Why you should care

Classical Indian music is getting squeezed, but fusion could be its way forward. 

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A middle-aged, squat, gray-haired Indian man plays an ancient classical drum onstage at a venerated music school; he’s performing classical Carnatic music, a South Indian art form more than eight centuries old. But in this traditional scene, the real star of the show is 24-year-old, boyish-faced violinist Ambi Subramaniam.

Heralded as the face of the next generation of Indian classical music, a recipient of the prestigious Ritz Icon of the Year Award, a Rotary Youth Award and two Global Indian Music Academy Awards and the son of famous violinist L. Subramaniam, Ambi is trying to reincarnate this ancient musical form for the 21st century. It’s a wrenchingly difficult task, one that might cause some to play the world’s smallest violin for him. “I think the greatest challenge as an Indian musician is that when you play some of the ragas” — which translates loosely to melodic patterns in Sanskrit — “they’ve been recorded and played by so many great musicians,” Subramaniam says just before going onstage in the Ali Akbar School of Music in San Rafael, California. Indeed, he’s inherited his style from his father, who learned from his father. But he’s adding his own two cents, fusing traditions and even de-purifying the techniques, in part by collaborating with just about “any musician,” Mahesh Krishnamurthy, who was the drummer in the performance, says.

At 16, he was christened “the new king of Indian classical violin”

Which gives rise to an interesting question in this art form: Today, classical musicians, Indian and Western alike, worry about the survival of their genre. Subramaniam might be able to help his do just that — or, he might move it beyond its definitions, into “a different kind of music altogether,” says musician and writer Gowri Ramnarayan. “Up until 20 or 30 years ago, people understood the music, understood the subtleties,” Ramnarayan says. Now? Not so much. Fusion doesn’t exactly help with old-school literacy.

But that’s not a new complaint. Fusion music has been building over the years, thanks in part to a growing Indian diaspora and even the Beatles, who arguably kicked it off on the Western side when George Harrison took up the sitar. Other Indian artists have blended genres too, from Ravi Shankar with a West Meets East album to Ali Akbar Khan’s collaboration with jazz saxophonist John Handy, according to ethnomusicologist Stephen Slawek. Subramaniam has taken this blending a step further, playing with flamenco and African music and even releasing a few singles with his pop singer-songwriter sister, Bindu. He’s also trying to leave a bit of a technical legacy, so others can do this work too: His in-progress PhD in music could change the classical violin technique — he’s trying to find a way to help musicians slide in between European and Indian styles without having to change the way they hold the bow or whether they stand or sit.

This fusion is far from theoretical at tonight’s performance. Subramaniam himself is young, comfortable in the West and in fact lived in L.A. till age 4; his partner onstage lives in Virginia, and he plays before a mostly hippie crowd at the renowned AAK music academy, one of the first in the US … and well-loved in particular in crunchy Berkeley, California.

There is another legacy visible here tonight: that of Subramaniam’s father, who played with the school’s namesake, Ali Akbar Khan, three and a half decades ago. That his father looms large here may be a double-edged sword: “He has the distinct advantage of having an incredible teacher like his father,” Krishnamurthy says. That father is a respected classical musician, the winner of GiMAs and a Grammy nominee (who ironically did exactly what people are worried is “newfangled” and modern … a full four decades ago with jazz musicians). Comparisons to his father are inevitable, but he’s shaking them off. “I used to get people saying, ‘You sound just like your dad,’” Subramaniam says; now, he feels they sound different enough. He is lanky, taller than his father today — different. Of course, that doesn’t stop the owners of the AAK School of Music from asking Ambi about his father tonight after reminding Ambi of how he’d run around his home in L.A. as a kid.

He was young — that age at which they remember him, in fact — when he began his violin days, watching his father play in the house and practicing his grandfather’s pioneered techniques on a mini-violin. At 7, he remembers performing violin for 200,000 people at a New Year’s Eve concert in Hyderabad, a South Indian city. By 13, he knew he would go pro. He played alongside his father at that age, on stages where all he could do was “survive” next to the artistic giant, he says. And then, at 16, he was christened “the new king of Indian classical violin” by the Times of India. When I bring this moniker up, he knows where I’m going. “I love it,” he says, unabashedly. To keep himself grounded, though, he remembers something his older brother told him. It’s easier to be a prodigy than to be called a genius at 30. One is just stunning the onlookers. The other requires something completely new.

Tonight, he has his audience’s attention. He runs the stage, handling the announcement and explanation of each piece. The audience nods their heads in sync with his bow. Two kids fidget in the audience, about the same age as Ambi when he was playing for thousands.

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