One of the high points of my second year MBBS in 1985-86 (apart from being part of the Medical Ball committee, the Annual Day team, St. Luke’s Medical Guild, the chapel feast and so much else) was the field trip organised by the Microbiology department to Belgaum. I am not sure if this is still a 2nd MBBS rite of passage.
The purpose of the trip was academic, of course, but a party atmosphere infected us from the moment we got on the Goa Medical College bus that would take us there and back. It was the first time, for me at least, that our whole class would be going so far from home, and for a few days. The sense of freedom and abandon were exhilarating.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I remember very little of the scholastic portion of the trip. I have a vague recollection of being shepherded into the stony interiors of (I think) the Vaccine Institute there at the end of a long, leafy, tree-lined path. Our focus in particular was rabies, the rhabdovirus and the anti-rabies vaccine. But there any virology-related recollections come to an abrupt end.
What I do remember is spending almost all our pocket money on collective ice-cream binges at a place called Kaveri. Fortunately I still had some money left over on the last day when, quite by chance, I happened upon a small store in a side-street selling audio cassettes. It was so tiny that one could have easily missed it, and there was nothing particularly appealing about it. But something drew me in.
And there, on a shelf amidst a whole sea of cassettes from perhaps Kannada blockbusters, was a cassette whose cover bore a picture of two violins facing each other, with a frisson of finger-like blue bolts of static electricity leaping between them. Emblazoned across it below the Music India Ltd logo, was one single word in large type: CONVERSATIONS. At the foot, in smaller type, were two names I had head of but not so far listened to: L. Subramaniam and Stéphane Grappelli. Two violin legends from two different worlds, on the same soundtrack! And considering that the album was released in 1984, it was still “hot off the press”.
From that moment on and the whole bus journey back to Goa, I listened to that cassette on my Walkman over and over. I would go on to listen to it so often that I wore out the cassette tape and had to replace it with another copy from Sinari’s. To say it blew my mind is a gross understatement. In one fell swoop, it had opened the doors for me to Indian classical music, jazz and to fusion of all kinds. And the 1980s were a good time for pushing boundaries, with the audio cassette boom of Music India Ltd, Magnasound, Times Music, as well as HMV, EMI, etc.
And as if by serendipity, without even meaning to, I became a Subramaniam groupie of sorts. In the years that followed, I heard him perform twice in Goa (once at the Kala Academy, and the second time at some hotel in Bogmalo if I remember right), then in Mumbai, and some years later in London as well.
And it was interesting for me to note that L. Subramaniam is also a medical doctor, having acquired his MBBS degree from Madras Medical College. Although he subsequently immersed himself fully into music, his first love, his name still appears as “Dr. L. Subramaniam” on his albums and on publicity material. Medicine’s loss has certainly been music’s huge gain.
Why “Conversations”? Because of the playful, witty exchange between Subramaniam and Grappelli of course, each in their own idiom, their own ‘language’ but understanding each other perfectly. But there is another reason for the title.
To quote from the liner notes: “”Conversations” began as a conversation between Subramaniam and Grappelli in the green room of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées when Grappelli had come to attend a concert of Subramaniam.”
The longer version of this story is even more interesting. Subramaniam and Grappelli had each heard of the other, but had not actually met. So when Grappelli turned up in Subramaniam’s green room before his concert, Subramaniam was naturally excited and asked Grappelli whether he would be at his concert. Grappelli tried to make a tactful excuse, but eventually had to reveal that he had tried unsuccessfully to get a ticket to Subramaniam’s concert but it was sold out. In an interview to the press in 2007, Subramaniam reminisced how keen Grappelli was to come to the concert: “He asked for permission to stand at the side of the stage and listen. But the French organisers would have none of it. Finally, the director of the organising forum gave up his seat for Stéphane. That was the beginning of our friendship which resulted in the famous album Conversations, which was released in 1984.”
It was not just a two-way conversation, however. When allowed a ‘speaking’ role, there is an eloquent santoor quasi- soliloquy by Manoochehr Sadeghi in the track titled ‘Illusions’; and there is a really sensitive supporting cast of guitars, keyboard, bass, drums and percussion as well. It would have been awesome to have been a fly on the wall for that recording session. Subramaniam’s violin is not only held differently, but tuned differently to Grappelli, with its lowest string plumbing the rich depths of the viola range, lending a doleful, soulful edge to Subramaniam’s sound.
If you visit cyberspace (YouTube in particular), you learn how much this album, especially the eponymous track, means to people of all ages from all corners of the world. For some it was a student-days anthem, played over and over again to combat pre-exam tension; another recounts how it could calm their unborn child in the womb, and work as a lullaby after he was born as well.
For me, like a Pavlovian reflex, each time I hear or even think of the “Conversations” album, I am taken back to that tiny shop in Belgaum, and the heady return bus journey to Goa has this as its soundtrack in my memory.
Listening to Grappelli in “Conversations” was my entry point into jazz violin, and I subsequently discovered Jean-Luc Ponty, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, and Didier Lockwood. But Grappelli for me is truly the “grandfather” of them all. Similarly, although I make no pretence of understanding or delving into Indian classical music to a similar degree, this album encouraged me first to listen to the ‘serious’ classical music oeuvre of L. Subramaniam, and from there to others like L. Shankar, and from there to other instrumentalists and vocalists as well. I have to say that for me, Indian classical music is at its most bewitching when at a live performance; a recording doesn’t draw me in in quite the same way. I feel the energy in a live setting, and it is a collective energy, drawn from others in the audience, even though I may not know them. I can listen to western classical music on my own, but I appreciate Indian classical music better at a live concert. But it is a journey, and it all began on bus back from Belgaum to Goa.
(An edited version of this article was published on 22 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)