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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’

When Swamynathan saw that his daughters had an instinctive interest in music as small kids, he was elated. He told himself that what happened to him wouldn’t happen to them.

Written by G Pramod Kumar |
Updated: December 6, 2019 1:10:02 pm
Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai S Swamynathan daughters Akkarai S Subhalakshmi and Akkarai S Sornalatha. (Express photo: Rajappane Raju)

As the famous Margazhi Music Season that attracts classical music lovers from all over the world to Chennai begins this month, we are happy to present our second annual series on Carnatic music. Over the next five weeks, we will be featuring the life-stories, musical experiences and the perspectives of five top Carnatic musicians through our long-form interviews. Our effort is not only to help art lovers get a closer look at the musical idioms of some of the brightest artistes of our times, but also to take Carnatic music to more people. We kick off the series with Akkarai Sisters

Akkarai S Swamynathan or his two daughters don’t watch movies much; but on a long distance flight, a Hindi movie that featured an oversized Aamir Khan caught his attention. To while away time, he started to watch the movie and instantly got lost in it.

Sitting next to him, his daughters noticed how intently their father was watching the movie. This is unusual, they told each other.

By the time the movie got over, Swamynathan was quietly sobbing. Without saying much, he held his girls close to him as tears rolled down his cheeks.

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The movie that melted Swamynathan’s heart was Aamir Khan’s Dangal in which a veteran wrestler who couldn’t make it big in his time moulds his daughters into world class wrestlers against all odds in a male dominated society. The movie was about a father’s limitless love for his daughters, his stunning commitment to women’s empowerment and equality, and his lifelong care to ensure that his daughters broke through deep-rooted patriarchy and pursued excellence in a sport that was the bastion of only men. 

The girls reluctantly begin to amble along the path he made, and finally sprint to glory. 

The story of Swamynathan and his daughters was somewhat similar too. And that’s what made him cry.

Swamynathan was born in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu to a well-known musician-couple Suchindram S P Sivasubramaniam and R Sornambal. Although he started learning music early and became an excellent violin player, he couldn’t pursue it as a profession because of his full time job as a banker, a miss that he regretted throughout his life. 

But when he saw that his daughters had an instinctive interest in music as small kids, he was elated. He told himself that what happened to him wouldn’t happen to them. “If they are talented enough, I would do everything possible to make them world class musicians,” he vowed to himself.

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai Sisters with their father and guru, violin exponent Swamynathan.

Akkarai S Subhalakshmi, the elder of the two daughters, started learning music under him at the age of four. As she was too tiny to handle a violin, he started her off in vocal music. His younger daughter, Akkarai S Sornalatha, born three years later, also was musically inclined and started learning with Subhalakshmi. While their friends played sports and games and had fun outdoor, the girls’ world revolved around only Carnatic music. They practised relentlessly under the watchful eyes of Swamynathan. Their life-force was music and its rhythm, what Swamynathan set for them. They grew up singing and playing the violin. 

When Subhalakshmi was seven, Swamynathan had to shift with his family to Delhi following a promotion. Moving his girls out of a place that was the capital of Carnatic music was an initial setback that he didn’t expect, but there was no choice. Shifting out of Chennai meant losing the opportunity to be in the midst of doyens of Carnatic music and the opportunity to attend their concerts, learn from them and also accompany them sooner or later. He knew that how much ever he tried, he wouldn’t be able to create such an exhaustive and high quality environment in Delhi, where Carnatic music only meant rare concerts by visiting musicians and small scale programmes in local temples and south Indian associations.  They would miss the continuous exposure to high quality music and concomitant practice required to become full-time musicians.

However, he was not willing to give up. Just like how Aamir Khan created an Akhada in his farmland to train his daughters, Swamynathan also found a way out, an unusual innovation: All India Radio (AIR) classical concerts be it Carnatic or Hindustani. He asked his daughters to practise along with the classical concerts whenever AIR aired them. His command to his daughters was simple: “play along as if you are the accompanist, and be focussed”. And, he wouldn’t tolerate any lapse in concentration. They also learned from renowned Carnatic teachers in Delhi, V Janakiraman and O V Subramaniam, as well as the latter’s daughter Padma Natesan.

