler from Germany and me started this orchestra and slowly add Indian musicians, we have some Indian musicians now, and add more and more Indian musicians every year so that it will be a regular thing in India and travel from place to place. Last year, we played with the German orchestra and in Bombay we had a sold-out crowd. Last year when I played ‘Visions of India’, the concept, which has different styles of singers at Chowmohalla Palace, it was completely full. Audience has been very open and I have great trust in me and I am very happy about it. This orchestra will be a regular thing in India and when we played in Bangalore last year, we had a tremendous audience.

According to you, how has music’s perception changed. A couple of decades ago, it was either Carnatic  or Hindustani or Bollywood music.
India is very very rich in culture and we have different genres of music within India; South Indian, Hindustani, traditional ghazals, Bollywood is very very strong and has always been very strong and then we also have the spiritual singing i.e. bhajans and folk singing. So pockets of audience would prefer different genres of music. But lately due to television, CD recordings, opportunities to listen to concerts different people have started attending different kinds of concerts. If not earlier if saw a classical concert, you would see a set number of people there who would go only for classical music. But now you see young people at fusion and classical concerts. Last time, at the ‘Visions of India’ concert, I saw people who I had not seen before. The opening of minds and opening of ears has happened in the last two or three decades, especially in the last decade. The same audience is open to going to different concerts and if they enjoy then they keep going. That has changed the whole scenario. People are willing to do more novel, creative and innovative things. So, if somebody wants to experiment then they would think if people would like it or not. But now that doesn’t exist anymore.

Do you see any one sole reason for that?
Partly because of the generation and partly because more artists are coming into the field. During the 70’s and 80’s, you would see one person playing for years together and after 10 or 15 years, he would establish himself. Nowadays, because of media, overnight people become known. Someone who has been around for just two months, comes on television at the right time is sometimes known more than someone who is around for 10 years. So, media has played a major role but at the same time in the long run, who succeeds is the one who has been around.

In the current fusion music scenario, with so much happening in the name of fusion, do you thing it is going for the better or worse?
For some of the artists, fusion has become escapism. Before you had someone with strong established roots and they did experiments with other artists of similar stature or artistry to collaborate and create something. Sometimes it succeeded and sometimes it was an experiment that was not successful. Now what has happened is, instead of people waiting and establishing themselves, they want to try anything, which clicks. So artists start their career with fusion, which cannot be imagined twenty years back. I was trying to study when I wrote Global Fusion and I studied the Iranian santoor, African drumming, Chinese instruments, Korean instruments before writing the piece. Because I studied composition and have my Masters in Composition we have a scientific way to approach things. We have to study and understand the instrumentation. You don’t just play something where the beginning and ending are different and in between everything goes haywire. People who have listened to classical all these years will judge them totally differently. Whereas, if you go to fusion, you play rhythmically and the youngsters like it; it is a much easier path for people and that is one of the reason.

At your academy, Subramaniam Academy of Fine Arts, do you see any particular drive in them or are they pushed in by their parents?
When a young person comes, there is no way to tell if their parents are forcing them to come. But when a grown up person comes, a teenager, and says ‘I want to learn’ then I know that this person really wants to learn. If he is there with a parent then I know that it is because they want him/her to learn. You can make them come to your class but you can’t force them to practice. Looking at some of the youngsters working with me, who have been working very hard, I know they are interested. For very young people, parents make them learn because maybe they didn’t get a chance and they became a doctor or engineer or lawyer. Becoming a musician was an alarming thing then. They might love music and go to concerts but would never think my son or daughter should become a musician unless they were from a musical family. It is changing now. You see on television how youngsters get lots of money if you win a competition. How many musicians could make that kind of money in the 60’s or 70’s even in two or three years. It would take them more than two or three years to establish themselves. Today the scenario has changed and the media has changed a lot of things.

How do you maintain being strongly Indian but universal in approach? How would you bridge the gap, if there is one?
Part of the reason is that my aim is spread Indian music through any media by doing lots of Indian classical concerts. The other side is major orchestral compositions. Every year some orchestra approaches me. I’ve tried to use the Indian roots, and I’ve an identity for these kinds of things so that anyone who listens to it can get attracted to Indian sounds, melodies and ragas. 

Having written and created music for the world’s greatest orchestra, how has it been?
It has always been a rewarding experience because there are so many orchestras in different parts of the world and I’m very very happy that I have written for the New York Philharmonic, Moscow Radio Symphony, London Philharmonic, Norwegian orchestras. Every time you work with a new orchestra you try to write something different so that it won’t be another work on a same line. Everything is a challenge. Everything is rewarding. Everything is learning. Every time you write, you learn more and more. You can’t say you know everything.

