Take a bow, Akkarai

Shriya Mohan | Updated on: Feb 01, 2019
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Carnatic music has a star — violinist-vocalist Akkarai S Subhalakshmi, who excels in the traditional art form even as she bravely calls out its archaic biases

Inside a quaint apartment complex in Chennai’s upscale Alwarpet area, a signboard in dark mahogany reads Akkarai’s Swara Ragha Sudha. Cross the doorstep, and it is as if the city’s bustle has stayed out with the footwear. Morning light spills into the large living room, which doubles as a music school, and settles on the jamakalams — coarse cotton carpets — upon which rest books and shruti boxes. Several kinds of tamburas lean against the walls. Deep notes of the violin waft out of the inside rooms and the aroma of filter coffee hangs in the air.

The Akkarai sisters, a big name in Carnatic music, teach in the school, founded and run by their father. “My career was decided by my father when I was seven. Thankfully, it is what I would have grown up to choose,” says Akkarai S Subhalakshmi, who, at 35, is a prominent Carnatic violinist and vocalist. At over a hundred performances a year (15 in the last December music season alone), she performs solo on the violin and is a lead violinist for vocalists. She is a singer and performs vocal as well as violin duets with her sister S Sornalatha, 32. The Akkarai sisters stand out for their rare ability to dominate both the vocal and instrumental worlds.

Their personalities are diametrically opposite. Sornalatha is quiet, thoughtful, introverted; Subhalakshmi is bold and gregarious. “Latha has a superior intellect and is always the brains behind our duos,” says Subhalakshmi about her sister. Sornalatha meticulously plans their pallavis (the opening phrase), choosing the elements of the raga they will explore together. However, it is the extroverted, more spontaneous Subhalakshmi who effortlessly dazzles on stage. “My father jokes that she does all the work and I reap all the attention,” laughs Subhalakshmi.


Heartstrings: For Subhalakshmi and Sornalatha (right), their father S Swamynathan is their guru


Sornalatha, however, sees “Subha” as a role model, caring and protective, someone who always figured out how to do it best, and made the road easy for her.

Music runs in their family. Their paternal grandfather, Suchindram SP Sivasubramaniam, was an eminent vocalist, violinist and composer in Nagercoil, and grandmother R Sornambal was a music teacher and harikatha (religious storytelling combining music and dance) exponent.

Their father, Akkarai S Swamynathan, was a violinist and sought-after teacher who juggled his music career with a bank job. After his daughters were born, he put his music career on the back-burner and poured his energies into training them. “He coached us like Aamir Khan [trained his daughters] in Dangal . Except we didn’t rebel,” says Subhalakshmi, with a laugh.

Since smaller violins weren’t available back then, Subhalakshmi had to wait until she was seven to be able to steadily hold an adult-sized instrument to start her first lessons with her father, also her guru. By then she had already been learning vocals for a few years and had even performed with her grandmother at age four.

“Having my foundation in vocals helped me relate to the instrument easily,” she recalls. By eight, she was playing the violin on stage in New Delhi, where her father had been posted on a transfer.

Empathy of a violin

Living in Delhi, Swamynathan was looking for ways to develop a rich Carnatic sensibility at home, and he turned to All India Radio for help. “Appa had this unique way to make us practise. He would tell me to imagine I was the key accompanist in a kucheri (concert) being broadcast on radio and to reproduce exactly the vocalist’s style of delivering the alapana (the creative opening to a raga),” Subhalakshmi says. It was through the radio that the great legends of Carnatic music came alive for her. As she listened to GN Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and the Alathur brothers, she would make her violin take on their personalities, reproducing the essence of what made each of them unique. Then there were the great violin exponents — MS Gopalakrishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman (whom she calls “God”), and TN Krishnan, among others. When she returned to Chennai as a 15-year-old, she stunned everyone with her versatility in playing.


A solo battle: Subhalakshmi says female musicians lose out because of their gender


“To adapt to each one’s style is the main role of an accompanist — it’s not that they’re doing something out of their way. Unfortunately, that is not happening any longer in music,” she says, clarifying, however, that the aim is not to imitate.

