Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Fake Riot


Director Basil Joseph talks about his experiences in the upcoming film, 'Godha' as well as 'Kunjiramayanam'

Photos: Basil Joseph. Photo by Melton Antony. A fan taking a selfie with Dipil Dev in Mohali

By Shevlin Sebastian

In December, 2016, the cast and crew of the upcoming Mollywood film, 'Godha', was shooting at Mohali in Punjab. “The people there were not used to seeing a film shoot,” says director Basil Joseph. “Whenever we placed a camera on the road, a large crowd would gather around us.”

In the film, there is a scene where a police officer (played by Bollywood actor Vineet Sharma), is supposed to move away from a riot situation, and make a call while standing in front of a Gypsy car.

Basil was pondering over how to shoot the scene, without a crowd gathering around. That was when he got an idea. He narrated it to the crew.

Soon, cameraman Bijith Dharmadam, Associate Directors Dipil Dev and Jithin Lal, along with Associate Cameraman Sharath Shaji stood some distance away from the Gypsy. Then Jithin picked up a small camera and said, “Action.” Dipil and the others started fighting.

As expected a crowd gathered around. There were a lot of shouting and yelling. “In the meantime, we placed a camera inside a shop and surreptitiously shot the scene of the police officer speaking on the phone, while the riot was occurring behind him,” says Basil.

So, thanks to a fake shoot, Basil could do his work in peace.

Meanwhile, the crowd mobbed Dipil thinking that he was the hero. Several took selfies. Children ran after him. Basil heard the people say, “South Indian Superstar.”

The crew had a huge laugh later on.

Basil also had fun during the shoot of his debut film, 'Kunjiramayanam'. On the first day, in April, 2015, the crew gathered around at Udumalaipettai, near Pollachi. “All the technicians, including myself, were in the age group of 24-25,” says Basil. “Most of us wore T-shirts and Bermuda shorts.”

Senior actor Dinesh Panicker stepped outside the hotel. He looked at the crowd, and said loudly, “Are these schoolchildren? Has the school bell rung?”

Another senior artiste, Seema G Nair, looked puzzled. She asked, “Who is the director? And the cameraman?” Basil quickly introduced himself and the others.

Meanwhile, the shoot of 'Godha' shifted from Mohali to Palani. It was a single shot of 3 ½ minutes length. “This was the title sequence,” says Basil. “It was a recreation of a wrestling scene from 1990. To convey that it is the past, I wanted it to be like a tableau, with the 600 extras standing without making any movement.”

The plan was like this: On a crane, cameraman Vishnu Sharma would be dangling from a height of 60 feet. Then he would come down to the ground and in a smooth movement run towards the road, where there is a jib (a boom device with a camera at one end). Then Vishnu would mount the camera on the jib and move towards the godha (wrestling pit), all the while moving among the extras. “We started rehearsals in the afternoon,” says Basil. “It took us a long time to make the Tamilians understand what we needed.”

The whole night went past, but the crew could not get the right shot. By dawn, the extras felt frustrated. Despite the crew's pleas, they began moving away. In desperation, the crew tried their last shot at 6 a.m. “There was a blue sky just before dawn,” says Basil. “It looked good in the frame. And it was with this last shot that we managed to get it right, in the nick of time.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

An Artistic Fusion

The New York-based Alexander Gorlizki did a creative collaboration with Indian artistes. The results can be seen at an exhibition, in Fort Kochi

Photos: Alexander Gorlizki; the miniature painting, 'Wish You Were Here'; the lingam tree. Photos by Albin Mathew  

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the US-based artist Alexander Gorlizki wanted to bring a one-foot tall wooden tree, which consisted of 12 lingams, in the form of branches, from Jaipur to Kochi, for security reasons, airport authorities insisted that he had to leave the top uncovered. So, one lingam was sticking out. When it passed through the scanner at the airport, security officials hid their smirks, by turning away from Alexander.

At his exhibition, at the 'Beyond Malabar' Gallery, in Fort Kochi, the tree does stand out. “It is like the tree of life,” he says. “Through the lingam, life moves forward. But the lingam has been designed in the shape of bolsters.”

When Alexander used to look at the paintings of the Kama Sutra, he would imagine the scene without the people. “What if the cushions and the bolsters came to life,” he says. “What will they talk about?”

