TH SubramaniamWhile there are violinists who excel in raga elaboration, some excel in ‘swara prastharas’ and giving tit for tat replies to the vocalists. There are others who have great knowledge in music theory. But there are very few violinists who have sound knowledge about each and every aspect of violin. 

Violin maestro TH Subramaniam is one of the few violinists whose all-encompassing knowledge urges one to call him a complete violinist. Subramaniam’s  knowledge about the different types of violins, their specialities, the strings, and other technical aspects puts him in a different league. 

Moreover, Subramaniam’s long innings as an accompanist and soloist can be gauged from his playing and one understands how age and experience increases the knowledge of a violinist.

The violinist is able to provide a treat for the connoisseurs through his brilliant raga delineations and ‘swara prastharas’ thus taking the listeners to a different realm.

An ‘A’ grade artist at AIR Thrissur, Subramaniam has been in the Carnatic Music field for the past three and a half decades.He has vast experience of accompanying many greats of Carnatic music including  BV Raman, BV Lakshmanan, RK Srikantan, Dr Pasupathy, PS Narayanaswamy, TR Subramaniam,Dr KJ Yesudas , TN Seshagopalan, Neyveli Santhanagopan, Dr N Ramani, OS Thyagarajan and vocalists of present generation including Unnikrishnan, TM Krishna and Sanjay Subramaniam. 

TH Subramaniam
Subramaniam accompanying eminent vocalist OS Thyagarajan in a concert.

Subramaniam’s childhood was steeped in music as his father Hari Hara Iyer, a tutor at RLV college of fine arts, was an excellent violinist. Hari Hara Iyer had learnt violin from the late A Narayana Iyer, the father of legendary violinist TN Krishnan. Violinist TH Lalitha, who is a 'Top' grade artist at AIR Kozhikode and Violinist TH Vasantha, an 'A' grade artist at AIR Trichy, are his sisters. The musical atmosphere that prevailed in his house helped Subramaniam  acquire  deep knowledge and proficiency in playing the violin.

My father is my guru   

Subramaniam credits whatever he has achieved to his father Hari Hara Iyer. “My father, who was an excellent violinist, taught violin to me as well as to my sisters. He was a hard taskmaster and we used to practice long hours. Those long hours of practice have helped me in accompaniment as well as solo playing. However, we siblings never used to practice together as they follow the Lalgudi style while I have adopted the MSG ‘Bhani.’ I must mention that the legendary vocalist Neyyattinkara Vasudevan encouraged me a lot to perform on stage . I cannot forget his help and advice he has given me,” Subramaniam said. 

Importance of techniques in Violin playing 

Subramaniam laments that the major drawback of present day youngsters is that they lack proper technique in playing the violin. 

“Many students who have learnt vocal as well as violin have come to me. I found that even though they are good vocalists , they are not able to play the violin in the proper way. This is because they lack the proper technique. The violin is a tough instrument to master and  it has its own grammar and technicalities. The“Varishais” and “alankarams” are to be played in a slightly different way than the vocalist renders them. I have researched and formulated certain exercises for the fingers to be flexible and agile. I have also devised certain “varishais” exclusively to be played on the violin. Many are unaware of the importance of proper bowing in tonal quality. The finger board exercises and bowing techniques I teach enable the student to become a complete violinist,” Subramaniam said.        

TH Subramaniam
A solo concert in Bengaluru


MSG, the synonym of violin

"Made for violin ; that is MS Gopalakrishnan, popularly known as MSG. None can surpass his mastery over the violin. He is my role model.  If a student, adopts the MSG “bhani,” he will become a perfect violinist. Lalgudi Jayaraman is more of a scholar. He has tremendous knowledge. While MSG’s music is more appealing to the masses, Lalgudi’s music appeals to the connoisseurs. However, when speaking about contributions to music, Lalgudi may stand above MSG as he  has contributed many ‘krithis’ , ‘Thillanas’ and ‘Varnams’ to Carnatic music. One must have good knowledge to appreciate Lalgudi’s playing,” Subramaniam said. 

Violin has a unique existence apart from vocal

“Vocalists say that many songs (krithis) have become popular due to their efforts. Their argument is that since there is no lyrics (sahitya) while playing violin, people will not be interested in it and the song cannot be popularised. But Lalgudi and MSG changed all this. Some songs can be enjoyed more when played in the violin. Songs like “Bhavanutha”(Mohanam)  when played by MSG , are a treat to the connoisseurs. Likewise Raghuvamsa Sudha (Kadhanakuthoohalam) and Manavyalakim (Nalinakanthi)  will have great appeal when played on instrument than when sung by vocalist.

‘Krithis’ and ‘Varnams’ composed by Lalgudi are sung by vocalists now. Lalgudi took up Hindustani ragas like Madhuvanti and Pahadi and composed songs in them. Thus such ragas became popular.

People enjoyed the songs without knowing the lyrics (sahitya) by hearing Lalgudi playing. He also popularised krithis like Thyagaraja’s Enthumudo (Bindumalini) and Nadaloludai (Kalyana Vasantham). It is the tune which is the essence of music,” Subramaniam said.

According to Subramaniam, MSG and Lalgudi instrumentalises a ‘krithi’ and presents them in a different way. 

“MSG and Lalgudi make the krithis their masterpieces. It is the wisdom of MSG and Lalgudi which enables them to understand which krithis are more appealing when played on the violin,” he said.