“It’s not about replicating long stretches and repeating the swaras . That would be mechanical. We have to match the idea, the essence of the swaras , the patterns and styles employed. That’s the principle of accompaniment. It comes from deep understanding, empathy and practice,” she says.

Today, when Subhalakshmi accompanies vocalists Kunnakudi M Balamuralikrishna or Abhishek Raghuram, flautist Shashank, or chitravina player N Ravikiran, the violin takes on the flavours of not just the vocal techniques but also captures the tenors of the instruments, like the glide of the chitravina or the tremors of the flute.

Harmony and discord

Among her many collaborations, the one that draws Subhalakshmi more fans than any other is the partnership with vocalist TM Krishna. They have performed together for over a decade, and it is as though they are tuned to each other’s mental frequencies, enough to complete each other’s musical phrases. Her bow leaps up octaves as they explore ragas such as Anandabhairavi and Shankarabharanam, and swoops low as they dive into a soul-searching raga such as Todi. She responds to his every nuance, pausing when he pauses — his eyes moist with emotion (in their performance of Amar jonmobhumi , a much-loved Bengali song, which he sang in Delhi recently) — and sometimes just unpacks the intricacies of what he has laid out, as she waits for him to gather his emotions and pick up from where he has left off.

“When I perform with Krishna anna , I really don’t know what he’s going to sing. Neither does he. That’s the best part. That’s where the magic happens,” she says, her eyes twinkling at the thrill of the spontaneity. “We are good friends. He’s a wonderful human being. That makes him a good musician,” she says.

She describes him as a rare artiste who knows how to take everyone along on stage. With him, she is not merely an accompanist but a lead performer, given her due space and appreciation for displaying her prowess, unlike some of the other artistes she knows who would get offended if she happens to steal the show.

This is among the tough lessons the music industry has taught her over the years. “As female musicians we lose out because of our gender. There are artistes I would love to play for (but) who, I know, would never have a female accompanist. But I have no regrets. I am happy to have some of the top-notch musicians performing with me,” she says. This attitude has made her choosy about whom she will accompany. Respect must be guaranteed before she’s on board.

Here, again, she finds Krishna to be different. On tours, the organiser usually puts up the lead vocalist in a fancy lodging and the accompanists in ordinary ones. “Krishna anna gives the most respect to his cohorts and would always ask to be put up with his accompanists,” she says.

Sometime last year, during a Q&A session after a concert, Subhalakshmi was asked why she didn’t play more with mainstream artistes. She replied casually and tried to move on. But Krishna stepped in at this point to say, “She has given a politically correct answer. Now I’ll tell you the real reason.” He then went on to openly speak about the gender bias in the Carnatic world and how female talent like Subhalakshmi’s was starved of opportunities from big names in the industry. “I was in tears. Nobody had spoken up for us like this before,” she says.

She is equally on board with his fearless questioning of several other norms in the Carnatic sphere.

“I support him... He is fighting to take Carnatic music to unprecedented places,” she says. Her own grandparents had, two generations ago, composed and performed a katha on Mother Mary, called Matavin Mahimai (Mother’s greatness), at the famous Velankanni church in Nagapattinam. So, last year, when Subhalakshmi played with Krishna and ghatam exponent Vikku Vinayakram at Mumbai’s fully-packed Afghan Church, it was with a sense of familiarity rather than as a breakout effort. “Yes, there is a commercial cost and some of the trolling comes my way, but I don’t bother,” she says.

Inside her room, Subhalakshmi has a poster of the Russian-American violin legend Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987). He is described as “a tornado” because of his use of the rapid vibrato, a fast tempo with superb bow control. In her performances, Subhalakshmi often brings some of the unusually rapid pace into the tanam (rhythmic melodic improvisation). She also brings staccato and octave switches, a typical Western classical influence, into her music. Besides playing with French musicians on a tour hosted by the Alliance Francaise, she has also played the violin in Denmark, Sweden and France.

“Ultimately what binds us are the seven swaras of music. It is what makes music universal even when we cannot speak each other’s languages.”

Shriya Mohan

Published on February 01, 2019

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