Ambi Subramaniam says his second album "Just Playing" is all about stripping classical music down to its fundamental emotional core.

Raagas for the untrained ear A violinists experiments with Carnatic music
Features Music Saturday, November 19, 2016 - 17:43

He might come from a venerable musical family, but for classical violinist Ambi Subramaniam, son of violin maestro L Subramaniam, it’s catching the untrained ear that’s most important.  

 “Sometimes, a lot of us playing Carnatic music can be guilty of trying to overcomplicate things. I think it’s because, when you are doing something hard, you want everyone to know that it’s hard,” he explains. But with his recently released second classical album, “Just Playing”, Ambiwas determined to break away from this mindset, which he says often keeps people away from classical music. 

In his many performances, in India and abroad, he says, he has often played to audiences where only a small minority understand the nuances of Carnatic classical music. This has often meant having to rethink what he aims to do with his playing. “The music should be emotional enough that it speaks to someone who has never been exposed to it. I think the idea of this album was to strip it down to those most basic elements.” 

Ambi straddles the worlds of classical music in his solo career and of world music with the band Subramania, which he formed together with sister, Bindu. Coming to his audiences from across genres, it’s the emotional connection the music makes that drives his playing. “Then you’re not saying that today this or that element was not OK, but they will appreciate that I played that raaga.” Bereft of such crutches, he says, the focus shifts to the most important fundamentals of the music. “If you focus on how good your tone is, how well pitched you are, rhythmically how steady you are, I think those aspects are the most basic but they make the biggest difference.”

Of course, whenever classical musicians talk about such ideas of simplifying the music, there is the inevitable fear that important traditions are heading towards dilution. But, says Ambi, the point of Carnatic music is that it is completely improvised, and hence provides (or should provide) limitless freedom within the basic melodic and rhythmic structure of the raaga and the taala. 

“In a way, as my dad always says, tradition is what was done 50 years ago.” Look at masters like Thyagaraja or Muthuswamy Dikshitar or other great composers, he says, “They did what they thought was great at the time, and they were pioneers. And that has become tradition. No one told them at that time, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s not tradition.’ If there is something meaningful that comes out from innovation, then that will eventually become tradition.”

And none of the thrust towards simplification and innovation means evading the need for rigorous discipline. That strong work ethic towards his music, says Ambi, comes from his formative years, and the grounded approach his parents had to their own and his musical practice. “I would see Appa practicing at home all the time. Sometimes also you see musicians onstage but you don’t realise the hard work that goes behind the scenes,” says Ambi.

Add to that the exposure that came from the various musicians his father collaborated with, and Ambi’s benchmarks were set very high very early on. And there was the practice his parents instilled in him early on, of deconstructing every performance, irrespective of how successful it had been, for areas of improvement. Together, says Ambi, all of these instilled a self-critical attitude that still lets him receive praise and criticism in a grounded way. 

In his own work as a music educator running the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts in Bengaluru, it’s this vision that guides him. To that end, among its various initiatives, the academy also produces a television show called The SaPa Show on Sri Sankara TV, which is conceived as the anti-thesis of the typical musical reality show. “A lot of times you see these eight-year-olds or nine-year-olds win an all-India competition or whatever. One year they’re on top. And the next year the next person comes and then nobody wants the previous year’s winner anymore. That can be very damaging.” 

Instead, the SaPa show looks to nurture talent for the long haul, pushing its participants towards learning and improvement rather than cut-throat competition. “The idea is not to make prodigies at eight, but to try to work on sustained growth so you have great musicians at 25 or 30.” 


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