On A High Note – Ambi Subramaniam

Ambi Subramaniam, the accomplished violinist who dons many hats talks to RITZ

He’s a young lad who wears many hats. An accomplished violinist, a pianist, a composer, a student, a teacher, co-founder of a music band, a cricket buff and an MBA who is currently pursuing a PhD. And he is not yet 25! Meet Ambi Subramaniam, a rising prodigy in the music circuit in India and overseas. Chatting with RITZ, he lays out his plans for the year, his upcoming solo album, his dreams and what it is like to have parents and gurus like violin virtuoso Dr. L Subramaniam and singing sensation Kavita Krishnamurthy.

At first glance, Ambi Subramaniam appears like any other happy-go-lucky youngster who is juggling between work, study and friends. But beyond that boyish smile is a young man who has travelled all over the globe impressing audiences with his performances.

The year 2016 has already begun on a high note for Ambi, who performed in Europe with sister Bindu and in the US with his parents. He is now focused on recording a solo album, a pure classical one that aims to create melodious music through his violin and with a mridangam and a morsing (a wind percussion instrument).

Revealing a bit about this yet-to-be-named album, he says he has tried exploring traditional Carnatic ragas like Saramati and Malavi. This will be Ambi’s second solo album, the first, Indian Violin, having released a few years ago. “I’m quite excited about recording this one. It should be released in some months,” he says, adding in the same breath that SubraMania, the band he started with Bindu is also keeping him equally occupied.

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Experimenting with different genres of music, the band has written songs in Hungarian gypsy style, Western classical and Spanish styles, taken Carnatic ragas and even tried arranging it differently. Days in the Sun, the recently-released music video from SubraMania shot at the ruins of Hampi was one great learning experience for Ambi.  “Bindu and I were involved in every aspect of that video. Right from the storyboard, the shooting to post-production. We’re now working on more releases.” The band is a perfect blend of both their styles and was formed “to have fun”, he says with a wink. While Bindu is a singer/songwriter who loves jazz and pop music, Ambi plays Carnatic and Western classical violin.  How do they synchronise and blend the two styles to create magic? “It took a bit of time initially. It’s not like there is a jazz piece where I come and try to fit in, or a Carnatic piece where Bindu tries to find a fit. When you start playing more and bounce off ideas, you reach a middle ground. We’ve also performed with different artistes and that opens up your mind, teaching you to listen carefully to other performers.”

The ‘different artistes’ include luminaries such as Mahesh Krishnamurthy, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Dr. L Subramaniam, with whom Ambi has had the privilege of performing.

What’s it like for the boy who had his first encounter with the violin at age 3 and gave his first public violin performance at 7, to have shared stage with some of the biggest names in the contemporary musical pantheon? “The learning is tremendous as these great musicians have a wealth of experience. Attention to detail and their focus on the basics is something I’ve caught on.’’

Having been on the dais ever since he was a little boy, Ambi has no stage fear today. But if Dr. Subramaniam is in the audience, he gets conscious. “Post a performance, I’d feel I made say 5 mistakes. But appa will point out 100 more. That’s actually good since it helps me improvise.” Both his parents are analytical in the way they approach music, and Ambi has received a whole dose of healthy feedback from them. “The greatest thing they have taught me is to break down a performance.” And the learnings and feedback from his appa and amma go a long way in his new role as a teacher at the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts (SaPa – an institute started by his parents), where he teaches music to kids in a fun and engaging way. “As a teacher you learn to analyse the strengths of each student and the approach that would work best for them. I’m still learning from appa and I’m teaching. So I get to see how someone like appa would teach and that trickles down immediately, as the next day I would be teaching,” says the lad who dreams of performing at the Sydney Opera House one day. “The greatest platform I’ve ever had is at the Chicago World Music Festival. The ambience there really inspires you to do better and better.” Ambi is also a trained pianist, but uses the instrument mainly for composing.

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Hailing from this prestigious family has meant giving equal importance to academics alongside polishing his expertise in music. Dr. L Subramaniam is a doctor from the Madras Medical College, Bindu holds a Master’s in law, while his brother Narayana is training to be a surgeon. Ambi, who is an MBA (finance), is now aiming for a PhD in music, on the violin techniques of the world. “There are many violin styles and techniques and there can be a lot of sharing. c. The idea is to create one overall technique by which you can play any style of music across the world.”

Like every second kid in India, Ambi too is fond of cricket. “Virat Kohli is my favourite.” But with his doctorate, SaPa, world performances, solo album and SubraMania, there isn’t much time for the sport.

Being enveloped by music ever since he was born, it’s near impossible for Ambi to even perceive of a career in another domain. If by chance, he wasn’t a musician, what would he have chosen? “Cricket or mathematics,” he replies. He is extremely fond of both. Egg him on where we could see him say 5 years from now. “I’ve no idea. Honestly.” So what’s his one dream? “To be the greatest violinist I can be.” Does that mean being the best in the world? “I won’t say that as in my opinion, there is no such concept as No.1. How can you compare the greatest Indian violinist with the greatest gypsy or Western classical violinist? But I want to be the master of my instrument.”