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Adventure, the musical kind


A two-decade old trip to the concerts and creations of ace violinist L. Subramaniam.

“The adventures of Carnatic violinist L. Subramaniam ... have been truly fantastic.” These opening words of my review of the maestro’s recent concert in the city (Musicscan, September, 19) echo very loudly something I had written 20 years ago. Checking my old records, I found several related cuttings from the New Delhi edition of The Hindu, and some of my original impressions, which still seem to be so and relevant today that I am tempted to quote them rather extensively in this column.

November, 1988: The adventures of L. Subramaniam, the Indian violinist-composer, are truly breathtaking ... A Carnatic musician who has mastered the violin techniques of Hindustani music, a composer of orchestral works in the Western mode with a dominant Indian flavour, an arranger of Indo-jazz musical scores, an extremely skilful soloist in performances of his own orchestral and jazz creations ... truly his achievements are many-sided …

Yehudi Menuhin, Igor Oistrakh, Stephane Grappelli... some of the world’s most famous violinists seem to be keen on teaming up with him to render his compositions in the classical mode or his arrangements for jazz, all of which have a distinct Indian complexion. Several leading orchestras of the world, including the New York Philharmonic, have performed his works, with Subramaniam himself as the soloist.

January, 1990: The power and brilliance which mark L. Subramaniam’s style as a violinist are truly awesome. In the whole world’s history of the violin, Subramaniam ranks as one of the most outstanding performers. It is not surprising that in European music circles his wizardry with the instrument is freely compared with that of the legendary Paganini. If sound were light, then his violin would be a prism which projects it in a million flashing rays of VIBGYOR — violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red.

When Subramaniam shines as soloist in the performance of his own unique compositions in the Western orchestral or jazz modes, this dazzling virtuosity tends to bind any international audience in a spell. This is fully confirmed by reports from all over the world, as well as by our own occasional encounters with him in India.

February, 1990: Like a comet he comes to Delhi late in winter every year to produce one kind of sensation or another and disappear. An innovative violinist and composer from India living in America, he is constantly on the move creating and presenting intercontinental music with an Indian classical touch, and also sometimes performing Carnatic music on the violin with a Westernised technique. And he seems extremely anxious to visit his homeland regularly and seek legitimacy here for his unusual adventures abroad. We are, of course, talking once again about L. Subramaniam. It is, in fact, this intense desire to gain recognition in India as a bona fide exponent of traditional Indian music and also as a modern and sensational innovator, which strengthens his credentials and enables Subramaniam to achieve credibility abroad as a composer and performer of his own unique blend of Indian and foreign music.

It’s true that many foreigners who see brilliant oriental colours in his Western orchestral or jazz compositions are not likely to know whether the Indian side of his music is authentic or not. But even at the crest of his astonishing career abroad, it seems to matter a great deal to Subramaniam that he should at the core remain true to his origins.

Surely that’s the reason why his creations in the Western mode are entirely free from hypocrisy and universally carry conviction. It’s a well-known fact that the creativity of certain great European composers — like Chopin, Dvorak, Lizst or Tchaikovsky — had very deep roots in the social, military or folk traditions of their native lands like Poland, Bohemia, Hungary or Russia. It was perhaps inevitable that someone from India should eventually emerge in the Western world, to introduce some of the noble and mystic nuances of our classical music in symphonic works of exceptional beauty.

February, 1991: To become an effective top-of-the-table player in billiards is one of the most difficult and spectacular achievements in human experience. But once a player becomes proficient in this art, nothing is simpler for him than to pile up enormous breaks with long recurring chains of pot-canon-pot-canon-pot ... (three-two-three-two-three...). It’s interesting to note that L. Subramaniam’s ‘neo-fusion’ music (whether composed for a jazz combo, a chamber music group or a full-fledged Western orchestra) bears a strong resemblance to top-table billiards. Undoubtedly, Subramaniam has performed a long and arduous penance to have reached where he finds himself today. But he doesn’t seem to require any great effort now to compose a new work of that genre. All he has to do is to take some centuries-old Indian classical melody, begin a composition by sketching its outline with his own soulful violin, let the Westerners in for a while, and conclude the work either with a crescendo or in the same soulful manner in which he began. And there it is — yet another neo-fusion exercise, characterised predictably by alternating spells of thundering and serene sound.

The novelty and mystery of Subramaniam’s skilful technique are wearing off gradually, but the beauty of his music remains ... I hasten to offer a bouquet of roses to the [organisers and visiting Swiss chamber music ensemble] for giving us those lovely glimpses of Beethoven and Subrahms!

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