The girls started practising with radio concerts, whether it was early morning or late night, and were soon playing with the top names of Indian classical music, not just Carnatic, but also Hindustani. Swamynathan kept a watch on them like a hawk and soon they were able to reproduce anything, however complex, they heard regardless of who the main musician was. Playing by the ear became their second nature.

Under their father, both were training in vocal music too. Slowly, they became popular in Delhi’s Tamil and south Indian music circles and temples. Often along with their father, they played as a trio.

People in Delhi called them Akkarai Sisters, the duo that are now rated among the top in Carnatic music.

By the time she was 12, Subhalakshmi was skilled enough to play anything – be it complex sangathis, phrases, korvais or even ragas that she may not have heard before – on her violin. Their meticulous training in both vocal and violin and their exposure to masters through the radio concerts ensured the sisters were pitch-perfect, note-perfect, laya-perfect and knowledgeable about music and various styles. 

When well-known percussionists J Vaidyanathan and Dr S Karthick visited Swamynathan’s family on a concert tour in Delhi, they heard the sisters sing and play the violin. They were really impressed and advised Swamynathan to shift to Chennai because they thought it was time the girls performed where it mattered the most. So, after a gap of nine and a half years, he returned to Chennai with his daughters that he trained in his own Akhada, in his own school of music, Swara Raga Sudha. 

The first concert in Chennai that Subhalakshmi remembers was with Abhishek Raghuram, one of the outstanding Carnatic musicians of the present generation. Hailing from a family of illustrious musicians, he already had the reputation of a child prodigy, that too with the lineage of renowned mridangist Palghat R Raghu and Violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman. 

And Subhalakshmi? A completely unknown girl with no distinguished tutelage or widely known musical pedigree. 

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai Subhalakshmi in concert with Abhishek Raghuram.

As the concert began, Abhishek wowed the audience right away with some sangathis; but what equally surprised the audience was that it instantly found a precise echo in Subhalakshmi’s violin. And Abhishek was quick to appreciate what he heard: “Bale” he said with a smile even as people noticed that the girl was not like those beginners who performed before friends and relatives. Abhishek continued to thrill the audience and Subhalakshmi kept following him with absolute precision. The concert was a roaring success. 

It was the beginning of the rise of a new star in Chennai’s classical music world. 

“Who’s this girl?” people asked each other even as Swamynathan wiped tears of joy.

From then, there was no looking back. She played with all major musicians and got noticed for her creative reflex to instantly play along with absolute precision, however small or big a musician was, and her ability to improvise. When she accompanied vocalists, there was always a give and take that made concerts animated. Even as an accompanist, she left her imprint in raga alaapana, swara kalpanas, neraval etc. That was the stamp of her music. 

Years of relentless practice made her violin resemble her inner voice. The sisters also learned vocal music from Padmabhooshan P S Narayanaswamy and Chitraveena N Ravikiran. Her sister Sornalatha focused more on vocal and violin duet concerts with Subhalakshmi. She also spent more time on research that contributed to the intellectual content of their concerts. “She is the intellectual of the two,” says Subhalakshmi as well as Swamynathan. She is mostly the one who selects new ragas, new compositions and the one who composes pallavis, korvais etc. Sornalatha also has created her own compositions and occasionally accompanies singers such as TM Krishna, Flute Shashank, Abhishek Raghuram and Kunnakkudi Balamuralikrishna.

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ TM Krishna with Akkarai Subhalakshmi.

Twenty years after they returned to Chennai, Akkarai Sisters are among the top vocalists and violinists in Indian classical music. They straddle three worlds – violin duets, vocal duets and accompaniment. They have accompanied well known musicians over the years and now are seen mostly with TM Krishna, Chitraveena Ravikiran, Abhishek Raghuram, Kunnakkudi Balamuralikrishna and Flute Shashank and less occasionally with others. In a year, they perform in about 100 concerts in India and abroad. 

Although they were under the strict vigil of Swamynathan, the sisters were never caged birds. Subhalakshmi travelled alone at the age of four to Nagercoil to be with her grandparents and learn music from them. They made her sing in between their Harikatha concerts which attracted enthusiastic response from the audiences. She travelled unaccompanied on concert tours across India as a teenager, sometimes even to the hinterlands by local buses and trains. Just like Aamir Khan in Dangal, Swamynathan wasn’t worried at all about her safety because he was sure his training was tough enough, not just for music, but also to face life.

