At the lobby of the Crowne Plaze Hotel in Kochi, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Ambi Subramaniam takes out his violin and places it very delicately—as if it is a new-born baby—on a low glass-topped table. “You can understand that this is very precious to me,” says Ambi, who was in the city for a two-hour solo performance following an invitation by the Gosri Gana Sabha.
There is a story behind this violin. Years ago, his father, the acclaimed violinist, L Subramaniam, was doing his master’s at California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita, USA. One day, when he was walking down a street, he spotted a violin, with a dislocated back, hanging from the ceiling of a shop. “Somehow, he got the feeling that it could be a good instrument,” says Ambi. Since it was in bad shape, the shop owner sold it to L Subramaniam for a mere $100 (which was `900 then).
“Appa fixed it and played it for years,” says Ambi. “But now, I use it. This is a violin made by the famous Italian violin-maker Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi in 1731. The more you play, the better is the sound and the more valuable it becomes.”
Interestingly, this 25-year-old rarely gets butterflies in his stomach before a performance. “My advantage is that I started very young, say Ambi. “So I always feel confident on stage. But after a point, you realise that it is not really in your control. You practice, you do your best, but you cannot predict what happens on stage.”
Indeed, there are unexpected reactions. Once when he was performing with his father during the One World Music Festival at Durban, South Africa, in 2007, the audience was very vocal. “Before us, a well-known Brazilian guitarist had performed, so everybody was dancing and the adrenalin was flowing,” says Ambi. “When we came on, we started with classical Indian music. Amazingly, they started whistling during the alaap!”
In contrast, at the Radio Hall in Warsaw, Ambi played for half an hour and got no response. “Everybody was silent,” he says. “But when I finished, they gave me a standing ovation. That is their style. They don’t want to disturb the artist.”
Asked about the charms of violin, Ambi says, “It is one of the most versatile and adaptable instruments. That is why it is used in Carnatic and Western music. The violin is everywhere.”
And Ambi is also everywhere, performing all over the world. Of course, his father has made a powerful influence on his life.
“He is my guru and a legend in his own right,” says Ambi, who lost his mother when he was just three. “The highest point in my life occurred in Lille, France, in 2007, when Appa and I did a performance together. At night when we returned to the hotel, Appa looked at me, held my hand, and said, ‘Now you are a musician’.”