His language of music

Violinist

His language  of music
It is an unusual medley. The relentless hammering of the carpenter, the patient tuning of the musical instruments, and the baritone voice of the man who brought Indian violin to the centre stage of global music. At Dr L Subramaniam’s home in North Bengaluru, I’m all ears as the violinist goes back in time to chat about Indian musicians’ tryst with the Western world in the 1960s-70s.


Apparently, that was the time when quite a few artistes from India went on major tours abroad and received standing ovations. “You see, the guests would have to get up for a refill,” says the Padma Shree awardee, with a poker face. Mani (as he is fondly called) senses my confusion, before going on to explain how these tours were often nothing more than a potluck dinner at some weekend get-together!

Hero worship 

“If you have to play at house concerts,” Dr Subramaniam’s father V Lakshminarayana had told him decades ago, “you can do it in India. Why go abroad?” A well-known violinist and teacher, Lakshminarayana’s dream wasto make the Indian violin a solo instrument. Traditionally played as an accompanying instrument, unlike its western counterpart, the violin was the quintessential underdog in classical Indian music.  

“Father wanted me to sing, as my elder brother Vaidyanathan (who passed way recently) used to play the violin,” recounts the musician who also learnt to play the harmonium, esraj (stringed musical instrument) and mridangam as a child. However, his heart was set on the violin, and he wanted his father to teach him. 

Born in (then) Madras, Mani spent much of his childhood in Ceylon. That’s where his training in Carnatic music began. As much as the family was musically inclined, academics were always very important. If it weren’t for his mother, Mani admits that he may very well have dropped out of college in the second year. “I got an offer to join a German violinist who was visiting Chennai. But mother was adamant that I complete college. I was pretty depressed,” confides the registered medical practitioner, who did his MBBS from Madras Medical College. 

Soon after, he was keen to do his Masters in music, but there weren’t any options in India back then. Thanks to a full scholarship at the California Institute of the Arts, Dr Subramaniam took his first step towards what turned out to be a momentous musical journey. “I completed the two-year course in nine months. But they couldn’t give me a certificate before the term was over. So, they offered me a teaching job for a year. I taught Indian music,” he explains.

With Dr Subramaniam, that has always been the case. As much as he has explored the best of Western classical music over the decades, the ace artistehas always held on to his expertise in Carnatic music. Whether it was playing with George Harrison (of the Beatles fame) at football stadiums in the US, or recording with Stephane Grappelli (renowned French jazz violinist), or even performing at the United Nations’ centenary celebrations, Mani offered the world a unique glimpse into the magic of a little-known Indian musical instrument. “That was father’s dream,” says the son who started the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival 25 years ago, in memory of his late father.

From the soul

Having played at more than 200 orchestras and written his own masterpieces, Dr Subramaniam believes that the beauty of a musical composition lies in the expression of an emotion. Many a times, though, the emotions are so overwhelming that the biggest challenge is to make peace with them. 

After his mother’s demise, for instance, Mani was too distraught to think of music. But Zubin Mehta (celebrated conductor of Western classical music) had come to India then and convinced the violinist to compose a tribute to his mother. It was called ‘Fantasy of Vedic Chants’. Years later, when his father passed away, Mani sought solace in the spiritual teachings of Sai Baba and Shankaracharya to compose ‘Beyond’, an ode to the soul that survives. For Dr Subramaniam, the most shocking blow, perhaps, was the sudden death of his wife Viji (she had brain tumour). What followed, after months of turmoil, was ‘Global Symphony’, performed at the Madison Square Garden in New York.

“Writing an orchestral piece takes four to six months. Unlike music directors (in movies), I don’t take all the credit and do 10% of the work,” quips the composer who performed his maiden piece with the Crusaders, the famed Afro-American group of the 70s.

In all his collaborations, Dr Subramaniam’s earnest endeavour has always been to bring together under one platform all the music in the world — from China, India, Africa, Israel, folk, jazz, ethnic, irrespective of the label. That’s how Global Fusion concerts were born. Because traditional music forms, though hugely popular, had never quite enjoyed the status of classical music. 
“Music has been the most satisfying thing in my life,” says the man who is currently working on a special composition to mark 70 years of India’s independence. As far as making music for movies is concerned, he has only been “accidentally involved”. From Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha and Anant Mahadevan’s Gaur Haridas, Dr Subramaniam’s violin has lent a musical expression to many complex emotions on celluloid. 

Incidentally, he met playback singer Kavita Krishnamurthy — his wife for over 17 years now — while hunting for a suitable voice for a global project. “She was different, her voice had a different dimension… She was down-to-earth, spiritual, really caring, and loved the children (from his first marriage),” shares the husband, who admits to understanding very little Hindi, given that the language was not taught in his Tamil-medium school.  

However, the one language that Dr Subramaniam wishes all children get an opportunity to learn is that of music. For this reason, the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts (SAPA) was founded about a decade ago in Bengaluru. Simple things like playing peaceful, instrumental music while driving with children can make a difference, he insists.

“But don’t make listening to music one more ‘thing to do’ for the kids,” warns the doting grandpa whose six-year-old granddaughter Mahati sings well, but refuses to sit down and take music lessons! “As a child, it’s easier to learn,” says the 69-year-old who despite having five honorary PhDs to his credit, still spends sleepless nights working on his thesis to earn his doctorate. 
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