In their longest interview ever, the Akkarai Sisters spoke to us about their life and music. The answers are by both the sisters with Subhalakshmi often taking the lead. 

Once Carnatic musicians singing as a duo was much in vogue. Do you think people still like two people singing together?

Yes. When two people sing together, there will be much more energy, and throw. The way you employ voice will be attractive. Moreover, it will also give considerable volume and depth to the concert. However, if there isn’t enough coordination, things can go wrong, particularly when you sing compositions. You need to be quite careful about patantharam, sangathis etc. It’s like singing in the same voice. If you are singing alone, there could be variations in compositions, but not when you are together. 

At the same time, each of us are completely free during manodharma (improvisation). It actually reflects the acumen and uniqueness of two different singers. The difference in voices and styles, the ability to employ voice techniques etc will sound interesting and sometimes often thrilling when two people sing. 

Although you both have been learning and performing music together for years, do you surprise each other while in concert?

Oh yes, it happens often. Actually the thrill of classical music is this unpredictability. For instance, we were singing Raga Sahana once and suddenly she throws up a sangathi (variation) that I have never heard from her. I told myself, “wow, this is nice.” Apparently it was because before the concert, she was listening to the Sahana sung by her favourite singer. Such occasions make the concerts brighter, and enliven the audience. She also throws up many surprises on laya patterns as well.

Can you tell me about the remarkable technique that your father employed to make you more skilled while you were in Delhi – playing live to concerts on AIR?

Since we were in Delhi for nine and a half years in our childhood the concert opportunities were fewer and far between, and that was a handicap. To make up for that, our father devised a unique method. He asked us to play along the musicians when AIR aired concerts as if we were the accompanists. The only dictum he had was that we shouldn’t make mistakes because of lack of concentration. So we assumed that we were the real accompanists and played virtually with the masters of not only Carnatic music, but also Hindustani. That was an amazing training that equipped us to deal with any musician or style of music and also helped us to get a nuanced understanding of the music of the masters. I remember playing to the broadcasts of GN Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Alathur Brothers, Bismillah Khan, Bade Gulam Ali Khan, N Rajam and others. Our father also made us play to cassette tapes of masters. They were our most cherished moments. He also made me perform with top classical dancers such as Swapnasundari, Jamuna Krishnan, Leela Samson, and Raja-Radha Reddy to gain live concert experience because of the limited opportunities in Delhi. The media reviews of those concerts would carry at least one paragraph about my violin.

It’s assumed that instrumentalists have a better understanding of notes and control over them and hence can handle them with better precision. How does your experience on the violin influence your singing?

Yes, it’s true that if you are adept at instrumental music, particularly a fretless instrument such as violin, you will have a more precise understanding or control of notes, their tiny variations and positions. It also makes the gamakas and the details clearer. Since there are no frets on violin, you need to work a lot harder and be absolutely precise to get right the positions of the notes. We can see and feel the notes when we sing.

In terms of skills, it’s a huge asset. However, how you use them is your musical instinct. Similarly, the learning from singing also adds value to our violin renditions.

Vocal training must be helpful on the violin particularly when you play compositions right? Like the gayaki ang in N Rajam’s Hindustani violin.

Yes, when you sing, you have to be extremely mindful of the meaning and emotions that the composer may have had in mind. When you employ the same care in your instrumental music, it makes the experience brighter and more meaningful.

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai sisters performing a vocal duet as children.

Similarly your prowess on the violin or as accompanists must be enriching your vocal music as well?

True, that’s a great advantage of accompanying great musicians. That we have been accompanying high quality musicians improves not only our music on the violin, but also vocals. As accompanists, we are unknowingly learning and assimilating from musicians of various styles and character. This exposure is a great advantage and hence I guess musical imaginations happen quite naturally.

But you should also be careful not to go overboard. See, whatever sounds good on the violin may not be good for vocal music and vice versa. When you play the violin, besides your music, you would also be tempted to show your expertise on the instrument and most often it would be enjoyable as well. But if you use the same variations and techniques in singing, it may sound inappropriate and even bad. Therefore, we have different approaches to vocal and violin. Making that choice, drawing that line as to what to use and what not to use is certainly a challenge. Probably 25 years of musical experience has given us some distinction to make that call.

Violin or vocal music, which is harder?

