A fusionist and a traditionalist

Print edition : February 17, 2001

Dr. L. Subramaniam, a multi-faceted violinist, undertakes pioneering efforts to achieve the integration of various music systems while still relying on tradition.

A FUSION of music from nations as far apart as Sweden, China and Iran, and of musicians from across the globe like Jean-Pierre Rampal, Tom Roy Nielson, Sinnika Langeland, Zhang Zhulian, Herbie Hancock, Miya Masaoka, Jei Bing Chen and Christian Eggen, fol lowed by a sloka by Sri Vijayendra Saraswati, the younger acharya of the Kanchi Mutt. This is one of the collections presented in a double-album by violin maestro Dr. L. Subramaniam, from the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival he conducts annually in several world capitals. Even the traditionalists, usually sceptical about such an amalgam of music, cannot but be struck by the musicality, polymorphous talent and passion of the artist who has striven to put Carnatic music on the world map with his mult i-directional efforts.

Violinist L. Subramaniam.-V. GANESAN

A prodigy who could identify ragas even at age two, Subramaniam (now 53) started on the violin more by chance than by design. As his brothers L. Shankar (fusionist, who explored the double violin for Carnatic ragas) and L. Vaidyanathan (who has made a ma rk in film music), played the violin, his father, V. Lakshminarayana, wanted Subramaniam to become a vocalist. But an attack of diphtheria and the consequent prospect of loss of voice, made his father put him on the violin (after trying out the sarangi a nd the mridangam).

Subramaniam grew up amidst music - his mother Seethalakshmi and his two sisters were vocalists; his mother also played the harmonium and the veena. At age six he was put on stage (at a Murugan temple festival in Jaffna, where his father taught music at t he university). In his early years, Subramaniam performed with his brothers.

How did Subramaniam, from the conservative music world of Madras, turn a pioneer in the integration of various music systems? He says: "Right from the start I was introduced to all kinds of music by my father. A life without music was no life for him. He enjoyed all kinds of music. He took me to all Western music concerts. He encouraged me to read books and understand various music systems. And later, my wife Viji made me listen to many kinds of music, usually on the hours-long drives which were a part of life in the U.S."

Subramaniam studied medicine at the Madras Medical College - "my parents were keen that I should get a good education so that I need not rely on the violin for a living." Subramaniam says he almost gave up music for medicine, which would have happened bu t for some nudging from some of his well-wishers. "As a violinist I will only be a sideman," he had told Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. But the veteran was prophetic when he told him: "You will make it as a soloist."

Subramaniam, who later managed to do courses in homoeopathy and Western musical therapy also, recalls being encouraged to take up music as a full-time activity by other eminent musicians such as T.R. Mahalingam (flute) and Palghat Mani Iyer (mridangam), with whom he had performed in India and abroad.

The passion to study music - his father insisted on his understanding the theory - took Subramaniam to the U.S. after Madras University refused to allow him to do a degree in music without first obtaining a diploma. He completed his masters in Western mu sical composition from the California Institute of Arts in nine months.

His father let him stay on in the U.S. for a couple of years and "try out" on the condition that "I put the Indian violin on a par with the Western violin and innovate in a way the Western musicians would not be able to." He agreed, and made this his lif e's ambition.

Subramaniam got opportunities to perform in the U.S. with such artists as sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Two things changed his life: "Goldberg (from Germany) heard me and invited me to Germany. As I was also doing an album wi th Larry Coryell in Germany, I accepted the offer and went there and gave concerts. This was the turning point in my life. From then on I have not looked back."

Then came an offer from Richard Boch, who had done a number of recordings of great Indian artists, to do a fusion of East-West music. Subramaniam's father also encouraged him to go ahead and said, "music is music - east, west, north or south". Subramania m composed music for the saxophone, keyboard, drums, guitar and so on and Boch put them together.

L. Subramaniam with son Ambi, Kaveri Ammal, (from top left) son Raju, wife Kavitha Krishnamurthi and daughter Seetha.-N. BALAJI

That was his first fusion album and it was straightaway listed among the U.S. top ten. The press gave rave reviews. Subramaniam had arrived. He got offers from big artists, major orchestras and well-known ballet companies. From then on it has been a cons tant move up the ladder.

Attracted by his superb technical ability and unique musical phrasing, several Western musicians wanted to work with him. He willingly lent himself to these exchanges as he was "always keen to innovate and improvise".

Subramaniam has taken traditional Indian music to places where it had never been heard before. He has also performed at venues such as the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, the Royal Albert Hall, London, the Champs Elysees Theatre, Paris, and the Lincoln Centre, the Madison Square Garden and the United Nations in New York.

Since 1973, Subramaniam has collaborated and made recordings with such legends as Stephane Grapelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Herbie Hancock, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Joe Sample, Staneley Clarke, George Duke, Larry Coryell, Tony Williams and Maynard Fergusson.