He says that India has a confused attitude towards the body. “On the one hand, there is an absolute acceptance of sexuality, but, on the other, there is a prudishness.”

He gives an example. “There are people who pour milk on a phallus and worship it, but if you talk to them about naked women, homosexuality or transgender issues, they get embarrassed,” says Alexander.

Meanwhile, some of the eye-catching works are the miniature paintings which adorn the walls. One such work is called 'Wish You Here'. From a distance it looks like a series of rolling green hills with a river bisecting it, all against a backdrop of poppies and tulips. But a closer look reveals interesting elements: a man is sitting sideways, on an elephant, facing the back of the animal. There is a peaceful-looking penguin standing at one side, while the Virgin Mary sits on a donkey carrying a palm tree.

In the middle of the painting is a Franciscan monk holding a large fish, which is looking skywards. At the top right-hand corner Lord Krishna, along with Arjuna, are travelling in a boat on a cloud that looks like a river. “I wanted to develop a new language in miniature painting,” says Alexander.

Interestingly, this work is part of a collaboration with the Jaipur-based master miniature painter Sheikh Riyaz Uddin Bux. “So I send him drawings, consisting of a multi-layered imagery, by e-mail, and Riyazuddin and his assistants implement it.” 

Riyazuddin nods, and says, “The images of the work are sent back and forth several times, before a painting gets ready.” 

And this partnership has lasted 21 years. “Our creative friendship has lasted longer than many marriages,” says Alexander, with a smile. “I think we have grown together, as adults, with a great respect and admiration for each other.”

Apart from Riyaz Uddin, Alexander has also worked with marble carvers, shoe-makers, sign painters and sculptors, among others.

Alexander has been coming to India often for the past 35 years. He has a studio in Jaipur, which he shares with Riyaz Uddin. That is why he has named his exhibition, which concludes on February 29, as ‘Pink City Studio’. “This is my homage to Jaipur,” he says.

Meanwhile, when asked about his impressions of the country, Alexander says, “In India, unlike most Western countries, life is lived on the streets. There is an astonishing vibrancy and creativity, as well as sickness, death and poverty. We have terrible poverty in America, but it is hidden. In India, you don't hide things. For example, a dead body can be seen. I believe it is better to face the totality of life head-on.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Protecting Their Hallowed Ground

Even as the tiny Jewish community in Kochi renovates their cemetery, there are fears that part of the sacred ground will be taken away for road expansion

By Shevlin Sebastian

On November 23, 2016, Josephai Abraham (Sam) stood inside the 1.5 acre Jewish cemetery on the Kathrakadavu-Pullepady road, Kochi. It was the burial of his mother-in-law Miriam Joshua, aged 89. “When I looked around, I suddenly realised that the cemetery was in bad shape,” he says. Many tombs could not be seen because of the high grass.

There were more problems. “At one corner, neighbours had thrown their garbage, in plastic packets,” says Sam, the president of the Association of Kerala Jews. “Some inhabitants had pushed their water pipes under the wall, so that all the waste water would flow into the property.”

So Sam decided to do something, with the backing of six families of the association. Workers were hired, grass and weeds were chopped off, and, at one side, where there was a marshy pond, several layers of building waste was put in, to smoothen the surface. “Thereafter, interlocking tiles have been put,” says Sam. “At least, now, we can park our cars inside. Otherwise, we had to do so on the narrow road and it created problems for the other motorists.”

The walls have been painted white and many tombs, which were broken, have been repaired and repainted. And, on the wall, at the opposite end to the entrance, two Star of Davids have been etched, along with the seven candles of the Menorah. The Menorah has been a symbol of Judaism, from ancient times, and is now part of the emblem of the state of Israel.

However, it has not been smooth sailing. One neighbor approached Sam and told him he could not do any renovation, as all construction has been frozen. On being asked how, the neighbor said there are expansion plans for the road and the cemetery will be taken over. “I said no such decision has been taken,” says Sam.

Then, in mid-January, Gracy Joseph, Chairperson, Standing Committee for Development of the Cochin Corporation, came to inquire. “I had received complaints from the local residents that some construction was going on,” she says. “But the members of the Jewish community told me that they were only renovating the place.”

