THE audience is dominated by hardcore Carnatic music aficionados. The venue is the prestigious Shanmukhananda Hall in Sion. The date is June 13, and flautist Shashank Subramanyam is ruling the stage.
In his mid-30s, the musician is a picture of immaculate class and perfection. He’s been playing in front of gatherings since the age of six, and at 12, created a still-unbroken record of being the youngest to grace the seniormost slot at the Music Academy, Chennai. Today, he makes the flute sound so effortless, displaying remarkable phrasing and breath control.
He plays non-stop for close to three hours, and the coordination between him and extra-talented violinist Akkarai Subhalakshmi is simply amazing. Mridangam player VV Ramanamurthy and ghatam exponent Tripunithura Radhakrishnan control the rhythm section. All the way, it’s sheer magic.
From the varnam in Kaanada to the Purandara Dasa composition in raga Nata, Thyagharaja creations in ragas Devamruthavarshini and Saramati, and the raagam-taanam-pallavi, Shashank is in total control. He’d have probably gone on playing, if he doesn’t have to catch a flight to Germany later that night.
A few days before his Mumbai concert, Shashank gave this writer an interview. A part of it was published in the June 12 edition of Mid Day, Mumbai, the link to which is pasted below. For all his fans, the following is the complete text of the interview.
What are your observations of the audience for Carnatic music in Mumbai?
Mumbai has a substantial south Indian music loving community that is extremely qualitative. Institutions like Shanmukhananda, Chembur Fine Arts Society and scores of smaller organisations around the city have been promoting Carnatic music concerts and teaching activities during the past 80 years. This gave an opportunity for the non-south Indian audience to also get an exposure to south Indian classical music, with Mumbai becoming a melting pot of south and north Indian music and culture.
In recent years, Mumbai has witnessed many north and south jugalbandi concerts attracting different kinds of audiences. Among the organisers promoting such events, there are Banyan Tree, Idea Jalsa, Pancham Nishad and many others. In my own experience, I have committed listeners both from the north and south of India equally. Factually I have performed more for north Indian organisations in the city of Mumbai.
Let’s look at how your career has evolved. You started playing at the age of six and were hailed as a child prodigy. How did the early attention affect you?
Given the short learning time span for a human being, the focus on one thing takes a toll on other aspects of life. In my case, I used to work on music for more than 10 hours a day, even as a five-year-old. Therefore, my academic achievements became a casualty. Looking back I don’t regret this. Honestly, if one wants to super-specialise, the only way is to begin very young and achieve as quickly as possible to stay put in one’s career for a very long time. There are many examples of this kind of career graph from around the world in many fields, including the arts.
What made you choose the flute and who were your biggest influences as a child?
My father Subramanyam was an amateur flautist and I mostly learnt watching him practise at home. At the age of six, when I began performing for the general public, my biggest influences were my father who was my first guru, and my vocal gurus Palghat K V Narayanaswamy and others.
As you grew up, were there any special pressures to keep up with the adulation you received as a child?
Although I began performing when I was six, I got into the big circuit at the age of 12 with a performance at the Music Academy, Chennai in the seniormost slot called the ‘sadas’ during the 1990 music season. Since the expectations were sky high, and also considering the fact that I was relatively young, my father contained and restricted my public performances, thereby making sure that I lived up to the expectations of the audience every time I performed. This also ensured that I could continue to develop and evolve as an artiste.
Who have been your favourite flautists?
From amongst the Indian classical flute players, legends T R Mahalingam from the south and Hariprasad Chaurasia from the north are certainly my favourites although I have followed my own instincts and technique to play the instrument.
Besides pure Carnatic music, you’ve performed at various jazz festivals. What line-up of musicians have accompanied you?
I have been a part of many jazz bands from around the world of which my brief association with guitar legend John McLaughlin is worth taking note of. I was a part of the Grammy-nominated album ‘Floating Point’ along with him. I also perform with well-known European bands including The Jungle Orchestra, Blue Lotus and many others. Some of the festivals that I have performed in include the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Skopje Jazz Festival in Macedonia and Delemont Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
What has been your experience with the Jungle Orchestra?
