Ambi and Bindu Subramaniam, of SubraMania, belong to a distinguished musical lineage, and have shared the limelight with their parents for many years. Their father, Dr L. Subramaniam, is an acclaimed Indian violinist, composer, and conductor; while their mother, Kavita Krishnamurti Subramaniam, has been a top Bollywood playback singer.
The brother-sister duo started “SubraMania” as a new contemporary musical outfit, by fusing Indian classical elements with pop, rock and jazz. And yet the band’s sound remains distinctly their own.
Ambi Subramaniam, who is now a renowned violinist and composer, has been performing since the age of seven; and Bindu Subramaniam, vocalist, pianist and songwriter, made his stage debut at the age of 12. After establishing their credentials as solo performers individually, the two decided to get together for SubraMania. “Bindu and I used to play music together when we were growing up,” Ambi tells Guardian 20. “But we hadn’t really collaborated officially. The idea of SubraMania was to take our work in a different direction and create a genre where we were both equally comfortable. We were clear that we didn’t want to play music where one of us composes something and the other just tries to somehow fit in. It was formed with the idea that we can explore different things and not be limited to one particular genre.”
Bindu adds to this: “Originally, we thought of it like a fun experiment, but from then to now, we have seen a different voice emerge, a sort of sound that is identified as SubraMania, and is distinct from each of us separately or from our family tradition. We have used this space to collaborate with different artistes and experiment with different styles of music from around the world.”
SubraMania has performed across Europe, the United State and India. In January 2016, the band conducted a tour of Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, playing at venues ranging from concert halls to festival grounds, from clubs to corporate centres and even college campuses. They have collaborated with Grammy winners Hubert Laws and Ernie Watts, tuba virtuoso Oystein Baadsvik, blues harmonica legend Corky Siegel, flamenco guitarist Carlos Blanco, Bollywood music director Aadesh Srivastav, indie-pop legend Lesle Lewis and American Idol drummer Russ Miller.
After so many live performances across the globe, Ambi says his favourite venue remains the Millennium Park in Chicago. “I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of playing there four or five times. The quality of sound they are able to get in that place, despite it being open-air is amazing.”
Bindu has fond memories of their Spanish tour. She says, “The energy from the audience was riveting. I love how music can transcend language barriers, and the audience understands what you’re trying to convey, whether it’s in English, Tamil or Sanskrit.”
“We have worked hard to accept gratefully what our parents have given us, but also tried to create a new identity, based on what music speaks to us.”
During their shows, SubraMania don’t mind collaborating with other artistes. “Collaborating with other musicians is an invigorating experience,” says Bindu. “It is something we like to do a lot with SubraMania. I think it’s very important for every musician to be open-minded. By collaborating with other musicians, you learn so much about other styles of music, and this makes you a better musician. Whenever we collaborate with a new artiste, we make it a point to understand their style of music, and where it could
Coming from a musical background has proved useful for both the musicians. On being asked about their lineage, Ambi says, “In many ways, my parents’ careers strongly influenced mine. I’m quite lucky to receive the training that I did, and to have met some of the greatest artistes in the world. Since I interacted with great musicians at a very young age, I realised early on that if I wanted to become a musician that was the standard that I needed to meet.”
But having celebrity parents can also take its toll, since the bar is always set very high for the children. On this, Bindu says, “It’s always been difficult because the expectations are so high. There’s always going to be this sort of public perception that you are from a certain family and people expect things of you. We have worked hard to accept gratefully what our parents have given us, but also tried to create a new identity, based on what we feel in terms of what music speaks to us, through SubraMania.”
Ambi is the violinist in the band, and the role of this instrument is central to SubraMania. “Growing up, there was always music at home. My father gave me my first violin when I was three years old. It was a tiny violin, and I would try to imitate whatever he was doing. I would listen to great musicians across genres, countries, and cultures—that has had a huge influence on the way I think of music today. I’ve had a well-rounded musical experience, since I also learned to sing and play the piano at a young age. In fact, I was probably a better singer than violinist as a child, but the violin always took center stage even then. While I’m a terrible pianist, I enjoy composing on it.”
Bindu says she has always been enchanted by her mother’s voice and the “ethereal quality it has”: “Being in the US, I didn’t always realise how famous my parents were. All these musical legends were just uncles and aunties to us. But music was always around us. We had music lessons and there was always music playing in the house.”
With various songs and albums to its name, SubraMania has been performing live, as well as recording songs prolifically since its inception.
But do they prefer the stage over the studio? “They are different skills altogether,” says Ambi. “But if I have to choose one, I would pick a live performance. The energy and ambience of a nice crowd is something that is difficult to replicate in a studio.”
Bindu adds: “I love both and they are very different. Since a lot of the music we do is improvisational, every live performance is different. I love the energy we get from the audiences, and that influences what and how we play. The studio, on the other hand, is a place of intimate creation, and honest expression. It would be very hard to choose one over the other.”