“Recreation?” Ambi Subramaniam pauses, puzzled. “Who am I outside of music?” Just home from his weekly class at SaPa, their not-for-profit institute founded by their father, the legendary violinist, Dr L. Subramaniam. At the age of 27, Ambi, the violin prodigy admits days off are hard to come by.
“It’s funny you ask this question because I only recently thought about it,” he says. Growing up in a family of musicians and training themselves, music is the only world Ambi and his sister Bindu know. “Our days off happen when we’re touring abroad. we perform on weekends and manage to take a couple of days during the week. Then again, it’s never been a hassle. When you wake up every morning to do the thing you want to do, the rest is less important.”
A chance phone call from a journalist friend brought the siblings, who have been making waves with their fusion project SubraMania, in touch with another brilliant young mind, Mahesh Raghavan. “He’s a pioneer in his own way,” says Ambi. This was a secret they gave away on Facebook, when the Thayir Sadam Project was just starting out: Raghavan, whose forte is in the electronica space, plays on an iPad. Ambi explains that Mahesh is the first musician to bring the iPad into Indian music, even though others have dabbled with it in different parts of the world. “He’s trained in Carnatic classical music so we understand each other but we’re have our own strengths,” Ambi remarks. Mahesh met the Subramiam siblings and a couple of jams later, the Thayir Sadam Project was well on its way.
“We have three releases out since we began in Jan,” says Ambi. “No, make that four,” he adds, with a laugh. “I put that down to Mahesh’s talents, he works really fast and his productions are world class, too.” It’s a new experience for Bindu and Ambi too, accustomed as they are to classical traditions, the SubraMania project and in Bindu’s case, the singer-songwriter space. Their gig this weekend also features Karthik Mani, who is part of SubraMania and interestingly, has Ambi dabble with a cello. How similar is the cello to the violin, a layman might ask. “Not at all,” comes the reply. “I learned it in bits and pieces for this project because I thought the cello just sounded right.”
Saturday is special for one more reason: It is the day three new SaPa centres are due to open in Bengaluru. Now, with SaPa in schools, their initiative to set up an ecosystem for music education in India, they reach out to nearly 25,000 children. For Ambi, teaching kids has brought with it a new, albeit not unusual crisis: “The kids call me Ambi uncle,” he remarks, in mock horror. “I have stopped them of course, so now they stick with ‘sir’. I suppose that’s an improvement on uncle!” Mahesh, who also takes a few sessions at SaPa, is thronged by a band of excited kids, always. “I had to break the news to them: Mahesh is a Carnatic musician, the iPad is an add-on!”
Art has always been their ultimate aim and Ambi and Bindu have always steered clear of political commentary. It’s a refreshing change, too, in a society where art is driven specifically towards social change and awareness. The #MeToo movement, however, compelled Bindu to speak. Her song, Resilience, isn’t an outpouring of anger, she maintains. “It’s about the resilience we already have. We have grown up being wary, taught to watch out for our own safety. We behave with caution and vigilance even when we don’t realise it. It’s happened to every woman, so it’s not a political comment per se,” she says. It’s in ‘the singer-songwrier space’, out of which Bindu says she tends to operate. “That’s what I studied in Berklee, too. We don’t spend too much time deliberating on who or what we should be as musicians but for me, creativity always begins in the song-writer space.”
Theirs has been a life lived in the limelight, which comes with its share of perks and veiled challenges. “It’s important to have people who keep you grounded, friends who are not merely yes-men and flatterers,” Ambi remarks. His days of slaving for months over a technicality may be behind him, perhaps it is no longer essential, he reckons. “My parents are less involved in my music than they used to be but they’re still the first people to hear our work.” Are they amongst the coterie of friends who keep him grounded? “Oh, definitely!” Ambi says, laughing, adding, with a maturity far beyond his years, “You have to separate your on-stage persona from your offstage persona. Sometimes, after a performance, when people praise us to the skies, I make it a point to remember, ‘They’re moved and it because of the music. It’s not you.”...