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L. Subramaniam: At Home with the Violin Maestro

The renowned composer on his collaborations, musical legacy and
Presidential patronage

Anurag Tagat Jul 27, 2017

Violin maestro Dr. L. Subramaniam.

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In the quiet, verdant Dollars Colony in north Bengaluru, violinist, composer and producer Dr. L . Subramaniam is just about making his way down to talk to us, a few days after returning from Australia. He’s already got his return trip sorted, performing at the hallowed Sydney Opera House in October. He says, “I’m premiering the Bharat Symphony [piece] there after a few other countries. Kavita is singing the main parts.”

He’s talking about his wife, the established vocalist Kavita Krishnamurthy, who constantly collaborates with him on all varieties of projects– whether it’s Carnatic songs in the form of varnams, compilations or his latest, the four-part Bharat Symphony, prepared in anticipation of India’s 71st Independence Day. Subramaniam even rues that he’s been trying to help Krishnamurthy’s own collaboration-heavy album with the likes of musicians Hariharan and Pandit Jasraj, but his schedule barely gives him time. “She’s fine about it, but she understands the amount of travel I do and the things I have. But in any case, it is in the back of my head all the time. I feel guilty now, I’m doing so many other things and the album is just sitting there,” he says.

And even though he’s got a show lined up with veteran saxophonist Ernie Watts (who features alongside ace jazz pianist Herbie Hancock on the equally long-overdue fusion album Beyond Borders) in Vancouver in July, the rest of L. Subramaniam’s year features work with orchestras from all over the world — Latvia, Chicago, London and more. He says, “I don’t enjoy traveling that much, but it’s part of the profession. You can’t select and play. I’m very happy I get to go everywhere and play.” In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, the violinist talks to us about his plans this year, his father Lakshminarayana Iyer’s goal for Carnatic violin to attain solo status and meeting Queen Elizabeth II. Excerpts:

How are the preparations for the performances of Bharat Symphony going?

In the Bharat Symphony, we start with the Vedic period, then the Mughal era and the British period. So we tried to create the tonalities of each period. We attempted the oldest Rigved — in Sanskrit, which Kavita will sing. Then, the Mughal period—the typical things like taranas with the tabla, and North Indian ragas which were introduced, drawing from Tansane and Amir Khusrau. Tansen was a disciple of Haridas, so that influence is also there. It’s very interesting to know that Haridas was also connected to Purandardasa. One has to know about the period they’re writing about — like in the British era, the violin was in a sense, reintroduced to India — there was chamber and western music influences being portrayed.

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This has been commissioned by the city of Chicago. We’re going to premiere it in Chicago’s Millennium Park — about 10,000 people will be there, it’ll be broadcasted all over the world. The city is planning everything. It’s one of the biggest things to happen to India, because another country is doing it. There’s going to be a full orchestra with about 100 people on stage — the choir, my group and Kavita’s group. One segment, we have Bindu and Ambi doing another piece. It’s one of the biggest events that’s happening.

Dr. L. Subramaniam meeting Queen Elizabeth II in March this year.

The news of Bharat Symphony was out also around the time you went to the U.K. to meet Queen Elizabeth II. What was that meeting like?

It was beautiful and wonderful. She’s 90-plus years and she was standing and greeting all the guests for such a long time. Some of us were given a badge with a red dot. At the time, I didn’t know what it was for. After she and her husband met everyone and took pictures, some of us were sent to a room and she came into that room again and spoke. I told her about 70 years of India’s independence and what we’re doing with the Bharat Symphony, playing it with the London Symphony, which is one of the world’s best orchestras at the Barbican.

Were there any times in your life when you’ve been a bit nervous about meeting any public figures?

I don’t get nervous. You know, it’s a meeting. It’s a privilege to get to meet the Queen, of course. I’ve met different Presidents in different places. Our former president Abdul Kalam ji used to invite me to stay (at Rashtrapati Bhavan), even R. Venkatraman used to invite me. One time, I’d stayed for a day. But for other people to visit you, there’s a lot of security and all — you have to give your name and you can’t just walk into Rashrapati Bhavan and say you’re meeting so and so. There are different quarters.

With Abdul Kalam, he used to take me to his rose gardens and we’d walk and talk about it. He was very fond of my music. Once, I remember he’d broken his arm, he’d canceled all his governance meetings, which was happening one day before my festival. So I assumed he was not coming. We were rehearsing and all of a sudden, all these security personnel walk in with dogs and everything. They said everything had to be taken out and brought back in through security. I said, ‘I know the President is not coming, because I read it in the newspaper’ and I was told, ‘No, sir. He wants to come’.

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The funny thing was that I was told to stay three feet away, in case by accident if I touched his shoulder. When he came, he just called me over and he was walking with me. I was hesitant to ask him to light the lamp. I said, ‘About lighting the lamp…’ He said, ‘I still have my left hand!’ It has been wonderful to be among them.

That seems to show how important your music is. You mentioned in interviews how your main aim has always been to seek out solo status for the violin – do you feel you’ve achieved that by now?

What I’ve done is basically to add little refinements, in the technology. Now there are major concert halls, which he was also dreaming of, in terms of bringing violin and Carnatic music to the mainstream. I’ve had the opportunity to perform at almost all the major concert halls all over the world.

The major thing has been orchestral music. It’s been a breakthrough. All the writings I’ve done with orchestras across the world are based on Carnatic raga. In fact, I’ve written a thesis on Raga Harmony. If you see the variety of the projects, everywhere, there’s some place for Carnatic music. That way, I’m very happy. But it’s always… once you finish that, you think of something else.

What do you think your children have picked up from you as a musician and as a music personality?

(Smiles) Time will tell. I think, for me, the foundation and direction I got from my father is what has influenced them. Ultimately, they develop based on their roots and background and knowledge.

With Bindu (daughter, vocalist) and Ambi (son, violinist), they have (world music group) SubraMania and they have the SaPa (Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts) school, they’re running it very successfully, they’re occupied with that. I’m hoping and praying that my granddaughter (the fiveyear-old Mahati) will also get into violin. She likes singing more than violin, but I hope she turns around sometime. For us, it’s something that came from my father’s generation and it was handed over to me, it should continue.

I see some of my colleagues, some of the greatest musicians, their children have nothing to do with music. One time, I asked this really great musician — I don’t want to say his name — why can’t they continue your tradition? He said, ‘No no, I don’t want them to do anything with music. Let them do something else. Whatever suffering I’ve been through is enough’. This was an extremely successful and legendary musician! Everybody — Thyagaraja, Beethoven, Mozart — have suffered, but they gave so much happiness for generations by continuing.

This interview appeared in the July 2017 issue of Rolling Stone India.

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