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Unspoken gender bias in the world of Carnatic music

Akkarai S Subhalakshmi Photo: M. Periasamy

Akkarai S Subhalakshmi Photo: M. Periasamy

Violinist Akkarai S Subhalakshmi says there is an unspoken gender bias in the world of Carnatic music.

“Silence can be killing,” declares violinist Akkarai S Subhalakshmi. She is referring to the lack of support for accompanying artistes. There is gender bias in Carnatic Music and the secondary status to women artistes affects them and it is high time we talked about it, she says. “It is not unusual for a male vocalist to not want a woman to accompany him. Sometimes even a woman vocalist is reluctant to have another woman accompany her,” she says. While, no one will admit that these divisions exist, they are deeply embedded in our sensibilities, she says.

“The responsibility to end this lies with many — the organisers, the audience, the artistes…” Subhalakshmi hastens to add that not everyone is like that and is happy that things are slowly changing. Everyone who plays good music should be given a fair chance, irrespective of their gender.”

Fortunately, her violinist father, Akkarai S Swamynathan, recognised Subhalakshmi’s genius and groomed her to become a musician. Music ran in their family.

Both her grandparents, Suchindran S.P. Sivasubramaniam and R. Sornambal, were musicians. She even performed with her grandmother, who was a Harikatha exponent. “We breathed music. I started singing when I was very little. My father was a strict mentor, and he believed in not wasting even a minute. He took me around for concerts. During these journeys, I learnt something new everyday.”

In the chilly Delhi winter mornings, she and her sister would wake up to do their riyaz.

“Those days it was just music, music and music! I had to go to school at 10, but we had to practise till nine. In the evening, we had to finish all our homework and start with the next session of practice. Sometimes, it would go on till midnight. Altogether, we practised for eight hours a day! Maybe, then I might have wished to go outside and play like my other friends. But, now I feel blessed. I am happy to be at this stage.”

Subhalakshmi had to wait till she was seven to hold a violin because back then there were no baby violins, unlike today. She was eight when she gave her first performance and began to present vocal and violin duets with her sister, Akkarai S. Sornalatha. The duo won various awards including Kalashree, the Delhi State First Award, Kala Bhushan, and Sangeetha Visharada.

Since Chennai was the hub of Carnatic music, the family shifted there in 1999, and Subhalakshmi entered the kutcheri circuit as an accompanying artiste. Her first concert as an accompanying artiste was in 1998 when she performed with Abhishek Raghuram at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club. The concert garnered huge applause because Subhalakshmi and Abhishek, who were really young, impressed the audience with their exceptional talent.

Even though her forte is violin, Subhalakshmi says it is important for an instrumentalist to be a good vocalist. In fact, she and her sister practised in the Gayaki style, where they sang first and then played the violin.

“Many people have told me that when they hear me play the violin it actually sounds like someone is singing. I imbibed the quality of vocal music. Only if you learn vocal music can you explore the instrument well.”

Subhalakshmi makes her presence felt in performances and is also known to adapt perfectly to the vocalist she is accompanying. That’s one of the foremost qualities of an accompanist. “I owe it to the early years of intensive training by my father. After listening to concert recordings and tape records of legendary singers, I had to play along with the recordings. This helped me immensely to adapt to different styles.”

Subhalakshmi is vocal about the cause of instrumentalists. It is high time they were given their due in the Carnatic Music circuit, she reiterates. “There is no team recognition. People go by the name of the singer. That’s unfortunate because a concert is an overall outcome of the vocalist and the accompanying artistes.” She realises that not all others have a choice like she does to straddle the world of vocal and instrumental music.

“So, they feel neglected and end up as mediocre artistes. And, for survival sake, they must make sure that they do not use too much of their creativity and outperform the vocalist.”

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