BENGALURU: When saxophonist M S Subbalaxmi first started learning how to play the instrument, her music, she says, sounded like “someone was dragging a chair around”. But today, Subbalaxmi is blowing minds across the country as one of the few professional female saxophonists in India. Subbalaxmi, also known as Saxophone Subbalaxmi, still remembers the first class she had with her guru, Dr Kadri Gopalnath. Aged 13 then, she was the only girl in the class, and her eight male classmates pulled her leg. “My guru taught me the sapta swara (Sar, Re, Ga...) that day. It took me an hour, but by the end, he was convinced that I could manage the saxophone,” recalls the 36-year-old Bengaluru resident.
The instrument needs massive lung power, and while learning to play it is one challenge – besides the fact that it is expensive (her first saxophone was for `12,500) – performing was another ball-game. Out of the 100 letters her father would write to temples and sabhas, seeking performance opportunities for her, only a few would translate into shows. “Nobody believed a girl could play the saxophone. If the main show was at 6pm, my slot would be at 12pm, giving me barely an audience,” says Subbalaxmi, who today plays the 3-5kg instrument for two-and-a-half-hours in packed halls.
The situation is better today, but Subbalaxmi is still fighting to prove her prowess. Stating that she has never taken a break in her career, she reveals that she also performed a day before giving birth to her son in 2009.
Though she plays a Western instrument, her traditional roots in music still come through in her renditions of Carnatic music on the saxophone. She also prefers to wear a silk saree and traditional Indian jewellery for every performance. She says, “It’s my USP.”
Also, her performances typically begin with Carnatic songs, before progressing to fusion songs, and ending with pop and dance numbers. The diversity in her audience shows how far the instrument has come in the country. And how far it will go. The biggest indicator, she says, is the availability of the instrument and its accessories, like the reed and the mouth piece, in stores. “In 5-10 years, we will have as many saxophonists as other instrumentalists in India. Hopefully, this will include more women too,” she says.
While Subbalaxmi steals the spotlight on stage, her husband and manager Kiran Kumar ensures the show runs smoothly. The couple got married in 2009, and Kumar, who was initially an IT professional, found that his weekly off coincided with his wife’s performance dates, giving the two barely any time together. “We knew either one of us would have to make a change,” he says. “I decided to make the switch. There are many techies like me out there. But there aren’t many women saxophonists.”