# 7 Dr L Subramaniam – The Carnatic Violin goes West


Today, L Subramaniam plays the solo Carnatic violin at the prime 3.30 am slot in major music festivals across the world, from the Dover festival in the UK to neighbouring Bangladesh. He is also India’s leading composer for international symphonies. His work is published by Schott Music, the second oldest and the largest music publishing houses in Europe.

Dr Subramaniam has invested the Carnatic violin with its own solo sound, repertoire, techniques and styles, and taken it to the best concert halls around the world – besides composing orchestral music for symphonies overseas. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin has said of Subramaniam’s compositions, “I find nothing more inspiring than the music making of my very great colleague Subramaniam. Each time I listen to him, I am carried away in wonderment.”

The Western violin’s induction into Carnatic Music in the late 19th century and its subsequent entrenchment over the 20th century as both a concert and recording must-have, in its role as an instrument closely following, but never ahead of, the vocal melody, must rank as one of the most remarkable occurrences in the evolution of any conservative, classical tradition anywhere in the world.

Something struck a chord in the Carnatic world, and it is no doubt the fretless, bowed, violin’s almost unique ability to reproduce every nuance and sustain of the human voice, vital in Carnatic’s modal, raga-based, gamaka-laden singing.

Indeed, recent research published in the science Savart Journal indicates that “great violin makers, such as Stradivari and Guarneri, may have designed violins to mimic the human voice.” The study’s author Joseph Nagyvary, an emeritus biochemistry professor at Texas A&M University, says that “violins ‘sing’ with a female soprano voice.”

But can the violin, then, be happy being only an accompanist to the centre-stage vocalist, consigned permanently to the notorious second-fiddle status? Having given of itself to Carnatic music, will it not seek to take something back as well?

Many great violin players including Thirkkodikaval Krishna Iyer and Govindaswamy Pillai, followed by   T Chowdaiah from Mysore, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu and Pappa Venkataramaiah accompanied the greatest vocalists of Carnatic music, creating a golden period for melody.

Even in those early days, accompanists were not entirely satisfied in merely following the voice. While these instrumentalists became legends because of their innovation and creativity in adapting a western instrument to Indian music, for a long time it was difficult to conceive the violin as a having the potential to be a solo instrument. For one thing, any violinist, all old-timers agree, who showed off skill above and beyond the accompanist’s role, might quickly find it a struggle get concerts to play.

So the violin in Dr L Subramaniam’s hand, as he sits in his elegantly furnished home in Sanjay Nagar, Bengaluru, has indeed come a very long way. His father V Lakshminarayana had a vision for the Carnatic violin as a solo instrument, with its own repertoire, its own techniques and styles, not just in India but in concert halls across the world.

Today, Subramaniam plays the solo Carnatic violin at the prime 3.30 am slot in major music festivals across the world, from the Dover festival in the UK to neighbouring Bangladesh.

“If you work hard, then you can achieve great things like T N Rajaratinam Pillai did for the nadaswaram, Palghat Mani Iyer did for the mridangam or T R Mahalingam did for the flute. Mandolin Shrinivas is one of our finest musicians of all times, and in his generation he is the best. They were artistes who did different things and brought their chosen instrument to a different level. So people came just to listen to their instruments. My father believed that the violin had that potential,” he says.

It was in the late 1970s that Subramaniam finished his MBBS and went to the US. Prior to that he was playing with his brothers L Vaidyanathan and L Shankar as part of the ‘Violin Trio’. Trained by his father all his life, waking up at 4 am for practice almost every day, he had got to the point where he had his first chance to lead a major orchestral symphony at Los Angeles. But with his mother in hospital, he did not want to go ahead. His father insisted that he not give up an opportunity to play the violin as a soloist, that too with hundreds of western musicians playing behind him.

Lakshminarayana told him, “Just think of what you will be giving up. Our dream is to make the Indian violin a solo instrument. Here you have the opportunity to be a soloist, with hundreds of western musicians behind you and they are playing your composition based on an Indian Raga.”  Subramaniam led from the front.