Of course, violin is harder. You have to put twice or thrice the effort to get it right on the violin. But, if you are well trained and are constantly learning, both aren’t too difficult. However, both needs a lot of discipline, practice and hard work!

Since you perform with musicians of different musical styles, skills, idiosyncrasies etc, what kind of preparation do you need? Before a concert, do the vocalist and the percussionist share some details of their plan with you?

Not really. Most often, we get to know what’s going to happen only when the artist starts performing. But that’s not the case with only us, but the standard practice. But it doesn’t matter with people with sufficient experience. As far as we are concerned, since we have always trained ourselves with music that was unplanned or unpredictable, I guess we can certainly figure out the notes, the gamakas and phrases and the variations of even unfamiliar ragas. In fact, this ability to instantly grasp, process, reproduce and also innovate is a basic skill an accompanist should possess. Even to falter at times is inevitable and it is a part of the learning experience.

The most thrilling aspect of being an accompanist is this spontaneity and the ability to play ball with an unpredictable musician. Almost 90 per cent of the musicians that we play with aren’t completely decided about their scheme when they get on to the stage. They themselves change on the spot from what they had on mind. In Carnatic music, one has to be spontaneous. It’s not rehearsed music. 

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai Subhalakshmi’s famous concert with Abhishek Raghuram in Chennai in 1998.

How big is your repertoire? Do you keep adding new ragas, compositions, pallavis etc regularly?

I think it’s fairly big because we have been singing and playing the violin for 25 years. We do try to explore new ragas and learn new compositions. Sornalatha works a lot on that. She keeps exploring what to learn, what to do etc. She also has done a lot of pallavis. Our father also constantly suggests that we explore new ragas and learn new compositions.  

Do you have a fixed plan for a given concert and how much do you stick to it.

We will have an idea, but we also change according to the situation. It depends on our voices on a given day, our co-musicians, the stage, the place, the nature of the audience, our own mood, sound system etc. Some times, things change dramatically too.

If you quantify them, how much will be those last-minute changes?

Probably 50-50, but that doesn’t matter because spontaneity is unavoidable in Carnatic music. When I first got on to the stage at the age of eight, I didn’t even have an idea of what I was going to play. I played whatever my father asked me to. My father always used to say and believe that if you want to be a good accompanist, you have to be extremely spontaneous. 

Favourite composers, ragas?

It’s a difficult question to answer. The more we delve into the compositions of illustrious composers, the more we get to realise their greatness. The experience is just divine and inexplicable! 

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai Subhalakshmi accompanying Chitraveena Ravikiran in her young age.

When it comes to ragas, as our father used to always tell us since our childhood that every raga should be your favourite, and that’s when you can give your best! This attitude really helps especially when you are an accompanist too. Of course, when we perform as a duo, we have the choice of taking up a raga that we feel like performing on that particular day.

Which do you have an affinity for – heavy ragas or light ragas?

We like both. And we try to incorporate both in all our concerts.

Have some ragas surprised you? Say, even in familiar ragas you suddenly discover new facets, expressions and elements of aesthetics that hadn’t occurred to you before? 

Yes, it often happens and it should happen. For instance, each time when we sing Todi, it surprises us with the experiences and possibilities, although it’s a very popular and widely heard raga. Each time it opens up new spaces for creativity. There are many ragas like that. It is very hard to single out a raga. 

Do light ragas also provide such depth of experience?

Yes, since we are required to handle any raga, new ideas and imagination must keep happening — whether we are singing or playing violin. It should be a natural process. Most musicians feel it too.

What would have been your most played raga?

It is very difficult to single out a raga. We do not remember very vividly as to what ragas we have played the most; but when it comes to planning a concert, we certainly will include one Pratimadhyamam and one Shuddha madhyamam raga as our main & sub-main. We try to include at least one vivadi raga as well in most of our concerts. 

Do people keep away from vivadi because they are difficult to sing or play?

We don’t know if artistes keep away from vivadi ragas, but there is a myth that if a musician dwells on vivadi ragas extensively, his/her life span will be shortened. We certainly do not know if that’s true or not. Since the notes are so close, to learn and sing/play them is not so easy. You need to know the distance between the notes, embody them and deliver. It requires a lot of practice.

But your command over notes because of the violin must make it relatively easier.

