Tribute to a dream: Maestro L Subramaniam's homage to his father's vision for the Indian violin

L Subramaniam’s global tribute to his father, the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival, kicked off its 25th edition this week.
Tribute to a dream: Maestro L Subramaniam's homage to his father's vision for the Indian violin
Tribute to a dream: Maestro L Subramaniam's homage to his father's vision for the Indian violin
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If there’s truth to be had in clichés, you can see it unfold at an event like the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival. As Russian violin maestro Vadim Repin, critically acclaimed pianist Svetlana Smolina and versatile Norwegian cellist Audun Sandvik blend together with foremost Indian violinist L Subramaniam, his son Ambi and Swaratma’s Sanjeev Nayak, it’s easy to see why the truism about music breaking boundaries exists.

At the inaugural concert of the 25th edition of the LGMF, each of these virtuoso performers brings a uniquely singular aural landscape to life, and generously share these created spaces with each other to create a symphonic melange that stirs something deep in its audience.

For L Subramaniam, who began the LGMF as a tribute to his father, a quarter of a century ago, its 25th edition could not be a more fitting homage. “When I started I never dreamt it’s going to become so big, so international, so global,” he explains, narrating the origins of the festival in the lighting of a lamp and the performance of a prayer song by MS Subbalakshmi in its first year.

From those humble beginnings, the festival grew, first representing the who’s who of Indian music, including shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan, preeminent tabla proponents Allah Rakha and Kishan Maharaj,  nadaswaram guru Namagiripettai Krishnan, and virtuoso vocalist Gangubai Hangal and Balamurali Krishna among others. The successive editions of the festival even led to innovations like the first jugalbandhi between proponents of the north and south styles, when Subramaniam collaborated with Ali Akbar Khan. “Before that north-south jugalbandhi’s did not happen. We wanted to create some musical impact. Not just playing together but creating, taking something and pushing the boundaries,” explains Subramaniam.

And in keeping with V Lakshminarayana Iyer global vision for the Carnatic violin, the LGMF moved on to international collaborations with classical and jazz greats like Yehudi Menuhin, Jean Luc Ponti, George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Al Jerrau, Billy Cobham, and Hubert Laws and major symphony orchestras like the Leipzig Symphony and the Latvian Symphony.

All of this, says Subramaniam, has been possible thanks to the audacious vision of his father, who was determined to transform the Indian violin, a minor accompanying instrument till then, into a solo instrument in its own right. And to give the Carnatic violinist his pride of place in the global music circuit.

“What he told me when I was young was, ‘Go and listen to major orchestras, people like (Stephane) Grappeli, and see how we can bring our violin to the mainstream so that you also play in the Lincoln Centre or Sydney Opera house, where people will come to Royal Albert Hall to hear south Indian music, the Carnatic violin. That will be the day we have to be happy about. Till that time, we have not achieved anything playing for our own people, like frogs in the well,” says Subramaniam.

Lakshminarayana also single-handedly revolutionised the technique for the Indian violin, giving it the tonal range and versatility it required as a solo instrument. Subramaniam says, “What he did with the Indian violin, to create Indian technique is unimaginable.”

“Today if you think of the Indian violin, whenever people think of me, they have to think of my father. Because he is the teacher, he is the guru and he created what I am doing. So all the glory, whatever Carnatic music, the Indian violin, has got today, belongs to him,” he adds.

Subramaniam took his father’s technique to the world, not only developing a growing international recognition for Carnatic music, but also grounding himself in the composition theory of western classical music to open up one of the most eclectic ranges of collaborations across classical, jazz, pop and rock music. The results, he says, were even more astounding than his father had thought possible, with Subramaniam collaborating with artistes like Menuhin and Grappelli and the New York Philaharmonic and other orchestras in his father’s time. “I am sure that even he didn’t expect that it will happen during his lifetime. These are all big, big, big dreams and it will take generations to come.”

This journey, Subramaniam says, also taught him why Carnatic music had not found its pride of place around the world. “Technique alone doesn’t make you a great musician. Technique makes you free of inhibitions so that you can try different things without having to worry about it. But being a musician is something different. Being a musician is a capacity to bring life to each note, and make the audience feel whatever you are feeling, even if they do not know the music,” he says.

It is this responsibility, to transmit the emotional core of music even to those completely unacquainted with it, is what its practitioners should hold as the highest priority, he says. “Our music is one of the oldest, one of the most complicated, most spiritual, most sensitive. There are multiple layers in our music. So, it is our responsibility to make people enjoy it even if they don’t know the theoretical part of it.”

It’s also his response to the doomsayers of classical music, who see the growing popularity of forms like electronic dance music as the death knell for older forms of classical music. Arguing that there is more than enough space in the world for every musical form to thrive, he says, “The space that you get depends on how much you can communicate to the public. Whether it’s a big space or a small space, it depends on how much you can convey to them, without them knowing that art form.” 

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