When Subramaniam got his first chance to play at the New York Philharmonic, his mother had passed away and he was grieving. Again he was persuaded by his father and older brother L Vaidyanathan not to skip a chance to play in one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras. It was a special opportunity to write a piece for the New York Philharmonic, and work with Zubin Mehta. “My father was very clear what our role was. His dream was to make sure that the Indian violin was heard in major concert halls in the world.”

For all of this to happen, two major changes had to be brought about. The first was to branch off into solo playing, and the second was to strengthen the techniques and the content of the music to enable solo playing as well as to give it an edge while playing with Western artistes, to whom the violin essentially belonged.


The first change was to carve a space for solo concerts in an Indian milieu which was inconceivable in the 1960s and 1970s, given the concert paddathi. But the change was necessary. “When you accompany people you have restrict yourself, you cannot play what you want to play. If you are a virtuoso player, practicing for so long every day, you want to exhibit your talent and art for people who really like it and who support it. In that kind of a situation there is a conflict. Because if you are a solo player and you play an accompaniment, then you are not called for the next concert because people start applauding your accompaniment as it is more expressive. Typically they don’t want a scenario where the accompanist is getting more attention that the main artiste. The only resolution to this was to decide to play only solo or only accompaniment.”

It was not an easy decision to make. The concert opportunities were not many and most artistes struggled getting a regular income. “There were a few AIR jobs through recommendations, with only a few available through merit. The rest of them survived by playing with somebody. For that somebody to call you means that you should ensure that you don’t overshadow them. This was the reality,” says Subramaniam.

Instrumental music in South India has had to fight for its rightful place. In Subramaniam’s view, it is often “people’s personal agendas, personal thoughts, personal prejudices which are always there in the framework. You are a brought up in a society where there are many preconceived notions about music. In India, our organisations put restrictions on what one can play. None of the Indian organisations have made me what I am. People heard me and called me all over the world.”

Subramaniam moved to the US in the early 1970s and around that period stopped accompanying vocalists. Earlier he would accompany Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and it was during one such concert before Subramaniam’s final MBBS exam that Chembai told him he would become a ‘Chakravarthy’ (emperor) in playing the violin.

After singing for two hours, Chembai began a Todi. “I knew that it would take a minimum of another half an hour to 45 minutes. I told him mama, I have an exam next day and if I fail, I have to wait six months to write the exam again. I played a short Todi, then he asked me to play it once more. At that time he told me I would be a Violin Chakravarthy, and will not make a single penny from medicine even if I pass the exam. It was Deva Vak (divine word).” Subramaniam has never practiced medicine despite being a qualified doctor.

CONTENT AND TECHNIQUES                                                         

The second change that was necessary was to set up the Indian violin against the Western violin. In order to set up a solo style that was accepted globally, “we had to create new techniques because in terms of the violin, the West was far ahead and they considered even our greatest artistes as folk artistes or ethnic musicians who sat down and played the instrument.

“So the task before us was to create acceptance on par with them and create a desire to collaborate with us. Changing that mindset was difficult because they will not collaborate unless they feel you have something to collaborate with on par with their level of technique, their level of popularity or their level of musicianship,” says Subramaniam who since 1973 has collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grappelli, Stevie Wonder, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Ruggiero Ricci, Arve Tellefsen, Herbie Hancock, Joe Sample, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Al Jarreau, Jean Luc Ponty, Earl Klugh, Larry Coryell, Corky Siegel, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson.

Lakshminarayana had decided to innovate with the content, creating a solo technique in varnams, with multiple speeds, playing in a much faster tempo, which normally doesn’t happen in a vocal concert. “My father changed some of the right hand and left hand techniques and incorporated veena techniques so that it becomes our own technique and we were not copying the Western violin.”

The greatest challenge was to try to do things which were not easy for a vocalist, says Subramaniam. “There were a lot of things. Seeing what it feels to play with full range, and then try and go beyond that range. I recorded a varnam in 15 speeds pancha nadai with Palghat Mani Iyer playing the mridangam, which till today has not been duplicated because you need a player like Palghat Mani Iyer also to do something like that.”

