Born in a home filled with music, the children of violinist L Subramaniam, late singer Vijayshree and Kavita Krishnamurthy, Bindu and Ambi Subramaniam are honing the next generations of musical talent at Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts.
“I had a tiny violin when I was three years old, and I thought of it more as a toy than anything else. The idea was to imitate whatever my dad was doing,” reminisces Ambi Subramaniam, who started performing when he was six years old.
Today, he and his sister, Bindu Subramaniam, are on song and run Bengaluru-based SaPa, the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts.
Ambi has been proclaimed, “India’s 24-year-old Itzhak Perlman” by Ozy Magazine. Bindu, who started performing when she was 12 years old, went to Berklee, a top music college and performing arts conservatory. She brings a pop-rock element to music and has collaborated with the likes of George Duke, Dr M Balamuralikrishna, Remo Fernandes, Pankaj Udhas, Hariharan, AJ Jarreau, Larry Coryell, Corky Siegel and Pandit Jasraj to name a few.
From Supermanic to SubraMania
Apart from SaPa, the brother-sister duo also had a band, SubraMania, in 2013. The name SubraMania comes from an old inside joke in the family – when their father was in Russia in the ’80s, his name was advertised in Cyrillic mistakenly as Supermaniac.
“So if he was a Supermaniac, we are SubraMania,” Bindu jokes.
Bindu and Ambi have been exposed to music since the time they were born. As children of world-renowned violinist L Subramaniam and late singer Vijayshree Subramaniam, and the stepchildren of singer Kavita Krishnamurthy Subramaniam, their earliest memories are of singing and the violin.
‘Mediocracy was never an option’
“My mother was an amazing singer. I was always enchanted with her voice and the ethereal quality it had. Being in the US, I didn’t always realise how famous my parents were. All these musical legends were just uncles and aunties to us. But music was always around us. We had music lessons and there was always music playing in the house. We used to get to hang out in the studio – I think my first time on the mic was as a very young kid singing happy birthday as part of a chorus for a Mira Nair film.”
Ambi believes one of the most important aspects of the discipline involves staying grounded, especially after a show. He says that be it as a child or an adult, it’s easy to get carried away as audience admiration and applause may make you think too much of yourself and not enough of music.
“In that sense, I’ve been very lucky as both my parents are extremely grounded. In fact, my father would deconstruct our performance on the night of the concert; that always helped me realise there was a lot of room for improvement! Eventually, I developed the discipline to improve for myself rather than to impress the audience,” Ambi says.
More to music than just numbers
While on a phone call with Bindu, the business journalist in me wants to push for more details in terms of numbers, but she’s reluctant. Explaining the SaPa concept to me is more than just numbers to her. She says:
“One number we are proud of is the number of underprivileged children we have worked with. Till date, we have trained over 4,000 underprivileged children in music. At SaPa, we have worked a lot towards presenting good quality music, including Indian classical music, to very young children. We are targeting the next generation of performers as soon as they are out of diapers.”
SaPa has created its own methodology and syllabus, including SaPa Baby books.
“We have our own SaPa Baby tamburas, electronic shruthi boxes inside stuffed animals, to encourage kids to practice with them. We specially commissioned artwork and created Baby Tyagaraja, Baby Dikshitar, and Baby Shyama Shastri to create a narrative where small children feel involved in classical music, and find it accessible, fun and cool,” she says.
When Kavita and Subramaniam started SaPa in 2007, it was with the idea to promote global music in India. Bindu was involved peripherally at that time, but only actively took over in 2011.
Bindu and Ambi started the SaPa in Schools initiative in 2014. Till date, SaPa, started with a vision to create a global centre for music in Bengaluru, has trained over 250 teachers; over 12,000 children are a part of the programme. “Our idea is simple. If you don’t have powerful teachers who can encourage children, everything becomes less meaningful,” Bindu explains.
Bringing in the right fusion
Ambi says his father has always been passionate about diverse musical styles and wanted to pass on this exposure to children. The idea was to connect the children with artists across genres and countries through workshops, collaborations, and performances.
“Bindu and I identify strongly with that vision – we’ve had the chance to meet great artists from around the world, interact with them, and pick their brains. We want to ensure that other children get that exposure as well,” Ambi says.
Bindu agrees. “Being surrounded by great musicians from the time we were born, we sort of assumed that was normal. I assumed every musician was a great one; that was the bar I set for myself. As a child I used to think every violinist had to be as good as my dad, every pianist had to be as good as George Duke, and every bass player was Stanley Clarke. Mediocrity was not an option.”
Bindu started learning Carnatic voice as a child along with the Suzuki violin. She learned piano, took up opera singing, and continued with Carnatic music. Later, she studied songwriting and got more contemporary music.
“I like many different styles of music, and find different elements attractive. I try to adapt them into our own music. I try to use elements of contemporary music to make some of our music into songs, unlike some other world music that tends to be more free form,” Bindu explains.
For Ambi, his earliest memories are of his father playing the violin at home. “I’m lucky I was exposed to different genres of music and not just Indian classical,” he says. This exposure to different types of music helped him appreciate the diversity in the industry.
“Even if I’m not playing or learning a particular style, I enjoy it and learn as much as I can from it,” Ambi says.
Creating the next generation of musicians
With SaPa, the brother-sister duo has an overall vision of refining the next generation of musicians. To that end, they take in musically inclined kids at the age of three years into the academy.
The SaPa in Schools initiative aims to make music a part of every student’s life as a mainstream subject as opposed to just an extracurricular activity.
“We have consciously kept SaPa a boutique music academy because we are personally very involved. We know the names of all of our students and work with them directly. We’re all continually in ‘what next’ mode, keen to try something new, innovative and fun. It’s what drives us,” Bindu says.
Over the years, the duo has seen a shift in the way music is perceived. Bindu reveals that in their first year they had to coax teachers to come to their school and teach music professionally. “It was the last thing anybody would want to do,” she says.
Four years down the line, the team gets one CV every week.
Music – a magic beyond all others
Bindu says many people believe there is no audience for classical music or that the younger generation isn’t interested. But the reality, she feels, is different.
The issue is of accessibility, which differs from the problem of access. As soon as young kids are able to understand what music is about and they know it’s okay to ask questions, they are very interested.
“In my opinion, there will always be takers for music; whether or not the person becomes an artist depends on various factors – stability, risk, whether or not that’s what they want to do, etc. However, generally speaking, art is something people always want to do if they have the choice. I see a lot of interest among children and international artists who love our music and want to apply elements to what they do.”
Bindu adds that one important aspect they have focused on is ensuring that their teachers are paid more than the industry standard. “It simply cannot be a choice between passion and day-to-day living,” she explains. Bindu believes that discipline and commitment in the form of consistent hard work are integral. It’s very important to work for your art.
“Talent takes you forward, but consistent hard work is irreplaceable. To survive, you also need a lot of faith in yourself, faith in a higher power and thick skin,” the duo feels.
Bindu signs off:
“Very early on I realised there is a huge difference between being a musician and being famous. They often go together, but they are not the same thing. To me, being a musician is being in service of music, surrendering to the music. Fame isn’t real. It’s a perception that people have of you. It’s important not to allow fame to go to your head.”