L Subramaniam- The doctor who became the international face of Carnatic violin

He collaborated with musical greats like Stephen Grappelli, Larry Corryell, Mark O’Connor and Jean Luc Ponty.
L Subramaniam- The doctor who became the international face of Carnatic violin
L Subramaniam- The doctor who became the international face of Carnatic violin
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Carnatic music, world over, has seen several groups of brothers and sisters performing on the stage in the last couple of decades. Be it vocalists or instrumentalists, several of them are popular. But before all of this began, the real pioneers of this trend happened in the 1970s. Three brothers began performing under the title of “Violin Trio”. The Trio comprised of L Vaidyanathan, L Subramaniam and L Shankar. Together they stormed the citadels of Carnatic music before venturing out to become soloists of great merit. This is the story of L Subramaniam, whose music continues to mesmerise the world.

The trio of L Vaidyanathan, L Subramaniam and L Shankar with Palghat Mani Iyer on Mridangam

L Subramaniam was born to Prof V Lakshminarayana Iyer and Seethalakshmi on July 23, 1947. He was the fifth of six children. His father was a renowned Carnatic violinist and his mother was a vocalist and a Veena player. Lakshminarayana Iyer belonged to a family of musicians who had descended from a long musical lineage of the traditional Guru-Shishya Parampara which went back to four of the most important composers and musicians of Carnatic music- the trinity of Tyagaraja, Syama Sastry, Muthuswamy Deekshitar and Narayana Theertha. Lakshminaraya himself played a seminal role in spreading Carnatic music outside India. But that is a longer story for another time.

Having inherited the richness of such great music, it was but natural that he would pass it on to his sons. Subramaniam began training at a very early age. Till he was five years old, the family lived in Jaffna in Sri Lanka where his father was teaching in a music college.

L Subramaniam in a jugalbandi with Amjad Ali Khan

In 1956, the anti-Tamil pogrom started in Jaffna and riots broke out. They got aggravated with Tamils being targeted over the next two years and in 1958, the family had to flee, leaving everything behind and restarting life afresh in India.

In a later interview, he said how they had nothing with them except the clothes they were wearing and their violins.  However, amidst all this chaos, music didn’t stop. The father was a strict taskmaster and made sure that Subramaniam make his official debut at the age of six.

After moving to Madras, the family was a part of the rich music scene of that era. With legendary singers like Ramnad Krishnan, among others, as an uncle, Subramaniam grew up listening to some of the greats of Carnatic music. He also began accompanying some of the great stalwarts of that era. Meanwhile he finished his schooling and enrolled in the Madras Medical College as a student of MBBS. He became a qualified medical doctor, but gave up this profession to take to his first love; music.

It was a big financial risk that no one from a struggling middle class family in south India would be willing to take even today.

Until then, Carnatic violin was only played as a solo instrument or as an accompanying instrument in a vocal concert. For the first time Lakshminarayana risked an innovation that was to become a great success. He orchestrated his three sons to form a trio and perform traditional Carnatic music. While many purists and conservationists of that era shunned this idea and attempt, several others recognized the talented brothers and took a liking to them. The Trio made history in 20th century Carnatic music.

L Subramaniam accompanying Semmangudi and Palghat Mani Iyer

Soon the three brothers ventured out to make individual careers. L Vaidyanathan became a music director and composer for films. L Shankar became a part of the famous group Shakthi. Subramaniam was probably the only one to have a truly international track record when it came to spreading his music. Tracking each of their journeys would make for another interesting story. As an accompanying violinist, Subramaniam accompanied all the stars of Carnatic music like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Sripada Pinakapani, K V Narayanaswamy, M D Ramanathan and M Balamuralikrishna.

In 1974, Pt Ravi Shankar and George Harrisson produced a seminal album ‘Ravi Shankar and Friends’ which toured the world and performed extensively. Amidst a glittering selection of classical musicians, L Subramaniam was the face of the Carnatic violin. The album became a huge hit with music lovers across the world. Meanwhile Subramaniam married Vijayashree, the daughter of singer Lakshmi Shankar.

L Subramaniam with Viji

Viji, as she was known in the music circles, was a musician in her own right. Blessed with a melodious voice and a graceful presence, Viji had graduated in French, was fluent in over a dozen languages, and trained in classical music. She was a regular announcer on the AIR and DD. She lent her voice to several films like “Salaam Bombay” and “Mississippi Masala”. She had a Masters in world music from the California Institute of Arts. She had produced several albums under their own label “Viji Records”.

They even wrote an excellent book on music together titled “Euphony”, the foreword of which was written by Yehudi Menuhin. Subramaniam and Viji’s children were Nirajnani, Narayana, Bindu and Ambi. Viji was also one of the founders of the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival (LGMF). Over the years this has come about to be one of the most significant festivals of global music.

Lord Yehudi Menuhin was one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. When he visited India, he toured across the country listening to every possible violinist and musician he could. The only two people he seemed to be highly impressed with and found them worthy of recording were Pt Ravi Shankar and L Subramaniam. He recorded separate albums with them. This was yet another historic occasion in Indian classical music. You can listen to a short clipping of the collaboration between Subramaniam and Menuhin here.

The other significant collaborations were with musical greats like Stephen Grappelli, Larry Corryell, Mark O’Connor and Jean Luc Ponty. While all these were giving him an international name, the criticism from the traditionalists of Indian Classical music was that he had forgotten his musical roots.

He had, by no means, forgotten any of it. His jugalbandis with both Hindustani and Carnatic stalwarts is a witness to that. Be it an Ali Akbar Khan, Amjad Ali Khan, V G Jog, Rais Khan and Bismillah Khan in Hindustani or Flute Mali in Carnatic, Subramaniam never detached himself from the pure classicism of the music he grew up learning.

L Subramaniam with Pt Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and friends 

When it came to the traditional concerts, he kept his music intact and when it came to his collaborations with individual western musicians or big scale orchestras, he contributed his worth keeping a fine balance.

In his personal life, he was facing a trauma. His wife, long-term partner, collaborator and best friend Viji was diagnosed with cancer. Viji passed away in February 1995 leaving behind an emotionally broken Subramaniam and their children. The gods probably could not bear to see this genius musician sink into his anguish and loss. Soon he was blessed with another life-partner. Playback singer Kavita Krishnamurthy and Subramaniam got married in 1999.

L Subramaniam with Kavita Krishnamurthy

They have been conducting the LGMF successfully since 1992, presenting musical collaborations over the years. The festival has been held in forty-nine cities in twenty countries across five continents till date. Subramaniam has been decorated with several awards and recognitions. Among the more popular ones are the Padma Shri in 1998, Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1990, and Padma Bhushan in 2001. It is not possible to condense Subramaniam’s musical achievements in one article. The Governor of Madras gave him the title of “Violin Chakravarthy” in 1972 and the western press called him the “Paganini of Indian violin”.

Today Subramaniam, Kavita, Bindu and Ambi travel around the world and make music together. What healing he did not do as a doctor, he is doing with his music now. This weekend as he celebrates his birthday, we wish him many more years of good health and great music!

(Images courtesy – Krishnamurthy, Selva Kumar, Nitin)

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

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