Clearly, the cemetery is under threat. “The Cochin Corporation has plans to broaden the road,” says Association secretary Dr. Susy Elias. But Soumini Jain, the Mayor of the Corporation says that the stretch in front of the cemetery has been handed over to the Public Works Department of the State government. “It is they who will do the road expansion works,” she says. “There are suggestions of building an overbridge, in front of the cemetery. But whether the government has the funds for that, I am not sure.”

Meanwhile, according to Jewish religious law, once a person is buried, the grave cannot be disturbed. It can only be removed if a relative gives permission. But the local Jews have no idea where they are, since many have emigrated to Israel several years ago. So, the Jews are anxious about whether the authorities will insist that they will have to give up a part of their cemetery. “Many tombs will be disturbed,” says Sam.

Sometime ago, the association got in touch with Israeli ambassador Daniel Carmon. Thereafter, last month, the Bengaluru-based Israeli Counsel General Yael Hashavit met Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and appraised him of the situation. “The CM said that he was aware of it,” says Mordokkayi Shafeer, the treasurer of the association.

Meanwhile, despite these tensions, the Jews come once a month to light candles and to pray at the graves. “We also come on death anniversaries and during the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) festival,” says Shafeer. “Life has to go on.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Telling Ancient Tales

Mural artist PK Sadanandan's work is one of the more eye-catching ones at the Kochi Muziris Biennale

Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Yesomi Umolu, Exhibitions Curator of the Reva and David Logan Centre for the Arts, at Chicago, stepped into a large hall, at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi, recently, her eyes widened in shock. Then, as she turned her head from one side to the other, she said simply, “This is impressive.”

So impressive that even Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stopped and spent a few minutes with the artist PK Sadanandan. The work, titled '12 Stories (of the 12 Progeny)' is an ongoing mural art work, 50 ft wide and 10 ¼ ft high.

It tells the stories from the 'Parayi Petta Panthiru Kulam', a Kerala legend, of the 12 kulams (families born to the Parayi, or women of the 'pariah' caste). Here is one story. “Varaduji is a Brahmin scholar,” says Sadanandan. “On a pilgrimage, he stopped near the banks of the Bharatapuzha river, in Kerala, saw a house, and decided to rest there.”

There he came across a smart girl and decided to marry her. But it was after a while he realised that she is not a Brahmin, but a Parayi. When word got around, he was expelled from society.

Of course, there is an underlying message in the many stories which have been depicted. “Too much of attention is being given to caste and religion,” says Sadanandan. “Once we had a society where both these issues were not that important. I also speak about the relevance of fate, the inequality of the caste system, and the role of family and society.”

Sadanandan is one of the leading proponents of Kerala mural art. “I learnt everything at the feet of my guru Mammiyur Krishnan Kutty Nair from Guruvayur,” he says.

One of the unusual aspects of his work is that he uses natural colours. So the colour yellow is got by scraping an arsenic stone brought from Afghanistan. For black, an oil lamp is placed under a clay pot for a week. The ensuing soot is again scraped away, and mixed with water, to create a black paste. As for glue it is from the neem tree.

And all these colours are applied several times. “My assistants – Anish A.K., Joby John, Anish Kuttan – and I start work at 8 a.m. and work till 9 p.m,” says Sadanandan. “It will be completed by the end of the 108-day Biennale.”

And the reason for this painstaking work is simple: it is the only way to ensure that the work will last for centuries. “The paintings at Ajanta and Ellora have lasted for so long because the artistes have used natural colours,” says Sadanandan.

Meanwhile, as visitors stream in, there is a palpable excitement on Sadanandan's face. “For the past 30 years I have been practising this art,” he says. “But I have never got an opportunity to present my work before the international art community. I feel so lucky. I am grateful to curator Sudarshan Shetty for inviting me.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Lights, Camera, 'Hallelujah'


Producer Vinod Shornur talks about his experiences in the films, 'Achanuragantha Veedu', 'Spanish Masala', and 'Red Wine'

Photos: Vinod Shornur by Albin Mathew. Mohanlal with Safi

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the shoot of 'Achanuragantha Veedu' (2006), at Peermade, an actor, by the name of DC Nair, played the role of a pastor. For the song, 'Zion Manavalan', he was supposed to raise his hands and say, “Hallelujah.”

No matter how many takes were taken, Nair just could not say 'Hallelujah'.
He could say it in rehearsals, but when the shot had to be taken, he could not speak the word,” says then production-controller Vinod Shornur. “Nair said that when he heard the word, 'Action', he felt a great tension within himself.”

