HT Brunch Cover Story: Meet the millennial Subramaniams
A heart-warming Sunday story about how the family of violinist L Subramaniam and singer Kavita Krishnamurti is marrying tradition with today and changing perceptions, one musical note at a time
Most people learn Indian classical music via the gharanas that support ‘pure forms’ of the genre. But Indian violinist, conductor and composer Lakshminarayana Subramaniam (LS) decided to teach his kids another way – by taking them around the world to perform at and attend concerts.
“You need to be practical. And to be globally successful, you need to know what’s happening in Western music to be able to collaborate. Collaborations are how classical musicians survive today,” LS, 73, explains how he raised Bindu (36), Narayana (32) and Ambi (29), first in the US and then in Bengaluru.
However, Bollywood playback singer and his wife, Kavita Krishnamurti, 67, who married into the family in 1999, was shocked that LS allowed the kids to skip school for four days at a stretch. “Then they topped their exams and I realised I was dealing with bright kids,” laughs Kavita.
Today, Bindu is a singer and music educator, head of the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts , a music school in Bengaluru, along with Ambi, a violinist. Narayana has taken after LS’s other passion – medicine.
“My father taught me that whatever you do in life, keep training in your art form. Art brings another dimension in your life and hones the creative, spontaneous part of your brain. Music is the art form I know, so I taught it to my children,” says LS.
Adds Kavita: “Plus, if they hadn’t been into music, I don’t know how we would have stayed together!”
Music and medicine
There were no movie nights when Bindu, Narayana and Ambi were children. There was no homework either. Instead, there were practice sessions and a ‘travelling music circus’. They all learnt the piano, vocals, violin and Carnatic music. Bindu learnt from LS but realised the violin wasn’t her instrument, unlike Ambi.
They didn’t have a TV till Bindu was 14 years old. Even then, they watched one episode of something once a week, Bindu says, adding that the ‘restrictions’ eased as they graduated to college. But she has vivid memories of Narayana watching Grey’s Anatomy while practising his sutures on bananas.
“Of course, he was watching it for the drama. But his dedication remains admirable. He’s the head of his department, has published over 100 academic papers, written a book and he sings!” she gushes.
“I feel a little like the black sheep of the family but I knew I was never going to be a performing musician. I think my parents were a tad disappointed but quickly got over it,” laughs Narayana.
Meanwhile Bindu wanted to become a lawyer and Ambi was besotted with cricket till LS put his foot down as the ball could damage Ambi’s hands. It was only halfway through law school that Bindu realised it didn’t resonate with her. LS asked her to get a master’s degree ‘at least’. “That’s how we got conned into way too many degrees,” says Bindu, who has a BA, MA, and MPhil in cultural studies.
The parents were happy that some kids chose music, but warned them that they may not have too much money, says Kavita. She tried teaching Bollywood songs to Bindu but saw her inclination towards Western music early on. “I’m happy in a way because the playback scene has changed a lot,” Kavita smiles.
Kavita, whom they all call ‘Maa’ – a transition from the initial ‘Kavi aunty’ when they met her for the first time – introduced them to new genres of music, including Bollywood. “Maybe it was a good thing we didn’t know how popular she was when we met her!” Bindu laughs, admitting that Kavita introduced her to Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar.
But Bindu insists her musical space is different from her mother’s. “People expect me to sing my mom’s songs, which is annoying. Her legacy should be measured by her own work and if she’s a good person!” says Bindu.
They all had different music tastes growing up – Narayana would listen to ghazals and Ambi dug Western classical.
But Bindu’s first teacher will always be her amma (biological mother), Viji Shankar Subramaniam, who passed away in 1995. “My sense of structure and work ethic come from amma. She also had the ‘degree disease’,” says Bindu, who still has vocal exercises her mother had handwritten for her when she first started singing.
The right fit
Did Kavita fit right in? “There was never an issue of her being a step mom. Maa occupied the role of mother which has not taken away anything from my amma,” Bindu says.
“My children accepted me as ‘maa’ overnight,” Kavita beams. “I came with a lot of trepidations. Suddenly, I was in another city and a wife and a mom to kids whose eating habits I didn’t know. My family worried if I’d be okay.”
There were some dramatic confrontations, though. Such as, when Kavita visited them and a book titled How to Deal with Troublesome Adolescents fell out of her bag! “Understandable as there were two boys and Ambi went around biting everyone,” laughs Bindu.
“These kids would do everything last minute. I was used to waking up at 5.30 am for a 7 am class. After six months of trying to straighten things out, Ambi had reached the ‘oh she isn’t as nice as she seemed’ phase,” Kavita laughs.
But the dust soon settled and Kavita became the person the kids would approach for permission to attend parties. “Because LS would say ‘I don’t believe in parties,’” Kavita says.
Kavita and LS have different parenting styles. “Dad’s a pacifist. If he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he will ignore it and wait for you to sort it out. Maa wears her heart on the sleeve and is more of a… pressure-cooker,” smiles Narayana.
Nature vs nurture
Today, Bindu considers herself a contemporary musician rather than a traditional one. “I write in English and the structure’s like a pop song,” she explains. Her collaborations with Ambi are in the same vein, though he does a lot more classical work.
Though the guru-shishya tradition still exists, that’s not how the junior Subramaniams learnt. “It’s ingrained in us, but we’ve also been taught to separate the art from the artist,” Bindu says.
Her father explains, “My generation was different. During any discussion, my father would answer. We couldn’t voice our opinion!”
Though there’s no doubt that gurukuls have raised some stellar musicians, Kavita says, “With this generation, it’ll be foolish to expect that. You need to praise and then urge them to do better, not scold them. There’s a change and we’ve stayed abreast with it.”
Bindu and Ambi have actively been trying to dismantle the ‘too much respect’ part of the tradition. “The unquestioned obedience must go,” says the music educator who doesn’t let her students touch her feet. “Give me a hug instead! That way, when you don’t agree with or understand what I am teaching, you will be able to speak up.”
“The idea is to groom musicians who are the best versions of themselves, instead of 100 musicians like you,” adds Ambi.
This, they say, is the way towards a future where many more people have access to music than those who were born into it.
“There’s no ‘music in the blood’. Between nature and nurture, nurture always has a lasting impact,” signs off Bindu.
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From HT Brunch, April 4, 2021
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