Dr L Subramaniam at Albert Hall

The last century was a golden period for the Voice. There was MS Subbulakshmi, GN Balasubramaniam, Ariyakudi, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, the Alathur Brothers and everyone was unique in their own way. Their music was always innovative and vocal music flourished.

The content of their music, however, was not always based on lyrics, says Subramaniam. “They were not singing krithis alone. Krithis are a part of a concert. There’s the raga before, swarakalpana after, the Ragam Tanam Pallavi, etc. and a major portion of it could be improvised depending on the artiste. Are there words in the improvisation?  Similarly in instrumental music you can enjoy the music without words. We should have an open mind to say I will hear both if it is good. If as an organiser you give only what people are asking, then you can become like Bollywood, do Bollywood films. Here you have the responsibility of spreading the culture.”

To him the power of instrumental music is undeniable. Subramaniam says, “Instrumental music has been able to penetrate and spread our culture in the West, more than vocal music. You see in Western music the power of the orchestra. Why was instrumental music given that importance? They too had vocal music, but slowly they started writing music only for instruments. Right from the time of Bach to Wagner and Mahler. They did it with 200 people, 500 people. They write pieces with that magnitude for orchestra. The sound is absolutely amazing and mind blowing. In India, only those instrumentalists who were immensely talented or were exceptional, were taken notice of.”


Today, Subramaniam is India’s leading composer for international symphonies. His work is published by Schott Music, the second oldest and the largest music publishing houses in Europe. He picked up a masters in Western Classical music, (formal training is useful for proper notation) and he composes music and notates it himself. “The Double Concerto for violin and flute” combines western scales and micro intervals. “Spring – Rhapsody” is a homage to Bach and Baroque music.

Over the years he has written and created works for the world’s greatest orchestras The New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta (“Fantasy on Vedic Chants”), the Swiss Romande Orchestra (“Turbulence”); The Kirov Ballet (“Shanti Priya”) The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (“The Concerto for Two Violins”); The Berlin Opera (Global Symphony), the live concert of which was broadcast simultaneously over 28 nations for millions of people. ‘Astral Symphony’ is a composition for a full symphony orchestra.  

Dr Subramaniam received his doctorate in 2017 for his study on Raga Harmony – a study he undertook when a lot of westerners asked him how to compose music using the Indian system.

He has tried to create a system for both Indian and Western musicians to be able to compose orchestral work with a knowledge of western music and using the Indian raga system. “We can create full symphony works using the harmony in the raga system. I have selected 36 ragas out of the 72 and with these 36 ragas we can create any harmony. And whatever harmony has been used in the past also fit into this. So it is a complete system. These 36 raga scale fit in with the Hindustani raga system as well as the Western scales. Everything fits into it, plus, one can go on creating absolutely new harmonic systems. New tonalities which have never been explored can be taken up.”

If an Indian musician wants to write an orchestral piece, without knowing western music, they would have to depend on someone else to write it, based on the melody one chooses. “So, literally, it is not your music. In the West, when we say Mozart wrote a piece, he wrote every note. Bach wrote every note. In India, in Bollywood for instance, somebody gives an idea, somebody will orchestrate it, somebody will arrange it and someone becomes the Music Director. For our musicians to write Western music, they must have knowledge of harmonics, counterpoint, writing score, etc. Similarly if a western musician wants to write a piece using raga, then they must know our system,” adds Subramaniam.

 When Dr L Subramaniam started out as a soloist people said he was making a mistake. They asked “Who is going to listen to him.” In the generation preceding him, 95 percent of the violinists accompanied vocalists. But he was driven by a deep passion for the violin and wanted to play like his father said he should. “Nothing else mattered. If you have God’s blessings, guru’s guidance, and faith, and love and passion in what you are doing, nothing can stop you,” says Subramaniam. lorful Accent 6

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