How did the thought of bringing together different schools of music come by, for the Global Music Festival?
Part of the reason was that when I was traveling in the West, when we said classical they always thought it was Western classical music. Everything else they put under one section. This is called world music. This could be Chinese, Japanese, Indian. But that was partly because of their ignorance. We are unique in a way, since we have two classical systems – Carnatic and Hindustani. So I thought that something has to be changed to make them know classical is not just
Western classical music. So, subsequently we created a genre called ‘Global Music’ which will include all types on music like Western classical, Indian classical, Indian folk; all kinds of music that has it own identity. What is music? It reflects the culture of that region and people and has its own tonality, roots, flavour and motion. This is how we started the ‘Global Music’ and then we started the global music festivals in my father’s name, which was my wife Viji’s idea after my father passed away. So this is the 19th year and we have been to 20 countries.

With your son also following in your footsteps, at times do you have any friction or is he inclined to follow in your footsteps completely?
He wants to be a violinist though he is studying. My daughter, Bindu, too wants to be a musician even though she is a lawyer. But she focuses full-time on music. Even Narayana, he is doing his medicine but he also sings and write poetry. For everybody there have their own interests and want to continue in that direction even though they study. For him specifically, he wants to be a Carnatic violinist and also play Western music and compose. He has taken the direction and is playing a lot of classical concerts on his own. So far he has been successful and I hope he continues.

Any dream that you have to achieve?
I’m trying to establish a global international center in my father’s name. Everybody should be able to come to India and gain knowledge about the different styles of music. I’ve been trying to work with different places and trying to get some land to establish a global learning center. I have not yet succeeded in getting this land. I have to build funds also for constructing this. All my friends are willing to come and teach. For an Indian, it would be a school that not just facilitates but has the talent. You can’t imagine of going to different countries to learn different things from different people. I will bring great artistes who are willing to come to give their time and coach some very talented people here. That would be the most ideal things and is one of my dreams.

Any fond memories that you could share with us?
One is when I played with Lord Yehudi Menuhin for the United Nations in New York to celebrate the 40th year of Indian Independence. It was truly a memorable one. I was also privileged to play for Satya Sai Baba’s 80th birthday.

Any message for the youngsters? As you had said ‘in this eternal quest for music’ what should the youngsters do to learn it?
They should make a decision whether they want to become the greatest musician and then go after celebrity status or if they want to after celebrity status and the expense of the learning process. Because once you become a great artist, everything will come. It might take a longer time. At the same time they might see their friends become more famous because of the media. They have to decide what they want to do. All this media hype is temporary. What kind of media was there when Tyagaraja, Beethovan, Bach were there. All these people are musically much stronger. Do they want to become a part of history or become a star, which is short-lived they have to realize that maya.

Bindu Seetaa Subramaniam
‘Haunting’ and ‘Hypnotic’ are the two words most commonly used to describe Bindu Seetaa Subramaniam’s voice. Having been dubbed a ‘third-generation prodigy Bindu’s talent was noticed and nurtured from a very young age.  Now twenty-four, this singer/songwriter has created a very original sound fusing rock and jazz elements with a background in Indian music.  Her training in Indian and western styles of music have given her a unique sound while her meaningful lyrics and angelic voice leave listeners hooked.
In conversation with Bindu:
How difficult is it for you, to carry forward such a great legacy?
Honestly, I think that the biggest advantage my brothers and I have is that we’ve been surrounded by greatness. Above and beyond that, all the musicians that we’ve met and the people that they have collaborated with have also been great. So it’s a challenge to live up to that standard but it’s inspiring because we don’t know any other standard. We try to aspire. We’ve had the opportunity to meet great musicians. I was blessed enough to be on stage with my idol. And things like been with them backstage is more than you can learn in a lifetime. Because these people when they get to a point of greatness in any field, you are not thinking. You are breathing what you are doing. My dad, I would say that a lot of his greatest pieces are scrolled on napkins or on the back of hotel keycards. It’s like you are walking and something suddenly hits you. When I try to write songs it is something similar. In that way, I think we are incredibly blessed to be around all these people. But people can get judgmental. I’m doing rock and English music and someone said ‘You are doing rock and English music and you father forgave you?’

And I replied that my parents met on George Harrison’s tour in 1974, where do you think I came from? 
But do you face any difficulties at times whether it is expectations or when you are trying out other spheres of music?
People who question, I’ve noticed, are the people who are not aware of what is happening. But after concerts while interacting with people, we’ve always been very fortunate because people have been very supportive of what we do. I think in my dad’s time, he was also pushing the boundaries and he is continuing to do that. So in a way he would be disappointed if we just copied him. It is very important that we create our own identities in terms of what we are and our own musical experiences. So it is our responsibility to carry on our heritage but also push the boundaries and create something new is what we are trying to do. For example, last month we were performing at the Hampi festival and I’ve never seen so many people in my life. They said that there were 300,000 people. For two hours we were just driving with people going towards the stage and here I was. Obviously no one knew who I was. It was an incredible experience. I went on stage after mom (Kavita Krishnamurti Subramaniam) and she is an incredible singer. I sang a song titled ‘Halo’ after her and people thought I was saying hello. But they still responded. So, in terms of audience they have been supportive.

