After posing for a few publicity photos in front of a monogrammed backdrop, Saxophone Subbalaxmi cleans her instrument of choice and puts it carefully away in a black leather case. She then settles down in a chair in the airy, beige-and-glass filled speakers’ lounge of the We the Women conference at the Lalit Ashok Hotel in Bengaluru, adjusting her bright green silk saree with practised ease. Jewellery winking at her neck, waist and fingers in the sunlight that filters into the room, she smooths her long braid as her husband – whom she describes as her biggest fan – settles down on the couch opposite.
After her hugely well-received opening saxophone performance at the event carrying on in the hall next door, she responds to questions with careful thought, unwavering good cheer and minimum fuss.
“It’s been a long journey for me, I started music at 5. I learnt Carnatic classical vocals. Later on, I picked up the saxophone seriously, maybe when I was 13. I chose the saxophone after listening to my guru Padmashri Kadri Gopalnath.”
Subbalaxmi comes from a family of classical musicians, all of whom were percussion artists. While she grew up in Mangalore, her grandfather was an Asthana Vidvan mridangam player in the Royal Court of Mysore and her father, the child prodigy MR Sainath, was a staff artist for All India Radio. Her father accompanied many famous musicians, including Kadri Gopalnath, on the mridangam in various performances and it was through watching his concerts with Kadri Gopalnath that Subbalaxmi first became entranced by the saxophone.
While she began studying classical Carnatic singing at the age of 5, she became Gopalnath’s disciple when she picked up the saxophone at age 13, and says she took it very naturally, although expertise took, of course, years of practice and, in her case, the additional energy to withstand the sexism that came her way. She narrates some of her early memories of entering what remains to this day a highly male-dominated field.
Battles against sexism
“I started at 13, directly with Kadri Gopalnath. I was the only girl in my class. There were six boys with me, at the basic level, and 10 boys at the senior level. So in total 16 boys and I was the one girl. I really remember one day, a totally hectic day, I was trying one beat, one varnam, one song, and no matter how much I tried, the fifth line was not coming up to the mark. So I was trying and trying, and my sir’s first son, Guru, was telling me, “Try, try, you can do it!”, while the other 15 boys were just laughing at me, saying that it sounds like I’m pulling my chair. It was that bad! But I kept trying. I had blisters on my lips, and they started cracking. They used to call me by my nickname, Manju, and Guru was saying, “Manju, you can do it!” I got fed up and said, “Anna, everyone is laughing at me!””
“His mother, my guru’s wife, came and said, “Whatever it is Manju, don’t give up, try!” She was the only lady there and she was a very good friend of my mum, so she said, “Why did your mama send you here? Don’t waste your time! Try, you have good energy, try, you are doing the best!” In that way, she motivated me, and finally I got it.”
Her battles against sexism and sexist attitudes towards female saxophone players didn’t end there.
She also talks of being labelled a “lady performer” and how she faced sexism throughout her career in terms of the time allotted to her performances, which, thanks to her talent and grit, ultimately culminated in her making it into the Limca Book of World Records, for, in her own words, “equal performance with male saxophone players”.
“In performances, they used to give me just a 10-minute slot because I was a lady performer, while men would be given one-and-a-half-hour slots. So while I had that competitive feeling and confidence, only if they give me a chance can I prove it for one-and-a-half hours, right?”
Her husband chimes in, “So when they used to give her a 10-minute slot, the audience used to say that was best part of the performance, and they used to ask for more and more. So they’d extend for five minutes, then ten minutes… this happened again and again and again. Back in 2011, there were no women saxophonists. Women were trying to come up, but nobody came up as a professional. Subbu and her elder sister Lavanya were the only two women who were professionally trained and who performed saxophone professionally on stage. In Chennai, in the December season in 2011, they gave her an equal slot to the men, and she performed at the same level as men: equal duration, equal quality of music, the performance, everything was noted, and they entered her in the Limca Book of Records.”
Subbalaxmi credits many women in her life, like her guru’s wife, her women neighbours and female audience members, for supporting her through her career. “There are so many other women, especially audience members, who support me a lot. Without their support, I don’t think I’ll be what I’m today. So I’m very thankful to them. And nowadays, yes, so many women are trying [saxophone]. After seeing my journey, they started learning and they’re also getting into it.”
Subbalaxmi has her own unique style and says that she follows wherever her mood and the groove take her. “I love hip hop very much, I love that kick bass, the loop, how the bass line goes, that pushes me up. Now I’m enjoying EDM also, but my all-time fav is hip hop. That’s why I like more hip hop music with my Carnatic classical, I like to mix it up.”
“A lot of people criticise my style. If I play well, they comment that I’m playing idly. If I move, they say too much movement. If I’m moving and performing, I’m moving for myself and I’m happy with that. Those who like only pure classical, they don’t agree to my music. Those who like pure hip hop music, they don’t like it also. My family also doesn’t really accept my fusion music, but I cannot stick to old traditions!” she adds.
“I’m enjoying my music and doing my thing, whether they accept seeing me like that or not, that doesn’t matter to me. If you heed to all those criticising, they’ll make you listen to so many things. So, don’t listen to any of them, enjoy yourself and do your best!” she smiles.