For violin maestro Dr. L Subramaniam, who will be feted at the Yagnaraman Fest, music is a natural extension of his life.
“A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?”
This quote by Albert Einstein can be best understood by someone who loves and understands the instrument as well as Dr. L. Subramaniam does! Even as a child, his mother fed him not only on a bowl of fruit to make him happy, but put him to sleep singing the strains of Neelambari. So, it was not surprising that young Subramaniam absorbed music in his subconscious state even at a tender age. His father, Lakshminarayana, a violinist of great repute, was not only his guru but his real life hero too!
Violin was predominantly an accompanying instrument, and no matter how great the violinist was, he could only play ‘second fiddle’ to the vocalist. Lakshminarayana’s love for the instrument was so great and deep that he slowly began to pave the way for the violin to be played as a solo-lead instrument. It was his wish that the Indian violin be made known to an international audience. So, he worked on the technicalities and techniques and instilled the same love in his children – L. Vaidyanathan, L. Subramaniam and L. Shankar, who went on to turn his dream a reality and reach great musical heights individually.
The family tree
It is said of the coconut tree that the one who plants it seldom enjoys the fruits personally, and this is true in the case of Lakshminarayana. But the fruits of the tree that he planted has yielded such a rich harvest in the form of his talented sons L. Vaidyanathan, Dr. L. Subramanian, and L. Shankar. Together they formed the Violin Trio, and have presented several memorable shows. Subramaniam, or Mani as he is referred to by close friends, has passed on the baton to his children too. His oldest son, Narayan, is a practicing surgeon, and enjoys ghazal singing, Ambi has already shown his virtuosity on the violin and Bindu is into fusion, is an accomplished song writer and a singer too. The late Viji, Mani’s wife, was not only an accomplished singer, but also his strength. It was music that gave inner strength to the family when she passed away. With Kavita Krishnamurti, a well known playback singer, as a new entrant, the sound of music once again filled the halls of the Mani household. Mani has cut several albums with each of his family members besides his performances with legends in India and abroad.
Though Subramaniam lived in Jaffna, it was following the family’s re-location to Chennai that rigorous practice sessions (commencing as early as 4.30 a.m.) actually began. On his part, the violinist imbibed not only the art that happened through his direct lessons, but more essentially picked up several nuances that he attentively listened to as his father took classes for other students. Though he was qualified to be a physician (MBBS by qualification), it was his passion that led him to choosing music as his profession. He had the good fortune of playing for stalwarts such as Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Palghat Mani Iyer, who encouraged young Subramanian to give up Medicine and pursue music as a career.
Young Subramaniam set forth to spread his wings, travel on uncharted paths, explore new lands and learn something new. He took his first step by enrolling himself at the California Institute of the Arts where he got a Masters degree in Western Classical Music. There were only two Asians in his class, and so he had no one to talk to. One day, one of his professors walked into class and wrote one of the lines from Subramaniam’s compositions, and remarked, “Musically, you are a genius.” Noticing his understanding of melody, he encouraged Subramaniam to write more compositions. The class slowly gravitated towards the new Indian boy, who was soon to become a household name. But the young boy, who had his heart in Chennai, was already homesick, and asked for his course completion certificate. The Dean, unable to break rules, was able to provide him with a University job.
Equipped with his degree in Western Classical Music, and inspired as he was by legends such as Pt. Ravishankar and the Beatles guitarist George Harrison, he too began to perform at these special concerts – he had given his word to his father that he would never give ‘home performances,’ so rampant in the West, especially among Indians seeking a foothold on foreign soil. Lakshminarayana’s dream was to see his son perform at mainstream venues such as the Albert Hall, Lincoln Centre, and so on - a dream he lived to see through Subramanian, whose only motto in life was to realise every single dream of his father !
Fame and fortune decided to keep this industrious and hugely talented artist company, and he soon carved a niche for himself as a violinist renowned for his virtuoso playing techniques, a composer adept at orchestral fusion, musical composer for films such as ‘Mississippi Masala’ and Bertulocci’s ‘Little Buddha,’ writer (his most recent book is titled “Sa Pa,” co-authored with his daughter, Bindu Subramanian to initiate children into the world of Classical Music) and a conductor.
And so, it was with mixed feelings that he initially set up his home in Los Angeles. Understanding his nature, his parents too moved to LA, and his father was fortunate to spend some good time watching his son blossom. On his part, LS considers it a blessing that his father breathed his last resting his head on his beloved son that eventful day in 1990. Unable to shake off the memories of the hero he so loved, Subramaniam on the advice of his wife Viji, embarked on an annual musical programme that would showcase the best of world music to a global community. Thus was born the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival, which had a modest beginning at the Music Academy premises in Chennai. Today, the festival has grown in stature spreading over 49 cities, 20 countries and five continents!
Since 1973, Subramaniam has had several recordings to his credit, releasing many memorable solo albums and collaborations with musicians including Yehudi Menuhin, Stéphane Grappelli, Herbie Hancock, Ruggiero Ricci and Jean-Pierre Rampal. He has also worked with Stanley Clarke, John Handy and George Harrison and playing along with Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pt. Ali Akbar Khan and Pt. Jasraj.
This Padma Bhushan awardee, who has the distinction of playing at the United Nations, has several National and international awards to his credit. Chennai is happy to toast the favourite son once again, this time to bestow upon him The SKGS Yagnaraman Living Legend Award (see box).
As he lifts his bow to play the violin, which obeys his every command, the listener bows his head in acknowledgement to the genius of a maestro called Dr. L. Subramaniam.