The Sherp had a lengthy and spirited conversation with India’s premier violinist, on what fusion music means to him, his evolving audiences and how it was performing at the United Nations with Stevie Wonder.
For those of you who are unaware, Dr L Subramaniam is a acclaimed Indian violinist who traned in classical Carnatic music and Western Classical and is known worldwide for his playing techniques, compositions, orchestral fusion and how his instrument can deliver the sweetest music with ease.
Having played, composed and collaborated with several great performers like Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin Dr L. Subramaniam’s performing career has been filled with world class stages and accolades.
Hello sir, we at Festival Sherpa are really excited for your upcoming performance at the NH7 Weekender. How does it feel to be performing at India’s premier independent festival?
I am so happy. It’s a totally different approach to music festivals and they have done it so differently involving youngsters which the organizers have done it so meticulously. So I am not only looking forward to performing in such a set up but in a festival which is very novel, This will also be a different kind of audience from the ones i’m accustomed to. So it will be really rewarding for me and everybody who is involved in this. I have really heard so much about this festival.
From performing at the United Nations with Stevie Wonder to your upcoming performance at NH7, an independent music festival featuring a young demographic, how do you manage to keep Indian classical music relevant in today’s age?
Wherever I play and whatever I do, my roots are still classical. Because my father taught me classical, he was able to create a theme with classical music which became a global technique. So to communicate with any kind of audience or any place, I make sure i am part of it so it becomes easier to still keep the Indian flavour and as well as do whatever needs to be done to blend with the other people. Playing with George Harrison and Stevie Wonder was all about different experience of playing with artists and it is a great milestone. All of us collaborated but what I tried to do is keep the Indian-ness so the audiences got familiar with Indian musical tonalities.
How connected, do you believe, is the current generation with the genesis of Indian classical?
There was a time as you know, Indian music was a lot about classical music. Everyone used to learn that. Then around 70s I started doing global fusions and initially people did not go enjoy much of that fusion. But now in this generation everybody is trying to do fusion. There are lot more fusion groups and even some of the greatest classical artists, have done fusion. So the present generation has taken the fusion part seriously in many cases and through that they are also bringing some people back to classical music. But one thing is there that whenever somebody dabbles in fusion, if they also know the other person’s culture and musical tonality it becomes more meaningful.
You have collaborated with several great performers like Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin to name a few. How do you approach your various collaborations?
It was the other way around. I was asked to perform with Menuhin to celebrate the 40th year of India’s independence at the United Nations. Originally I was asked to perform for Menuhin’s 70th Birthday almost 30 years back. Somebody from his organizing committee called me and asked if I can perform for his 70th birthday and I was very thrilled because he was one of the great western musicians of that time. So I met him and he heard me play. Other times I played Carnatic music and somebody played western classical music. Mostly everything was western but except one non-western which I played. After the concert he came to the stage and he was very moved with my music and complimented me. So I thought initially, being a senior artist he was being generous but later on I realised he was a very sincere and serious person and that he meant whatever he said. So when I was asked whether we both could play together for the UN, I was very thrilled. So when I asked Menuhin if we could play for India’s 40th Independence to which he insisted we both perform together. So that’s how I stroked a piece of the journey of celebrating India’s independence. Same thing happened with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. At one point George and Beatles did not play together and George didn’t perform for quite some time and also Ravi ji’s performances were very few at that time. So they all decided to do a big tour of the Shankar family to revive the whole thing and I was asked to perform as a guest soloist. By that time I was a student of California Institute of Arts in Los Angeles. So Ravi ji met my father in Chennai and told my father that he wants me to take leave and join him. So I went on a tour with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, a few other jazz artists and Alla Rakha ji. So it all happened with God’s grace. I did a lot of things which I did not even try to do or plan to do.
You’re married to one of India’s most iconic singers, Kavita Krishnamurthy, who you perform collaborative pieces with around the world. What is the reception to Indian classical music like?