So, at the suggestion of a crew member, director Lal Jose said that, instead of the word, 'Action', he would say, 'Hallelujah'. The song was played, and then Lal Jose shouted, “Hallelujah,” and immediately Nair said, “Action.” The crew members, along with the director, burst out laughing.

But on August 31, 2011, the crew of the Mollywood film, 'Spanish Masala', felt very tense. They were in the town of Bunol, 324 kms from Madrid. A shoot was going to be held, during the world-famous 'La Tomatino' festival, where revellers would throw ripe tomatoes at each other.

In the film scene, Kunchacko Boban was supposed to have fun with Austrian actress, Daniela Zacherl, who plays a Spanish diplomat's daughter. “We had put the cameras at four vantage points much earlier,” says Vinod. “At one location, Lal Jose Sir and [cinematographer] L. Lokanathan were waiting.”

There was so much of shouting and jostling that the crew were not able to communicate with each other. Along with a lady Spanish co-ordinator, by the name of Maria, Vinod was supposed to take Daniela to where Kunchacko was waiting. However, in the crowd, they lost touch with each other. But only Maria knew the correct location.

Nevertheless, Vinod kept his cool. “I knew that we would not get another chance like this,” says Vinod. “This festival takes place, for two hours, on this one day of the year. Somehow, I held Daniela's hand, moved forward and, after much struggle, by accident, I reached the spot where Kunchacko was waiting.”

After the shoot was over, Maria finally spotted Vinod. But she looked downcast. “She thought that the shoot had not taken place,” says Vinod. “But her colleague told her in Spanish that everything had worked out well. And she looked so relieved that she gave me a bright smile.”

There were bright smiles, too, on the sets of 'Red Wine' at Kozhikode During the shoot, at a lodge, just behind the reception desk, an advertisement to cure body ailments was put up, by the unit's art department, along with a mobile number. This belonged to Shafi, who was a member of the crew. But he did not know about it.

From the early morning, the crew members called Shafi, from other phones, asking whether he was a doctor. “I could hear him say that it is a wrong number,” says Vinod. “This went on throughout the day. Once I saw him getting angry asking the caller to check the number before calling.”

Soon, Mohanlal came to the set. When he came to know of the prank, he also called Shafi. Mohanlal changed his voice and said that his wife was unwell. Since the number came as 'Private number, not identified', Shafi thought it was an international call. “He came and told me that people were calling him from abroad,” says Vinod. “By this time, he was so distracted, he could not work properly.”

So, finally, it was Mohanlal who revealed the prank to Shafi and the crew had a big laugh once again. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Crossed 10 lakh visitors

Dear Friends,

Through the grace of God Almighty, have reached a milestone.

My blog, 'Shevlin's World', has received over 10 lakh visitors.

Grateful thanks to each and every one of you who visited, to my former and present seniors and colleagues, and the management of The New Indian Express, and my family.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why Did God Make His Life So Difficult?

(Reminiscences of my Parsi neighbour)

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent afternoon, as I drifted off to sleep, at my home in Kochi, I suddenly remembered Navroz, my former Parsi neighbor in Kolkata. He suffered from schizophrenia and stayed at home the whole day. He told me that he had fallen in love with a Parsi girl, but she did not reciprocate. That disappointment aggravated his illness.

And it was then that he began having hallucinations. One day, he told me that he had a telepathic link with Sona Prakash, who lived on the ground floor, while he lived on the floor above. “She keeps telling me, ‘I love you',” said Navroz. “How can I say no? I am also in love with her.”

It was so fantastic that my mouth was agape. As for Sona, when she heard what Navroz was saying, she made a grimace, although she was polite when she met him. That was because everybody in the three-storey building knew about Navroz's mental illness.

Sona had a younger brother Mukesh. Navroz felt he needed to win over Mukesh and would take him out for movies or lunch at a fancy restaurant. However, Navroz footed all the bills. But money was not an issue. As a neighbour once told me, “The Mistrys have a lot of Tata shares.”

A few years later, Sona got a job, and moved off to Singapore. Navroz felt deeply disappointed.

Soon after Sona’s departure, one afternoon, Navroz went to meet a family in a nearby street. After the visit, instead of returning home, he went to the terrace of the five-storeyed building. The place was deserted. 

