When Shashank Subramanyam plays the flute, the alapana portion specially has a meditative feel that is akin to the spirit of Hindustani classical. Yet the Carnatic exponent nowhere sounds like keen to lend his rendition a deliberate north Indian touch, which is what usually happens when most of his contemporaries go for it.
Shashank, who began as a prodigy, celebrates his birthday today, putting him in the cusp of 40 years. October 14 also happens to be the date the country got an equally celebrated classical musician upcountry: Shahid Parvez. The renowned sitarist of the Etawah gharana (in present-day Uttar Pradesh), too, began his performing journey fairly early, debuting at age eight.
The 1978-born Shashank first played the flute at a kacheri when he was just six. Soon he gained fame, not just because people across the Deccan and beyond were impressed to see a little boy hold the bamboo instrument so integrally associated with the mythological Lord Krishna. (The story goes that the child, at age six, simply picked the flute of his biochemist father M.N. Subramanyam, an amateur musician, and began playing it, much to the surprise of the onlookers.)
The sheer mastery the artiste had gained over its technique and aesthetics placed most of his concerts on par with seasoned classical Indian musicians of top grade. Quite a few old-timer rasikas were even reminded of T.R. Mahalingam, widely believed to the greatest of Carnatic flautists of the 20th century. It’s widely acknowledged that a 1990 concert Shashank gave at the prestigious Madras Music Academy catapulted him to huge fame. Much later, today,
Chennaiite Shashank’s renditions retain the quality of freshness with every passing kacheri. Maybe he isn’t the busiest of Carnatic musicians in the concert circuit, but that has nothing much to do with the inner spark the instrumentalist evidently sustains all along his performances in India and abroad. His tutelage under (late) Palakkad K.V. Narayanaswamy, a vocalist celebrated for his tender approach to music that has exposed buffs to the sublime beauty of the form, has obviously helped Shashank evolve as a spokesperson of an unhurried music that tends to drill deeper into the essence of his art.
Added to that is the asset of sparkling gamakas which Shashank, initially trained by his father who spotted the boy’s talent, seems to have imbibed clinically from R.K. Srikantan, another of his vocalist gurus. The flautist and Sangita Kalanidhi Srikantan (1920-2014) also share nativity: both hail from Rudrapatna, a heritage village along upstream Cauvery, now in Hasan district of Karnataka. Another of his mentors had been Sandhyavandanam Srinivasa Rao (1918-94) of the Andhra stream of Carnatic.
While those gamakas do help any innovative musician to further make his Carnatic concerts ornate, Shashank, who uses microtones immensely and many a time goes for self-composed ragam-tanam- pallavi, tactfully restrains flamboyance when he senses that a Spartan touch can make his music still reposeful. For, the flautist also has been disciple of Hindustani icon Pt Jasraj of the Mewati gharana.
Not surprising thus that it’s a joy to listen to Shashank teaming up with sitarist Parvez, presenting Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandis with two instruments of different timbre. Typically, they show mutual respect and admiration on the stage, giving space and time to the fellow artiste to dish out a serene as well as colourful feast to the audiences.
Much like Shashank, the ustad also lives in a big city: Mumbai. Even so, again like the younger flautist, Shahid Parvez can trace a proud ancestry to a village—on the fertile plains of south-central UP. Etawah, where the Yamuna and the Chambal merge, has for long been a place of musical tradition, chiefly owing to Shahid’s family that had produced six generation of sitarists before him.
Little Shahid’s entry into classical music, though, is backed by a curious story. The boy’s father, Aziz Khan, didn’t opt to become a performing sitarist, instead went on to compose film music. This angered Aziz’s father, Waheed Khan, who wanted Shahid to retrieve the family legacy. A docile Aziz Khan quit popular music and took Shahid to a small village, where he was groomed in a “musically cloistered environment” as the sitarist’s website puts it.
The result was there to see. Shahid Parvez, 59 now, has been a frontline sitarist for over four decades now, also known for his eminence in playing the surbahar
(besides having practised tabla in the Delhi style of the percussion instrument).
Like Grammy nominee Shashank, the ustad too has his professional trail dotted with experimental music, both travelling across the world with their musical instruments. Within India, too, the two masters are always eager to continue with their north-meets- south ventures.