(February 28, 2022) A diminutive pre-teen girl clutching an outsized saxophone – the image alone was enough to make Subbalaxmi an object of ridicule among her boisterous male peers. Her unwavering determination to learn the instrument only made things worse – how could a girl dare to do something meant only for boys? “Tell her to learn how to cook,” they called out. “At least that will help her in the future.” The 12-year-old Subbalaxmi, however, refused to back down. She sat through the class, with the blessing of her Guru, Kadri Gopalnath, who fully supported this attempt to break free of a stereotype. Her Guru passed away in 2019 and before she steps on stage, Saxophone Subbalaxmi always takes a minute to close her eyes and pay him tribute.
Unconditional support from her teacher and her father MR Sainath, went a long way but Saxophone Subbalaxmi’s personal journey was far from easy, at least in the early days in Mangalore where she was born and brought up. Back home, disapproving neighbours would complain about her evening riyaaz. Whether or not she was fazed by the mockery, Subbalaxmi had no intention of giving up. She continued learning and later went to Chennai for higher training.
Amongst numerous brilliant performances across the world, her memorable one has been at Singapore – a concert for the Tamil Association. She had been expecting Indians in the audience but to her surprise there were many Singaporeans. She immediately improvised fascinating them all. With over 3,000 performances, and awards like the prestigious Padmabharathi and Yuvakala Bharathi amongst others, Saxophone Subbalaxmi has also made it into the Limca Book of Records.
Making music count
Today, ‘Saxophone Subbalaxmi’ has made a name for herself in an industry where rules are sacrosanct, and she boasts a fan base across the world. And if she broke stereotypes as a child, she continues even today – her music has its own signature style, a blend of Indian and Western, played on an instrument that came to India from the West.
She began training in Carnatic vocals at the age of five, having been born into a family of musicians. Her grandfather, MR Rajappa was an Asthana Vidwan in the royal court of Mysuru. Her uncles were percussionists and her father, an exponent of the Mridangam, was an A-grade staff artiste at All India Radio. Growing up, Subbalaxmi would accompany her father as he travelled for shows with Padma Shree Kadri Gopalnath, the noted saxophonist. That was a turning point. “I found divinity in his Gamakams,” Saxophone Subbalaxmi recalls, in an interview with Global Indian. “I fell in love with the instrument but I didn’t realise then that it’s a very difficult instrument to play, especially for girls, because it requires a lot of lung power.”
Subbalaxmi soon announced that she would learn nothing but the saxophone. It was a radical choice. Her surprised father decided to stand by her. He encouraged her dreams, as did Kadri Gopalnath, who even volunteered to be her guru. That’s how Saxophone Subbalaxmi became Gopalnath’s first female disciple. Her determination and hard work also impressed her two older siblings, both of whom also took to the instrument. Today, after two decades spent performing in India and abroad, Saxophone Subbalaxmi is a role model for young women.
Charting her own path
“My challenges mostly are off stage, though,” she says. “There is simply no time to relax when you’re on tour. The only time I manage to sleep is on the flight. Eating hours can also get erratic; this leads to other problems like weight gain. Late-night treats after performances will also play havoc.” She keeps herself fit through yoga, swimming and gymming.
It was during a concert in Chennai, she met the man who would become her husband – Kiran Kumar. The couple married in 2009. Kumar manages his celebrity wife’s business. “Without each other, we would not be able to do anything,” she says, glowingly. They live in Bengaluru with their 12-year-old son, Rudransh.
Her daily riyaaz remains the mantra to her success, Subbalaxmi admits. She keeps herself updated with the latest trends while ensuring that she stays rooted in tradition. “I’m also particular about how I present myself. On stage, I improvise as it’s important to stay in touch with the audience’s taste,” says the musician who has an affinity to the stage. “Many tell me that I enjoy myself when I perform and dance along to the music. To this, I say that I am deeply honoured to be playing music written by the greatest composers – how I can do them justice if I lack energy and excitement? Simply put, I just enjoy the whole atmosphere,” she adds.
Even Western audiences clamour for her trademark fusion style. “My inspirations come from all over the world too,” Subbalaxmi explains. She has always returned, over the years, to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar. Tunes like Baahon Mein Chale Aa, Nile Nile Ambar Par and Chura Liya Hai Tumne always find a spot in her concert repertoire. “Once, I had to perform Jab Koi Baat Bigar Jaye eight times on audience demand,” she recalls, laughing.
Not backing down
At the age of 12, she was teased and told to learn how to cook. She did, in fact, find her way around the kitchen, and cooking is one of her hobbies today. “I’m a pro when it comes to rustling non-vegetarian food,” she remarks. The same people who mocked her once are full of praise, and Saxophone Subbalaxmi now finds herself besieged by fans asking for selfies. Even her neighbours no longer complain about her riyaaz, instead, they come to their windows to hear her play as she practices. “Sometimes, they even call me to request a particular song while they listen outside, or drop by to hear me play! I am blessed to have these people in my life,” she smiles.