So far we have had a tremendously great response. We had a major tour in US and Canada where on one side we do one half of Indian Classical and the other one half of Kavita’s group. She is leading and singing Bhajans, Ghazals, non Bollywood and may be couple of Bollywood songs which are spiritual. She has done a lot of different things like that. So we have been doing joint things together. On the other hand we have also done major fusion things which we are going to try in Europe next year – there it becomes Bollywood and Beyond where we include two-three Bollywood songs and we do Indian classical based things.
So performing with her is a thrill always because her different lyrics and different plans bring a flavour to the Bollywood and Beyond or my concert – Classical and Beyond. We are also doing something in February where we are preparing a major orchestra piece for which she is singing and I am playing other orchestra pieces in pennsylvania. And of course many concerts our children have also been a part of it, Bindu sings orchestra along with me. She has her own group with Ambi. Ambi plays with me whether I play classical or orchestra fusion. The latest thing is perhaps the happiness of having my grand-daughter Mahati. She played and performed with me in Chicago in front of thousands of people. I think when you perform with family it’s a totally different feeling.
Of all the places you have performed at, what has been your most cherished performance?
There are quite a few things but I’ll just tell you one or two. One is playing in the Madison Square Garden with Kavita and we had almost the entire 20000 audience singing the national anthem with us. We never experienced such a thing, having twenty thousand strong choir behind you, it’s unimaginable. All of us have heard at the most a 100 person choir but here it was almost the entire 20000. Long time ago when we were at United Nations, we had a whole different kind of audience from different places. You know some of the countries were not even friendly to each other but we had played music and uniformly got appreciation. We also played at Sydney Opera House then especially in Paris, I love Paris. Many years I have been regularly going to France. They have recently opened up the latest auditorium where they sit and play one hour of aalaap, as people sit and listen. So quite a few memorable things we play at Paris concert hall and get good response.
I remember you mentioning in an interview that you do not like the term ‘world music’. Why is that?
So basically what happened earlier, when they introduced western classical music then they meant only western classical music was classical music. Everything else they just put in under one umbrella Jazz, Rock, Indian Music, everything. Everybody knows Indian music has one of the vastest and sophisticated classical music systems. In fact we have two classical systems, south Indian system which is huge in it and the original system which continues and the other system North Indian system which was developed by Persian influence. So I always said classical music is only not western classical music we do have some very highly sophisticated Indian classical music. So that’s the reason I started the concept of global music where western classical is one system, Indian classical is one system but all the music comes under global music. Western music came much later and they influenced and the other people followed western classical. Even in India there are quite a few western musicians now. But originally you know that is also a system. But that is only music and not a classical system. So I thought it will be nice to have a Global music umbrella and put everything under Indian Classical, Western Classical, Chinese Traditional, Japanese Traditional music, Jazz, Folk. Even in our own country we have spiritual music where everything can come under Global system.
In your Global Fusion album, you collaborated with artists from around the globe, literally. How do you approach the fusion of various independent musical styles?
If I am writing for some artist like Stanley Clarke or George Duke, I try to understand their versatility, their innovation and capacity. Then you can try to understand the music and write something. So when you write something give them freedom and also push them beyond their boundaries so they do something totally different than what they have done. So it needs lot of preparation initially. Same thing when you write an orchestra piece, first you have to understand the strength of the orchestra. Certain orchestra violins are very strong and with some other orchestras the woodwinds are strong while their brass might be little weak. So if you are writing specifically for an orchestra then you need to write down certain things that will help see the artist in a different colour, flavour and identity to the composition.
What can we expect from the NH7 performance? A collaboration perhaps?
At Weekender I am supposed to play with my group. Before that I am playing at a couple of other places so I am just selecting some pieces. So I have some excellent Indian percussionists also there. So I am trying and planning to do something which is different and novel.
Apart from you, who are the other performers whose acts you’re eager to watch at the NH7 Weekender?
Honestly I don’t know who else is performing. So before that on the 4th I am performing at Kolkata, 5th I am in Bangalore.