Navroz climbed on to the parapet, stood undecided for a few moments, and then he jumped. Thankfully, for him, a branch of a tree broke his fall, before he landed on the pavement. Thereafter, he was rushed to the hospital, and, although he survived, his lower back was damaged. He always wore a brace after that.

One day, he described, in detail, how he had jumped. I asked him why he did it. “I was not feeling good,” he said.

I left Kolkata in the late 1990s. And I went out of touch with Navroz. One reason could be that it was so unnerving to have a talk with him. Later, I heard that his mother had died. Thereafter, his 80-year-old father and Navroz moved to Mumbai and are now staying in a Parsi colony. But this was a decade ago.

Is his father alive? If not, how is Navroz managing? Why did God give him such a difficult life? He was a nice human being, always polite and well-mannered. But he was helpless against the hallucinations that ravaged his mind. 

Hope you are keeping well, Navroz. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India Editions) 

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Stretching The Muscles.......

Anubha George propagates the little-known yin yoga 

Photos by K. Shijith

By Shevlin Sebastian

The hall, at 'Me Met Me', in Panampilly Nagar, Kochi, is in semi-darkness. At one corner, against the wall, there are a row of muted lights. There is a wooden table nearby. Just in front of it, on the mat-laden floor sits Meeta Kurian (name changed). Hovering next to her is yoga instructor Anubha George.

The posture which we will be doing is called the reclining butterfly,” says Anubha. “For this, we need a prop, like a bolster.” Anubha then places one behind Meeta. Thereafter, Meeta lies down, her back on the bolster. Then, she extend her legs in such a way that the soles of her feet are pressed together.

This posture is a hip-opener,” says Anubha. “It is great for your menstrual cycle, especially if it is irregular. This posture allows us to breathe more deeply, so we can inhale into the belly and then let out a long, and soft exhale.”

Anubha is a proponent of a lesser known yoga called yin. It has elements of Hatha yoga, Taoism, and western science. Asked the difference with other systems, Anubha says, “In most yoga practices, you move from one posture to another. This is a yang way to do things. That suits most of us fine. Because the mind likes to move from one thing to another. But yin is softer, deeper, and a slower way of doing yoga.”

You are in one posture, from two to five minutes, depending on which asana you are doing. The best aspect is that it helps your mobility. “Your connective tissues, joints and ligaments become stronger,” says Anubha. “And the reason is because you are holding a posture so much longer.”

Her students agree. Freelance IT consultant Pallavi Sharma says. “There are parts of the body that are very stiff. Thanks to yin yoga, all these are stretched out and the flexibility of the body is enhanced. You begin to feel a lot more relaxed as well as lithe. At night, you get a good sleep.”

Interestingly, many sportsmen use yin yoga. “In their profession, their muscles are used so much,” says Anubha. “So, this stretching helps in lengthening their careers.”

Anubha came across yin yoga in England more than ten years ago. She had gone there, following her marriage to Dr. Sanju George, a psychiatrist, whom she met and fell in love when both were in Bangalore. Interestingly, Anubha is from Rajasthan. 

In England, Anubha worked in BBC Radio 1. However, recently, the couple, with their children, five-year-old Rahul, and two-year-old Juhi, relocated to George's home town of Kochi. And the move has been good for Anubha. Simply put, she loves Kochi.

I don't want to live anywhere else in India now,” she says. “I love the people, the place, food and the weather. The people are shy, but welcoming, and they take you in. My parents also love Kochi. They come three to four times a year.”

Meanwhile, apart from her yin yoga classes, Anubha is also a guest lecturer, in journalism and communications, at the Sacred Heart College of Communication. She also teaches a radio module at a journalism school in Kottayam. Her husband, on the other hand, works as a consultant in Rajagiri Hospital at Aluva.

Life is good,” says Anubha. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

When A Cow Gave Birth


Production controller Aroma Mohan talks about his experiences in the films, 'Thinkalazcha Nalla Divasam', 'Commissioner', and 'Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (Jagratha) 

Photo by Melton Anthony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

For 'Thinkalazcha Nalla Divasam' (1985), director P. Padmarajan made an unusual request. He wanted a cow to give birth during the shoot of the film. The aim was to show the pain of childbirth.

Poojappura Radhakrishnan, who was an assistant to Padmarajan, was given the responsibility. “Somehow he managed to locate such a cow,” says production controller Aroma Mohan. “He checked with a veterinary doctor who confirmed that it was nine months pregnant. Like human beings, they also give birth in the ninth month.”