What are your views on fusion?
In all honesty fusion is a term that has been crazily misused. When my dad started creating fusion, 40 years ago, it was about understanding the integrity of different styles of music and bringing them together which I think is very essential. You can’t just bring people together who don’t know anything and ask them to create something. If I don’t understand what the other person is doing, then it will be very difficult for me to create something long lasting. But having said that, the original basis of fusion, what he created, understanding both styles of music, working with them and finding a common ground, I think is beautiful. I think that is the future of music. Now, its what we call Global Music. And it’s about finding something that everyone has in common. It’s like how you experiment with food. Experimentation is always wonderful. People who say bad things are either afraid. The time has come for us to evolve. Even Tyagaraja or as recent as Swathi Thiruna, before him we did not have tillanas. So, there is always someone who is breaking the boundaries.

Apart from music, what are the other interests that you have?
We’ve started a company called Subramaniam Entertainment where we are trying to deal with artists’ services. This is a project that is very close to my heart. Because I feel that musicians are very incredible people who very often get exploited and it has happened across the board from the biggest to the smallest artist. So we are trying to deal with artists’ and helping artists’ not get exploited. We already have a record company called Viji Records that we have been running for 15 years now and we have the Laxminarayana Global Musical Festival. I was just thinking yesterday, dad does this festival because he loves his father, we do it because we love him but to see the others on the team with just love, it is just amazing. The 55 German artists and the conductor Dr. Michael Koehler are so excited. Kishen Rao is so helpful, none of the concerts in the city for the past 15 years would have been possible without him. I did my degree in law. But all that comes secondary to being a performer and a songwriter. I’ve just completed my degree in law and just last week I completed my master’s degree in song writing and I’m working on my LLM but all that is part-time. Because I’m working on bringing out my album by end of February 2009. The album has all songs in English. Some of them are rock, jazz, soft.

Any other interests?
I don’t watch a lot of films. I like reading a lot. We listen to all kinds of music.

Do you have any major disagreements between you and your brothers?
Actually I call us the Travelling Family Circus. I’m the one who is into pop, rock and jazz essentially Western music, since I first relate to lyrics. Since I write songs, I connect on that level. My brother after me, sings ghazals and Ambi is into Western and Indian classical. So if you were to walk through our house, you would hear so many different kinds of music coming from everybody’s room. Sometimes he does this thing, which really irritates me. If I’m singing a song, he will walk behind me and translate the same thing and sing it in a Carnatic way and for me that is really annoying. I have to give him credit for it though.

Any message for the youngsters?
I think it is very important to have a basic degree but it is also very important to follow your heart. Do what you feel is right. If you have your family’s support then it is the best and it is important to make sure that your parents are supportive of what you do. Its very important to create a structure around you to support you to do what you believe is right. Try to be the best you can be and create your own identity.

Ambi (Lakshminarayana Subramaniam)
Fondly known as Ambi by all, Lakshminarayana Subramaniam has already begun to follow in the footsteps of his father Dr. L. Subramaniam. He gave his first performance at the age of seven and has already performed in India and abroad.

In conversation with Ambi:
How difficult is it for you to carry forward such a great legacy?
It is a challenge because they always compare you to those standards but you also get a  lot of opportunities. So, you got to make the most of the opportunities that you get.

Do you have any major difficulties in pursuing your passion?
No, in fact, since we are constantly in touch with music, it gets easier than normal.

What interests and hobbies do you have?
Actually not much, since it is usually between balancing music and studies but other than that I like playing chess and cricket but I don’t get that much time to do that.

What do you want to do once you complete your studies?
Right now I’m doing my BBM but I want to take up music once I complete my studies and mainly focus on Carnatic and take other things are they come.

What do you have to say about fusion and everything that goes in the name of fusion?
Some fusion music is really good. Unless you know both types of music it won’t work. If you are talking about Western and Indian classical then you need to know both and understand it well to create fusion.

How do you manage both studies, music and your hobbies?
I guess, if your interests are in both, it just fits in.

How do you friends or so-called friends see you?
I try to be as regular and normal as possible.

How do you maintain been down-to-earth been a star yourself?
You can’t be egoistic with parents like mine. After them we are nothing. We are all normal. After I play music, I’m just another normal person.

How do you see comparisons?
So far no complaints. People have been kind and supportive. You can’t really think that I will be compared to my father. Because if you do that then, you will get lost. If I compare myself to my father then I will be disappointed even if I play 10% of what he is playing. So I just try to be the best that I can. That is the best way to go.

Any message for people of your age, who are pursuing music?
I think they should just pursue their passion because once if you are interested in something then you can do it much better. If you are not happy you cannot do it.

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