Music and Beyond: Bringing classical Indian music to the masses with Shashank Subramanyam

Shashank Subramanyam 

Shashank Subramanyam is considered the leading exponent of classical Indian flute music. He is joining the Montreal-based ensemble Constantinople for a concert Sunday in the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on Sussex Drive. Before the performance he talked with ARTSFILE. 

Q. What pieces you will be presenting on Sunday?

A. We will be presenting pieces that have been composed by myself and other members of the band. The pieces composed by me represent, in general, Indian classical music. In the Indian classical music tradition, there are no specific compositions made for instruments. Everyone, from the vocalists to the instrumentalists, has a common repertoire. However in case of the concerts with Constantinople, the pieces have been composed for this particular concert tour and is generally made for the instruments involved.

Q. There are two types of Indian flute. Can you explain the difference between the two?

A. South Indian classical music is played through a nine-holed bamboo flute. Whereas, North Indian classical music is played through an seven-holed flute. The tonic note or the reference note is produced, in South Indian style, by covering two holes from the top. Whereas it is three holes closed from the top in the North Indian flute. South Indian flutes (Pullanguzhal) traditionally are shorter than North Indian flutes (Bansuri) (they are) capable of producing high pitched and low pitched sounds respectively. However, during my career, I brought in a multi-flute transposed fingering technique covering a big range of D bass and shrill piccolo — that is the longest to the shortest of flutes.

Q. How do they differ from what a western flute

A. Indian bamboo flutes have no keys on the surface of the flute unlike the Western silver flute. This is because Indian classical music is full of glides between notes and intricate nuances that are hard to produce with keys on top of the holes which only move upwards and downwards. Playing the bamboo flute, especially in Indian classical music, is by use of a lot of intricate work done the fingers.

Q. Is there a specific type of bamboo that is best suited to the Indian flute and where is it found?

A. There are many species in Indian forests ranging from the South to the Northeast of India. The South Indian bamboos have thicker rims compared to the Northeast bamboos. The bamboo stems used for flute making have a diameter between 0.75cm to around two inches. However their utility is determined by the limitation of human fingers and their ability to hold and operate comfortably.

Q. You have been performing for more than 30 years… At what age did you start learning music and was it on the flute.

A. I was initiated into the world of music at the tender age of one, when I was found to have responded to music vigourously. My father, who was my first teacher, taught me music more or less like a language. I had intense training beginning from my age of three.

I was the first professional musician in my family though my father was an amateur flautist. He had a profound knowledge in music. Because of a lack of opportunities then, my father could not make music as his profession. I learned the flute merely by observing my father playing it at home and I had no teachers for the flute. However, as is the tradition, I pursued learning vocal music from legendary vocalists from age three and in both genres of music from India.

Q. You have been nominated for a Grammy for an album with the guitarist John McLaughlin. What, when and how was the record prepared?

A. He invited me to perform with his band Remember Shakti and subsequently he decided to live in India for six months during 2007 to compose music for the album Floating Point which was released in 2008. I was invited to be a part of this album and it was truly a wonderful experience. The album got nominated for the Grammys in 2009.

Q. You have about 70 CDs to your name, does that one stand out?

A. My first recording was produced when I was 12 years old and since then 70 of these CDs produced more or less represent my evolution as an artist and person. Each album is good in its own right and is different from each other.  It is really hard to say which one stands out.

However working with McLaughlin, especially on Floating Point, will always have a special place in my life and journey in music. The music presented in Floating Point is Jazz and South Indian fusion between guitar and flute. Such albums have a worldwide audience compared to pure South Indian classical records. Floating Point was very successful in bringing more attention to Indian classical music because of McLaughin’s music and name. In fact, in this big world, it is extremely difficult to get the attention of music loving people to focus on the classical arts from a far away country like India.

Q. You have played around the world and with some amazing artists such as McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia and Zakir Hussain. What is it like to work with artists such as these?

A. I have collaborated with many legendary musicians, jazz bands, classical quartets and orchestras. Every one of them has taught me a lot. All the names you have mentioned are legends on their instruments. It was a big challenge but not difficult to work with them. At the end, I was always immensely satisfied with the outcome and, as always, every collaboration with musicians from around the world is a learning experience.

Q. Is musical collaboration at the heart of classical Indian Flute music.

A. Musical collaboration is an extremely important area of my music at least. However, unlike the musical instruments of the west, the keyless bamboo flute has a limited ability to fuse Western and Indian music genres. However the sonoric bamboo flute does have its own merits. It produces beautiful sounds that sounds almost like the human voice. South Indian musicians also have, in general, greater understanding of the most complex rhythm system of South India. This enables them to contribute immensely in a collaboration especially in aspects of creative exploration and improvisation.

Q. There seems to be a strong spiritual element to this music. Can explain this?

A. Indian music is indeed deeply spiritual. Music is a medium for expression of spiritual thoughts. India has one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Our ways of life are both religious and spiritual and this help us to achieve an absolute spiritual state. In Indian tradition all our musical compositions are about Gods or the spirit.

Q. How did you get connected to Constantinople?

A. One fine day six months ago I received an email from Constantinople asking me to partner with them in these concerts. I was pleasantly surprised. With Persian music being very close to Indian classical music in its presentation and characteristics, I found it very interesting to work with them. I also found Constantinople to be very good band with wonderful musicians, especially Kiya Tabassian. It has been truly a pleasure working with them so far.

Q. Is there anything you haven’t done that you would like to do?

A. I still have many things to do in my musical life — composing, learning more about harmonies and chord progressions, set up a world class music school for Indian Classical music, winning a Grammy and so on. Most importantly, I wish to take Carnatic music and the bamboo flute to all corridors of the world. Indian classical music, I believe, still has a ways to go to achieve parity with jazz, western classical music and so on. Another passion for me since my childhood is to fly a plane. I have played synchronized flight simulators and hope to fly a real one if at all possible.

Q. Do you think it is important to explore other musical cultures?

A. It is extremely important for musicians to learn about other music cultures and to interact with musicians from around the world. There’s always something new to learn and incorporate in one’s own genre of music. It’s also a chance to share the rich tradition of Indian music. I have been exposed to the world harmonies, jazz improvisation and the ability to compose new pieces. Someday I would like to acquire a deeper understanding of these subjects.

Q. The world wide web is making it much easier to explore different traditions. Can music bring us closer together?

A. The internet has been an extremely useful tool for practically every aspect of our musical careers. We publish, publicize, exchange, rehearse, teach and learn music on the internet. As for it bringing people together — it sure does. However, the type of music that I play and the western counterparts whom I play with, are generally appreciated around the world by intellectuals. While it brings some people of the world closer, it may not reach the masses. There is still a big a gap between music for the masses and the intellectuals.

I hope to take my music and the instrument to newer audiences who have not been exposed to Indian classical music.

Music and Beyond presents Under the Indian Sky
Featuring Shashank Subramanyam and Constantinople 
Where: Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat
When: Feb. 18 at 4 p.m. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.