THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: As Shashank Subramanyam sits cross-legged, coaxing melody out of an empty bamboo piece, you don’t know what to expect. He glides through raga after delicate raga with sheer clarity, building onto an intense crescendo. And when the light, wafting notes swell into an intricate rain of rhythm, you feel entranced. Apart from the depth and dynamics, it’s the incomparable allure that defines his music, a style so brilliant and consummate.
From the child prodigy with an uncanny gift to a Grammy-nominated musician, he has definitely come a long way in a career spanning more than three decades. “I don’t consider myself a master, learning is a never-ending process for any true artist,” says the flute maestro.
It was his father who initiated him into the world of wind instruments and by the time he was three, Shashank could recognise all the 72 parent melodies. “He says he spotted my talent as a nine-month-old when I went missing at a wedding. My parents found me near the nadaswaram player, quite vigorously enjoying the music. I think music is just like a language, you should expose a baby to music just the way you expose him to other activities,” he says.
Shashank is often praised for his signature style, a unique technique that’s nearly impossible to emulate. Ask him about the method and he says, “You cannot explain any style, it has to be felt.” He adds that style is not something an artist acquires by intent, but part of an impromptu progression. “But the one person responsible for my style is celebrated flautist T R Mahalingam. My father took me to him when I was five, he heard me for 15 days and at the end of it he advised my father that I shouldn’t listen to any contemporary flute recordings.
He even asked my father to stop playing flute at home so that I can develop a style free of influences,” he says. After that young Shashank was only exposed to vocal music of the highest order and was never taken to any flute recitals. “At six I made my public debut and during my childhood I used to play flute for 10 to 12 hours every day,” he adds.
A self-taught flute player, who has never trained under any instrumentalists, he asks his students to go off their guru and carve a niche for themselves. “I have trained with great vocalists like Palghat K V Narayanaswami and Pandit Jasraj. Whatever I learned from them vocally, I found a way to translate it to flute. I didn’t seek any advice or help from the experts and now when I think, it was integral in developing my own style,” he says.
He has done hundreds of concerts in a range of varied environments, collaborating with Hindusthani masters, jazz players and symphony orchestras. He says every type of music teaches you something, “because one day you are challenged with this instrument which can produce something you are unable to recreate and you start working on it.”
He doesn’t think the classical streams of Carnatic and Hindusthani are mutually exclusive, rather two symbiotic systems that sharpen the artist in you. “It’s very important that Carnatic musicians should have an exposure to Hindusthani and vice-versa. It’s very beneficial as both have some unique features. Hindusthani is melodically very strong and they have a beautiful way of raga development. And when we come to Carnatic you find the rhythm immaculate,” he says.
As a globe-trotting musician he finds foreign audience more well-versed in Indian arts. “However, South Indian music is yet to reach the global scene. There is a certain bias towards Carnatic which I am trying to break along with many others.” He says there is a continued resistance from North Indian circuits to accept Carnatic. “We must have hosted all Hindustani legends here, but the reverse has never happened in Northern states.
Carnatic is an alien form to many great concert chains held in North,” he adds.
At the same time he believes Carnatic has stagnated a bit in terms of instrumentation, as there is an obvious factor of redundancy. “The repertoire has also not changed much. We are challenged by the factor that Carnatic music is often connected to a religion which has affected it as an art form. There are beautiful instruments that have gone extinct or on the verge of getting extinct,” he says. He considers Carnatic a great science by itself, “but unfortunately it has ceased being an art and is being explored as a religious form of music.”
He finds Hindusthani more flexible and popular because of the freedom its practitioners enjoy. “In Hindusthani all instruments including sitar, flute and sarod, have their own repertoire and you can come up with your own compositions. There you are not compelled to present the compositions by Thyagaraja or Diskhiatr. But that openness is still missing in Carnatic,” he adds.