The cow, with black and white skin, was brought to the location at Pravachambalam, in Thiruvananthapuram. “Padmarajan insisted that whatever time the cow gave birth, the entire crew should be present,” says Mohan. “After every day's shoot, we made sure a security guard kept watch, so that he could inform us in case the labour pains began.”

One day, in the afternoon, the news came that the cow was on its way to giving birth. The crew immediately gathered around. “Padmarajan shot the entire sequence, lasting four hours,” says Mohan. “He used up 800 feet of film, but, in the end, showed only a few minutes on the screen.”

In the film, Kaviyoor Ponnamma plays the matriarch, who lives in a large bungalow. Her children, played by Karamana Janardanan Nair, Mammooty and Ashokan, have plans to sell the house. “So, that was the significance of the calf's birth,” says Mohan. “Padmarajan wanted to show that children forget the pain that a mother undergoes on behalf of them.”

Meanwhile, in the script, for the film, 'Commissioner' (1994), scriptwriter Renji Panicker wrote this line: 'In front of the Thiruvananthapuram University College, there should be a lathi-charge.'

More than a thousand junior artistes were roped in. There were actual policemen, from the special armed police camp, at Peroorkada, as well as make-believe ones. A Circle Inspector (CI) also wanted to take part. “I told him that if he could stand a little distance away, as we had placed several dust bombs at different places,” says Mohan. “He said, 'I have seen so many actual bombs bursting, so what is a dust bomb?'”

Soon, the shooting began. All the bombs burst, on schedule. There was dust all around. The next thing Mohan noticed was the CI looking completely black, because he was covered with dust, from top to bottom. The unit members panicked. They decided to take him to the Medical College Hospital.”

After a check-up, the doctors confirmed that he was not injured at all,” says Mohan.

But the shoot came to a halt. And it needed the intervention of K. Karunakaran, the then chief minister, to enable the crew to do the shoot on another day.

At the Vismaya studio, at Giri Nagar, Kochi, Mohan pauses, and sips a cup of coffee, before he launches on his next tale. “For 'Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (Jagratha)', there is a scene where murder suspects are standing in rows for an identification parade on an open ground,” says Mohan.

The climax needed to be finished in one day. Director K. Madhu felt tense. But Janardhanan, Jagathy and the other actors seem to be laughing at some joke. Jagathy had a cloth packet in his hand. Madhu looked at them and shouted, “Silence.”

Jagathy quickly gave the cloth packet to Janardhanan, who took it instinctively.

When Madhu spotted the packet, he got very angry with Janardhanan, as it was not relevant to the scene. But Jagathy kept a straight face. However, in the evening, when the shoot was over, Jagathy went to Madhu and confessed that the packet belonged to him. The director gave a knowing smile. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Like Father, Like Son

Ambi Subramaniam, the son of the legendary violinist L. Subramaniam, is a worthy heir

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the lobby of the Crowne Plaze hotel, Kochi, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Ambi Subramaniam takes out his violin and places it very delicately, like as if it is a new-born baby, on a low glass-topped table. “You can understand that this is very precious to me,” he says.

There is a story behind the violin. Years ago, his father, the acclaimed violinist L. Subramaniam was doing his master's at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita, USA. One day, when he was walking down a road, he spotted a violin, with a dislocated back, hanging from the ceiling of a music shop.

Somehow, he got the feeling 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 (Rs 900 at that time).

Thereafter, Appa fixed it and started playing it for years,” says Ambi. “But now I use it. This is a 1731 violin made by the famous Italian violin-maker Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi. The more you play, the better is the sound and the more valuable it becomes.”

Ambi had come to Kochi to give a two-hour solo performance at the invitation of the Gosri Gana Sabha. Asked whether he has butterflies in his stomach, the 25-year-old says, “My advantage is that I started so young, 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 in Durban, South Africa, while performing, with his father, during the One World Music Festival, in 2007, there was a very vocal audience. “Before us, there was a well-known Brazilian guitarist, 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 artiste.”

Asked about the charms of the violin, Ambi says, “It is one of the most versatile and adaptable instruments. That is why it is used from Carnatic to Western. The violin is everywhere.”

And Ambi is also everywhere, performing all over the world. Of course, his father has played 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 only three years old. “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’.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)