Yes, it’s definitely easier to understand the notes, but presenting it with precision requires a lot of practice, be it vocal or on an instrument.

How important is raga alapana in Carnatic music and do you include vivadi ragas in your concerts?

As mentioned earlier, whether it’s vocal music or violin, we always try to include at least one vivadi raga in almost every concert. We may or may not sing it elaborately. Since the two of us sing together, we cannot elaborate more than two ragas in a concert because of lack of time. Raga-singing takes quite a bit of time for us. We strive to pay attention to the minutest  of details and try to sing with considerable clarity.

Raga alapana is the most important aspect of Carnatic music. In fact, when we were young, our father used to measure the time we took for raga alaapana. For instance, he would ask us to sing ragas like Kalyani, Kamboji, Keeravani, Sankarabharanam, and so on and  measure the time we would take. If there were repetitions, he would cut the time. He would also encourage us to explore more. “You sang for 15 minutes today, next time, make it 20, but the sangathis should be new,” he would say. It’s not easy to sing longer without stretching and repeating. Probably because of the strict vigil of our father, we instinctively didn’t repeat much.

How far will you go to express the musical imaginations that come to you during a concert. Would you go ahead and attempt those ideas even if you feel that things may go wrong?

Actually, a true artist should be uninhibited to express. For a true musician, each concert is a unique experience. When you are immersed in a raga, even if the details and ideas are vividly clear in your brain, sometimes you may not be able to express them. Some days are like that. In such situations, we let go of them and do the best we can because we are not singing for ourselves, but for an audience. But on those days, we would certainly be upset why we couldn’t actualise our ideas.

Why do they happen? Is it because the voice doesn’t respond to your imaginations?

It’s not just about the voice, but the intransigence of the mind I guess. Probably, because of that particular day too. But on some days, even if you go with a completely empty mind, the concert becomes a spectacular success. We start singing a raga, it start getting aflame and then there’s no stopping. It just keep spreading to a metaphysical world. Such experiences even surprise us.

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai Subhalakshmi performing with her father as a kid in Delhi.

Probably because of your stay in Delhi or because you have been exposed to a lot of Hindustani music, there’s an aesthetically beautiful influence of Hindustani in your music. Sustaining notes, the Hindustani style glides and gamakas, tans etc. I still remember your Pantuvarali in 2017 in which you blended Pantuvarali with Poorya Dhanashri. 

I think these things happen to us naturally. Since childhood, we are exposed equally to Carnatic and Hindustani music and hence we respect and are attracted to both. We try to synchronise them without making it sound bad. It’s possible only in some ragas. For instance, when we sing Todi or Sankarabharanam, we can’t think of Hindustani even remotely, but Hindustani style suits ragas such as Vagadeeshwari and Pantuvarali. Suppose we are singing Kapali in Tamil and try to make it sound Hindustani. It will be awful. 

I have noticed that the present day musicians have a lot of depth in their music, not only in terms of knowledge and skills, but diversity of their techniques, styles, voice modulations etc. What do you think of them?

That’s a very good sign for Carnatic music. We think one of the reasons for that is the wider exposure the new generation has because of technology which makes all kinds of music, past and present, from any part of the world accessible. But, talent, skills, imagination, practice and perseverance along with exposure makes it wholesome. 

Since violin is a Western instrument, do you pay attention to Western violinists? At least to look at their techniques?

Yes, our most favourite violinist is Jascha Heifetz. He is beyond our imagination. It’s really amazing how effortlessly he plays the violin however complex the music is, that too with absolute perfection. It’s impossible to be like him. No amount of practice will make you like him. That’s the mysterious beauty of music. People like Jascha are the embodiment of God! What else can we say? There’s this caprice by him; when you hear him play that you wonder if it’s humanly possible to play like that.

Have you tried his techniques in your music?

Not really, but his music inspires us. We could perhaps try to adapt some techniques in our violin concerts.

Do you practise Western compositions?

No. But, just for the love for Western music we sometimes play along recordings at home. Not on stage.

Since you mentioned caprices, have you tried Paganini?

As we said earlier have tried to play at home just for the love for that music. Since we haven’t been formally trained in Western style, we cannot play full length compositions. Also, as you may know our violins are not tuned like western violins. A lifetime is not enough to master any one form of music.