The Jungle Orchestra, a concept that was initiated by Duke Ellington in the 1920s and further developed by Pierre Dorge, a composer and guitar player from Denmark, is inspired by sounds of the jungle that are incorporated into a concert of jazz music. I met Pierre Dorge when I was teaching at the Rytmisk Conservatory in Copenhagen in 1997. In 2007, we thought of performing at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. It was a very nice interaction with 10 musicians in the band playing drums, percussion, guitar, piano, saxophone, trumpet, flute, etc. Ever since, we have performed around the world including in India.
What is the response of foreign audiences to Indian music?
Many of those who attend our performances in the West or East are either musicians themselves or highly knowledgeable music lovers who are exposed to many genres of music from around the world. They particularly appreciate the complex rhythmic content and the meditative aspects in Indian classical music. They also appreciate the creative blending of melody and rhythm in our system.
What level of interest do youngsters show in Indian classical music?
Although we can’t assign a number or percentage to the decline in interest amongst youngsters, it could be emphatically stated that the decline is very alarming. One example of this could be seen in the age group of people attending live performances. However, it is a little more encouraging to see the growth of interest among Non Resident Indians in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. Most Indian kids would try to pursue one or the other form of classical music or dance and some of the young musicians from the countries mentioned above are making names as performers in south India.
Could you tell us about your concept ‘Spirit of Krishna’?
‘Spirit of Krishna’ is an amalgamation of the traditional folk and classical music. The Manganyars of Rajasthan and myself are a constant part of the team. The percussionist and the sitar artistes are mostly guest performers who are invited to be a part of the team from time to time. We present traditional compositions on Lord Krishna in many languages and also incorporate a big section wherein the musicians indulge in creative improvisations. In addition, at times, we also include classical dancers to enhance the presentation.
Do you think collaborations with Hindustani musicians will help expose more north Indians to Carnatic music?
For the past five decades, jugalbandi concerts have been taking place both in the north and south. Citing from my own personal experiences, the audiences have immensely enjoyed both systems equally. However, when it comes to presenting a Carnatic solo to a conservative Hindustani music audience, many in the concert establishment have apprehensions about its success. This is grossly unjustified though. I am of the firm opinion that Carnatic music, if packaged to suit Hindustani music lovers, will be greatly appreciated and right from the beginning of my career, I have been doing just that.
The north Indian music festivals where I have performed Carnatic recitals include Dover Lane (in Kolkata), Hariballabh festival (Jalandhar), Saptak (Ahmedabad), Sawai Gandharva (Pune) and concerts at NCPA (Mumbai). It is time that organisers in the north become more open minded and present music lovers with at least one Carnatic music concert in any series or festival. In some ways, this will be a reciprocation of how south Indian organisations have been offering Hindustani musicians to their audience for quite some time now.
What projects are you working on now?
Careers in music, like anywhere else, involve a constant and continuous evolution in progress and in that direction I keep working on many projects. One of them is to popularise a format of presenting Carnatic music to the north Indian music lovers and the uninitiated music lover as well.
When you aren’t involved with music, what hobbies and interests do you pursue?
Travelling, teaching students, aviation, cars and catching up with the news and happenings from around the world.
Could you tell me about your family’s support to your music.
For the past three decades, my entire family has been dedicated 24/ 7 to the cause of music. My father, a former bio-chemistry professor, has been my teacher. My mother has been a music lover, and sister Shantala an upcoming flautist. My wife Shirisha is a very talented Bharatanatyam dancer and daughter Swara a serious music student. They have all made up for a very healthy music environment.
Finally, as someone who began and succeeded so early, what advice do you give to youngsters who want to learn musical instruments and follow music professionally?
The success rate for a bright professional career in classical music is one out of a 10,000. This is because there is very little focused and committed patronage from the state and central governments. Although there is plenty of talent, parents are often haunted by the scarcity of opportunities and are thus apprehensive. Therefore children are advised to take up professions which ensure a stable livelihood.
My only suggestion to talented youngsters is to take up the arts as a career if they have sufficient financial backing to fall back on, in case of a failure in their arts careers. In spite of the uncertain future faced by students of the arts, if they still wish to pursue this field, it is their extreme passion that will have to play a role immaterial of the outcome. I am one who belongs to the latter.
The link to this writer’s article in Mid Day on June 12 can be found on http://www.mid-day.com/articles/meet-the-flautist-wonder/16284168