Tripunithura: As a pre-teen boy living in the Tamil Nadu capital, L Subramaniam would spend some of his school vacations at the family’s ancestral house in Kerala. That was in Tripunithura, a little south of Kochi, where the world-renowned violinist today had his breakfast a night after giving a classical concert.
“We used to have a jolly good time. I was a kid, spending midsummer holidays at my grandma’s house along with my (five) siblings,” the 71-year-old reminisces, with a streak of smile. “Whenever I got a chance, I’d climb up an attic upstairs and munch on the murukku that grandma would have stored in a rounded vessel.”
Six decades later, Dr Subramaniam was in the town yet again — this time to perform at the RLV College of Music and Fine Arts. On Thursday morning, when he ate masala dosa and idli at a modest restaurant near the cultural institution, the venue happened to be just a quarter of a kilometre away from where he’d stealthily eat grandma’s snacks as a 12-year-old from Madras.
“That quaint old house exists no more,” the globe-trotter shrugs, pointing his finger eastward in the neighbourhood of Chakkamkulangara temple. “It was where my mother (a vocalist) grew up…. Seethalakshmi, that was her name. My grandfather used to be a very quiet person. He’d seldom speak.”
The Padma Bhushan awardee’s father, top instrumentalist V Lakshminarayana (1911-90), also hailed from Kerala — 50km south of Tripunithura. “That’s Alappuzha. We used to occasionally stay there as well in the late 1950s,” Subramaniam trails off, seated on a chair at the ‘Gokul Tiffin Junction’ that opened six months ago. “Again, that house is non-existent these days. It was in proper town. Near Sanatana Dharma Vidyalaya, close to the backwaters. The locality has changed so much over the years that we just haven’t been able to locate the spot since.”
Percussionist Tripunithura N Radhakrishnan, who accompanied Dr Subramaniam at Wednesday’s kacheri, sits next to the violin master at the restaurant after having taken the violinist to the pivotal Poornathrayeesa shrine. “I have been playing the ghatam for the master over the past decade. Across continents. Both for fusion concerts as well as pure Carnatic,” he chips in, recalling that their first personal interaction happened abroad in 1996. “That was in France. Bordeaux. I was there to play the ghatam for another violin concert — by the Ganesh-Kumaresh brothers.”
At this, the conversation slips into Tamil, as Subramaniam recalls his toddler days in Sri Lanka, where his father was a part of the orchestral staff for Radio Ceylon. An ethnic riot that broke out in the island-nation forced the family to return to India — and settle in Madras. From there, the boy went on to do advanced studies in music: he went to the US to earn a Master’s in Western classical from California Institute of the Arts. That happened along with his intense training in Carnatic and choosing to take up music full-time after acquiring an MBBS from Madras Medical College and registering as a general practitioner.
Kerala continued to be a major force in Dr Subramaniam’s formative years as a musician. “Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (vocalist) and (mridangam maestro) Palakkad Mani Iyer were among the first masters who encouraged me to perform solo violin concerts, a rarity in Carnatic those days,” he notes. “I have had the fortune to accompany Chembai swami at the famed Guruvayur temple for which he had a special affiliation.”
For half a century, Dr Subramaniam has dazzled crowds the world-over with his mastery in the string instrument that is originally occidental. “The tuning of your violin is exceptional,” gushes Shyam Menon, a co-owner of the restaurant and a keen follower of the celebrity.
His business partner Harish Gopalakrishnan, on sensing that the chat is nearing conclusion, asks the VIP if he wants anything more from the kitchen. “Well, one more tumbler of coffee,” says Dr Subramaniam, holding the veshti cloth he had kept aside ahead of eating the breakfast.
“Food habits have changed everywhere, and Kerala is no exception. But certain tastes stay permanent,” the violinist says, cryptically. Viswanath Menon, the maestro’s right-hand man in town, reminds the septuagenarian his special liking has for the jaggery-coated banana chips. “Yeah, sharkara varatti,” Dr Subramaniam says, nodding in amused agreement.
The wizard, who married famed singer Kavita Krishnamurthy in 1999, has four children from his earlier marriage with Viji Subramaniam, a late niece of iconic sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar.
Back to the topic of his Kerala moorings, the violinist says he had of late managed to get an Alappuzha road named after his father. “But the signage, I noticed recently, is rusting. We need to revive it all. I am looking for a chance to hold a street concert there,” he adds.