You both started off as vocalists, but probably there’s a wrong notion that you were violinists-turned vocalists. Is there any chance of you doing only vocal concerts at some stage in your career? 

As you know, we had actually started with vocal and then also learned violin. In fact we are trained in both. And throughout our career, we had done both vocal and violin, on our own as well as accompanists and will continue to do so. All the three streams – vocal, violin duets as well as accompanying – are dear to us and we won’t give up any of them.

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai S Subhalakshmi. (Photo: Rajappane Raju)

In terms of numbers, how much of your concerts are vocal and how much violin?

It depends on the demand. During the Margazhi season, vocal is more in demand and hence we may do more vocal concerts. If we combine both domestic and overseas concerts, we think it would be equal. In the recent past in Israel, we were requested to sing during a violin concert. Dr David Shulman, the famous Israeli writer, asked us if we could sing “Hiranmayeem Lakshmim” in Raga Lalitha. That was a pleasant surprise to us as overseas demand is more for instrumental concerts.

As an accompanist, who are your favourite musicians?

I have accompanied legendary vocalists and instrumentalists such as Dr M Balamurali Krishna, T V Gopalakrishnan (TVG), Dr N Ramani, T K Govinda Rao, R K Shrikantan and many more since the age of 16. I feel extremely blessed and humbled to have got the opportunity to share the stage with the doyens of Carnatic music. My concert experience with Balamurali Sir is something that will stay fresh forever in my memories. I just can’t express how blessed I felt. Same with TVG mama as well. I still continue to perform with him and the encouragement he provides me on stage is absolutely a blessing!! TVG mama spotted my talent while I was in Delhi and gave me a solo concert opportunity at the age of 11. But of late, I play mostly with Chitraveena N Ravikiran, Abhishek Raghuram, T M Krishna, Kunnakkudi Balamurali Krishna, and some others.

You have mentioned about your association with Chitraveena Ravikiran quite early in your career. How influential has he been on your music and career?

My introduction to Ravikiran Sir was through Prof. T R Subramanyam (TRS) in 1999, TRS mama knew me from Delhi and when Ravikiran Sir mentioned to him that he was looking for a violinist for his production called “Translation”, TRS mama suggested my name. It was a unique production with just two violins and two dancers from Carnatic and western styles respectively. This was presented at the Music Academy. Since then, I have been playing with him in all his major concerts as well.

Ravikiran Sir is a never-ending ocean of music. When I accompany him, it’s a continuous learning experience. I have learned many things by playing with him such as raga nuances, spontaneous approach to music, and his creative approach to laya aspects.  

Akkarai Sornalatha. (Photo Rajappane Raju)

Some time back in a concert somebody asked him if he could play Maanji as the main raga. It’s not a raga that is commonly explored in detail, but he instantly agreed and started playing. I have never heard him saying no to a request. It is because of him that I got the rare blessing of sharing the stage with legends of Carnatic music to name a few, Palghat R Raghu, G Harishankar, T K Murthy, Umayalpuram K Sivaraman as early as in my teens, in his concerts. He has been encouraging me since then.

You must have been the youngest violin accompanist in Chennai then?

Probably, yes.

And Abhishek, another musician that you have been associated with for a long time?

As I mentioned earlier, my first Margazhi concert was with Abhishek in 1998 at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club. That concert is talked about even today! I have been playing with him ever since. He has been a very special artiste to me as my first concert in Chennai was with him and even today after playing with him for so many years it is as fresh & awe inspiring to be on stage with him. 

From the time I have known him, I have always seen him talk in awe about the greatness of the yesteryear legends & the way they have handled our music! This has always enriched our musical thought process. 

What made Subhalakshmi more famous in the recent times is your association with TM Krishna. You are his accompanist in many of his high profile concerts across the country. What’s your experience of playing with him?

I have been playing with Krishna Anna since I was 16-17 and it has become more regular in the last ten years or so. Be it on stage or off stage, it’s always a thrilling experience with him! He is not only a wonderful musician, but also a person who really believes in equality and doesn’t shy away from raising his voice for the causes he believes in. 

Once when I was in a concert with him in Chennai, someone threw a question to me regarding me performing more duets with my sister than accompaniment. I tried to answer it in a very polished manner but, Krishna Anna immediately took over and said, let me tell you the actual truth, “it is a male dominated field where artistes don’t like to have a woman accompanist on stage with them” and elaborated more on it. I have never seen anyone talk so openly about these issues when they have nothing to gain from this. My father and myself were truly touched!