The greatness of Carnatic music

Subramaniam is of the opinion that the depth of Carnatic music is unparalleled and that only knowledgeable people in Carnatic music listen to it seriously. Elucidating his point, Subramaniam said, “I TH Subramaniamcould learn Hindustani music easily, but the Hindustani vocalist will have to put in a lot of effort to learn Carnatic music. The complexities of inflections (gamakams) , extra notes (anya swarams) and connecting notes(anuswarams) are alien to Hindustani music. The ‘gandharam’ of ‘varali’ and ‘thodi’ are really complex. These ‘hiding swaras’ are difficult to understand. A person who has learnt Carnatic music can sing any form of music while it is not possible  vice- versa.

A Hindustani musician may shine more in light music and film music as film music is more melody centric.However, the Carnatic vocalist should pay more attention to ‘shruthi.’ Carnatic musicians pay little attention to this aspect and the ‘shruthi’ goes haywire. That is why many people listen to Hindustani for relaxation. However, the instrumentalist does not have any problems in this department as any ‘shruthi’ variation is discerned immediately by the instrumentalist,”he said.

TH SubramaniamI play for the common man 

Subramaniam keeps in mind the ordinary listener while playing in solo concerts and not the connoisseur. Often members from the audience request him to play some ‘krithis’ and he gladly obliges. He also asks them to tell the raga which is being played.He opines that by engaging the audience,  their  knowledge could be enhanced and the concert also will be successful. In solo performances, Subramaniam introduces Hindustani ragas in ragam , thanam pallavi slot. Thus people will know ragas such like Madhuvanti, Shyamkalyan, Basanth ,Gurjarithodi etc. 

On Awards

Though Subramaniam, has received Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award of Kerala government and the best senior violinist award from Indian fine arts society , Chennai, he values the appreciation from the listeners as the highest award.

Subramaniam said that he hesitates to accept certain awards as he know that those were given to undeserving artists before. According to him, the so- called award thus loses its value.

“My father told me that awards should come to you; not the other way. These days artists go after awards even if they do not have any mettle. Applications have to be submitted for getting awards these days.The jury members do not properly evaluate the calibre of the artist. Instead, other criteria like sponsorship and money is being considered. Thus , deserving artists rarely get awards and those who do not have calibre, get it through back- door ,” Subramaniam said.

On Fusion music

Subramaniam agrees with many eminent musicians who believe that fusion music destroys the seriousness of music. “Fusion music is cheap. It is like doing whatever nonsense they want. Good musicians will not go for such cheap stuff. This creation of noise should not be viewed as music,” he said.

TH Subramaniam

On bad trends in Carnatic music

Over attention to rhythm

The maestro opines that rhythm arithmetics is given more attention during ‘swara prasthara’ these days and this effects the melody and manodharma and the concert quality is ruined. Illustrating his point, Subramaniam said that people especially in kerala come solely for listening to Thaniavarthanam which shows their low level of knowledge of Carnatic music.

"This over attention to Tala results in shruthi getting neglected. Keralites in particular are more interested in rhythm instruments (Tala vadyas) and not in Strings or brass instruments which produce melody. When thaniyavarthanam comes, people arrive like they are coming to see fireworks display,” he said.

No MSG or Lalgudi will be born again

MSG and LalgudiSubramaniam said that in today’s atmosphere,  no artist with the talent of MS Gopalakrishnan or Lalgudi Jayaraman will be born.The reason is simple, he says. In the days of MSG and Lalgudi, the standard of the audience and the organizers were high. Today it has deteriorated to an all-time low. They set such high standards and if the performers did not adhere to them, they were not given a venue to perform.

Kerala artists neglected

Subramaniam is deeply pained by the state of Carnatic musicians in Kerala. Noting that Vocalists as well as instrumentalists were not getting chances to perform in Kerala, Subramaniam added that violin solo concerts are also not happening in Kerala as the audience who appreciate instrumental music is less.

Temple committees' partiality

Subramaniam voiced an artists agony when he reflected on the pitiable lot of Carnatic musicians in Kerala.

"The temple committees, who conduct music programmes during festivals, do not call artists from Kerala.  90 percent of the temple committees invite artists from Tamil Nadu. They do not even look whether the artist sings well.  I have suffered a lot due to this. I performed many a time as a stand by artist when the artists from Tamil Nadu did not turn up. After, several such stand by performances, the Tamil Nadu artists themselves came to know of me and they refer my name to the organizers.

For artists from Tamil Nadu, Kerala is like a gulf country. They get huge amounts from Kerala which they do not get in their own state. Many excellent and deserving artistes in Kerala are frustrated and depressed due to not getting a stage in their own state,” he lamented.

Subramaniam said that through he acquired a name because of Tamil Nadu artists as they referred him to committees, he views this as a humiliation as his own state ignored him.

Praising the TN artistes for their hard work and dedication, the maestro said that many Kerala musicians want to acquire name easily. Noting that the Tamil Nadu Sabhas discourage performances of Kerala artists in Tamil Nadu, Subramaniam said that  Tamil Nadu artists do not avoid the music season to come to perform in Kerala or other states though the remuneration they receive in their home state is less.

Commenting on the popularity craze of people, Subramaniam said that if a carnatic musician acts in films and gets popular, people will flock to his concerts. However, he added that the audience will be hopeless with no knowledge of music.

Hearing the maestro’s words on the Carnatic music scene in Kerala, one realizes what Walt Whitman meant when he said.“It requires wisdom to understand wisdom; the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.”