An exceptional composer, Subramaniam pioneered East-West orchestral compositions. Over the years, he has written, conducted, and/or performed with the world's greatest orchestras including the New York Philharmonic (Fantasy on Vedic Chants, dedica ted to his late mother), the Swiss Romande (Turbulences), the Kirov Ballet (Shanti Priya), the Oslo Philharmonic (Concerto for Two Violins), and the Berlin Opera (Global Symphony). The European premiere of Global Music conduct ed by Subramaniam and performed by the Berlin Opera and Radio Orchestra was broadcast simultaneously across 28 nations by SFB4 Radio Multi Kulti. This got Subramaniam the "Best Composer of the Year" award from NRK P2 (radio station) of Norway, making him the first non-Westerner to win it.

Subramaniam was featured as a soloist in "All the World's Violin" in Brussels along with Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grapelli. He considers this a rare honour. Among his pioneering efforts are Reflections (Subramaniam prefers to call it Global Fus ion), a symphony which combines various elements, traditions and instruments, including some rare ones, from different parts of the world. This was premiered in Singapore, for which Subramaniam got together musicians from different parts of the world, in cluding Malaysia and China.

His Global Music, the idea of which was conceived by Subramaniam's late wife Vijayashree (daughter of Hindustani vocalist Lakshmi Shankar, who was well-trained in both the Indian classical systems), aims at reducing the dominance of Western music and bri nging out the importance of the other music systems of the world - Irish, Swedish, Danish, Chinese, African, Japanese, Iranian and so on. It is written for a 100-piece orchestra.

When his father whom he calls his guru and mentor died in 1990, Subramaniam felt music had gone out of his life. But on Vijayashree's insistence, he wrote "Beyond", a voyage into reincarnation, after talking to many people, including Sri Jayendra Saraswa ti, the Kanchi acharya, and Sai Baba. In 1991, the Contrechamps Swiss Ensemble premiered this work, which was dedicated to his father.

In 1992, Subramaniam, with Vijayashree, launched the Lakshmi-narayana Global Music Festival in memory of his father. Now an annual feature and held in various cities of the world (this year it was held in Chennai), this festival brings together eminent a rtists from around the world, including India, on the same stage. This festival has featured all-time greats like Yehudi Menuhin, Bismillah Khan, Allah Rakha, Kishan Maharaj, Arve Tellefsen, Malavika Sarukkai, Christian Eggen and many others from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the U.S., China, Japan, Cuba, Senegal, Iran and Baluchistan.

Subramaniam has played with world-renowned Western classical and jazz musicians all over the world. His multidirectional works include a traverse into the film world as well. He was adviser to Peter Brook for the sound concepts in The Mahabharata, and feature soloist for Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha and Ismail Merchant's Cotton Mary. He scored music for Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala.

"Music," says Subramaniam, "should not be constricted. It has no borders. There is nothing like pure or 'traditional music'. Todi has to be only Todi. It is important to stick to traditions but there should be constant innovation to improve techniques that would open new doors. Only then can music evolve. Tradition was always created. Innovation is the rule of the game. Was there no music before Tyagaraja? Did not Dikshithar innovate?" According to him, had there been no innovation in Carn atic music, it would have died long ago. Flexibility, artistic freedom and innovation are crucial for the survival of traditional music. Only then can it reach the masses.

Says Subramaniam: "Technically the Indian violin is very weak and the western violin highly developed. There are so many aspects - the way you hold the instrument, the pressure you apply on the various strings, the pressure you give the bow, the emotions you give for a particular note, as also the spirituality, culture and so on - that make the difference. This was a revelation to me."

If he re-invented the violin by widening its technical and expressive capabilities, he did it by relying on tradition. But today he is known more as a fusionist than a traditionalist. "This," says Subramaniam, "is in spite of the fact that I have given m any more Carnatic music concerts than fusion programmes." Fusion, he says, involves a lot of hard work.

New technology, he says, has given a boost to the spread of music. "Acoustics science, modern theatres, quality and digital recording, CDs and so on have raised awareness about music." This is important, as even the audience profile is changing - "from only the over 40s decades ago, we now get people from 6 to 90 years." This is an encouraging trend and can be attributed largely to innovation and evolution in the traditional music.

Subramaniam has over a hundred recordings including a five-volume Anthology of Indian Music for the Ocora label of Radio France. Euphony, his book on Indian classical music and traditions, with Vijayashree, is part of his efforts to spread awareness of his heritage. His albums include, From the Ashes, where Subramaniam jams with the renowned jazz guitarist Larry Coryell; Eulogy, the tribute to Vijayashree using her own voice in bits of Todi alap at the start; and T he Southern Sky, a pure Carnatic ragam-tanam-pallavi fare.

Among the several awards and honours Subramaniam has received are the Padma Bhushan this year, Padma Shree earlier and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for the "most creative artist".

Vijayashree, before her demise, inculcated in her three children a keen interest in music. Daughter Seetha has begun to perform at Global Fusion concerts with their father and playback singer Kavita Krishnamurti, whom Subramaniam married last year. The S ubramaniam family makes it a point to travel together whenever school and professional schedules permit.

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