Also, working with him on collaborative projects, especially the one with the Jogappas (the transgender people) has changed my socio-cultural perspectives. It was a transformative experience. 

Moreover, we also come from a secular background. Singing Christian songs or going to churches and mosques had never been a big deal in our family. Long ago, our grandparents had composed and staged a Harikatha (a classical music based story-telling form) on Mother Mary titled “Mathaavin Mahimai” (The glory of the Mother) at the Velankanni shrine. Issues such as caste, religion, temple, church or mosque don’t matter to us. The only thing that matters to us is music. That’s all.

In your violin and vocal duet concerts, how do you split your roles?

Usually, in our concerts we elaborate one raga each. When it comes to singing/playing neravals, kalpana swaras and tanams, we split them equally. This is the usual format in any duo concerts. 

Do you depart from the traditional format of concerts? I am asking this because of your association with TM Krishna who doesn’t seem to believe in the Ariyakkudi format.

No, we more or less stick to the format.

How do other art forms, and also other forms of music influence your expressions?

Besides Carnatic, we also listen to a lot of Hindustani music. It’s been a habit from childhood. We have collaborated with many hindustani musicians and also have collaborated and performed concerts with Jazz and Pop bands in Europe, but even then our music would be Carnatic-based. We don’t do fusion for the sake of fusion. We are open to experiments only when our music is not diluted. We have toured with a Jazz band in Sweden and Denmark, with a Pop band in France and India, and have been a part of Melharmony concerts conceptualised by Ravikiran Sir. They are all very satisfying experiences.

Do you need to prepare a lot to perform with western bands? I am asking this because of the fundamental difference in the style and structure.

Yes, indeed. If we are using their compositions, we need to learn and practise. When it comes to improvisation, we do it our way while they stick to theirs, but only in a way where we complement each other. 

When we collaborated with the Pop band, the composer used to suggest us on where exactly our style of music would fit in. Similarly, they used to modify their music according to our inputs. Since our music has gamakas (oscillations), it’s not easy for them to play. Therefore, there’s no point in getting on stage and doing something without much preparation. It will be horrendous. 

Wouldn’t our Korvai type rhythm arrangements be suitable for Jazz since they improvise a lot with the drums?

Yes, we have composed many Korvais for them and they would take them down as notations and practise. We tell them where to start etc. In fact, during our last tour, they beautifully presented many of our Korvais.

And not just korvais, they were equally fascinated by our gamakas and tried to incorporate it in their instruments. For instance, if we are playing Keeravani with them, they too would try to bring in some gamakas in the notes they play. They are very enjoyable occasions.

Past masters that have influenced your music

We both have been greatly influenced by Nadaswaram vidwan TN Rajarathinam Pillai. He is like true God and his music, the essence of our lives. We have a very rare recording of Todi by him, shared by Kunnakkudi Balamuralikrishna – another top class musician and a very good friend with whom I have been performing from the time we moved to Chennai -and we often wonder if we ever would be able to play or sing like that. It’s unthinkable, absolutely pure and too divine. Both of us keep listening to his music. The emotion in this particular recording is inexplicable.

Lalgudi mama (violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman) is also like God to us. We have grown up listening to him. The duets with his sister Lalgudi Srimathi were awe inspiring. Also the way he accompanied great musicians such as GN Balasubramaniam, Alathur Brothers, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and so on are absolutely inspiring! His reflex was stunning – he would just transform himself into the musician he accompanied.

Similarly, we are greatly inspired by violin maestro MSG mama (MS Gopalakrishnan) for his precision, clarity and pure notes and the way he handled vivadi ragas with absolute ease! It’s a treat to hear him perform with one of our  favourite yesteryear artists Thanjavur S Kalyanaraman Sir. Also, the pure tone and clarity of Prof. TN Krishnan mama is soul stirring. This is just to name a few.

Akkarai Sisters: ‘Carnatic music is a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection’ Akkarai S Subhalakshmi. (Photo: Rajappane Raju)

Among the vocalists, GN Balasubramaniam was a marvel – the ease with which he sang. We have heard him only on recordings, but even there you can sense how inspiring he was to  his accompanists. That’s the true expression of an artist. 

Sri Semmangudi is our model for his musical ideas, raga essence, neraval singing etc while MD Ramanathan is an encyclopaedia of music. Any artiste who wants to pursue excellence can learn many things from his music. The minutest details he was able to produce in his singing was just phenomenal.

We were also greatly inspired by Flute Mali, T Brindha and ML Vasanthakumari. In fact the list is endless. Among the percussionists, G Harishankar, Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai, Palghat R Raghu, Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, Karaikudi R Mani, Valayappatti AR Subramaniam and Haridwaramangalam A K Pazhanivel (whom we had the opportunity to perform with in our vocal duet concerts) are among our top favourites.

Your paternal grandparents, Suchindram S P Sivasubramaniam and R Sornambal, were distinguished musicians themselves and often your concerts feature your grandfather’s compositions. Could you throw some light on their music and body of work? 

Our grandparents were the first generation artistes in our family and they are our main inspiration – both for our father and for us. 

Our grandfather Suchindram S P Sivasubramaṇiam (1917-2003) was a multi-faceted genius who hailed from Kanyakumari District in southern Tamil Naḍu. His life was one of complete devotion to music, and he was not only a brilliant vocalist, violinist and a dedicated guru, but also a highly inspired composer who created a great treasure of compositions in the classical and devotional, as well as Harikatha and patriotic genres.

He began his musical journey as a vocalist, and was self-taught; he learnt and practised entirely on his own. With his passion and hard work, he became a reputed performing artiste by his teenage years. He later learned under renowned musician and composer Aruṇachala Annavi of Boothappaṇḍi in Kanyakumari. He soon established a school of his own, ‘Sarasvati Gana Vidyalayam’, and trained many successful disciples.

Some of our grandfather’s masterpieces include ‘Ananda Taṇḍavam’ from the Harikathā ‘Karaikkāl Ammaiyar Charitram’, which features a prayer to Lord Shiva. Each line begins with svaraksharam (the lyrical and sol-fa syllables are the same), starting from the middle-octave ‘ga’ (third), and advancing line-by-line up to the higher-octave ‘pa’ (fifth). Another composition, ‘Paḍum Paṇiye’ in  Raga Kalyaṇi, is a prayer to Lord Murugan composed in the format of Saint Tyagaraja’s Pancharatnas, with its madhyamakala charaṇams set to each of the six yatis (mode of rhythmic progression such as expansion, reduction, and so on). Another famous composition, ‘Ketta Varam Taruvan’, sings the glory of Lord Murugan in five stanzas set to each of the five ghana ragas, with each raga’s name subtly embedded in the lyrics through wordplay. Also notable was a Tamil composition in Ranjani that featured Tamil literary works ranging from the Sangam period to the 20th century. He has also explored various gatis, rare ragas, different compositional forms and styles, and so on.

My grandmother R Sornambal learned vocal music from him who taught her the art of Harikatha as well. She subsequently became a great Harikatha exponent in her native place and neighbouring districts. She has staged over 10 very successful Harikathas.

How important is the bhava (expressions) in your music

When you touch a note, it has to be from the heart. The interesting thing about performing classical music is that the emotion has to be created on the stage. We really don’t know how it happens. For instance, when we sing Shyma Shastri’s Bhakthi-oriented compositions, it naturally happens. It’s about how well you embody the music as well as the meaning of the text. Interestingly, intellectual compositions also generate deep emotions. Some times, some words are enough to trigger the bhava.

In your opinion, what is ideal Carnatic music?

Music cannot be absolutely perfect. In every art, there has to be some imperfections, unpredictabilities etc, otherwise it won’t be beautiful. If everything is so perfect, there’s no charm. If one practises one’s music so very well and repeats it the same way everywhere to a fault, that music becomes lifeless. Classical music must take birth and flourish into whatever form it takes using the energy from the singers/players, the audience and the surroundings right in front of your eyes. It’s a spontaneous art, not something that can be rehearsed to perfection.

Does your father still influence your music?

Certainly, he does. He’s everything for us. You may recall that in Dangal, Aamir Khan’s daughters rebelled against their father. We will never do that. We would also like to attribute all our achievements to our Mother A Janaghi who has been a pillar of strength and support to us.

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