L Subramaniam's daughter Gingger Shankar: Be the master of your craft
Gingger Shankar, L Subramaniam's daughter and Article 15 song composer on the lessons she learnt as a student of the musician
Seated beside her mother as the latter drove across the city streets, Gingger Shankar recalls being exposed to the sounds of Madonna and The Beatles. Back home, under the guidance of father L Subramaniam and grandmother Lakshmi Shankar, it was all about studying Indian classical music. She recalls singing Indian numbers with mother Viji Subramaniam with as much precision as she does falling asleep at the innumerable concerts the various artistes in her family performed at. "That was the lifestyle we lived, going from concert to concert. I was exposed to a variety [of genres]," says Gingger over a Skype call from LA, where she grew up, following her schooling in Chennai.
Being mentored by influential Indian classical veterans like the Shankars and the Subramaniams, and yet growing up in a western nation, she found herself playing ping-pong with her music sensibilities. "I'd go to Indian concerts and say I want to be more American; then listen to American music and say Indian classical music is great. I did Indian classical concerts for several years and then completely rebelled, touring with the alternative rock band, The Smashing Pumpkins. I experimented with western [music] for a while before realising I am a hybrid."
Being a "hybrid" afforded her some of the most premium projects in Hollywood, including her first venture as a film composer, The Passion Of The Christ (2004). The experience of composing for films taught her how to compose for an orchestra, a feat that, a "soloist" like her, enjoyed. "Having the education to write for other singers opens your mind. I write differently now." It also inspired her to learn the double violin, a ten-string hybrid that covers the spectrum of major stringed instruments like the cello, viola and violin.
When she isn't working on film music or her solo compositions, Gingger is busy celebrating the rich heritage she belongs to. Starkly at odds with revered musicians' children, who prefer to keep a distance from their parents' work in a bid to create their own identity, she often blends her own vocals with those of her parents and grandparents, as a tribute to them. "That wasn't always the case.
Early on, it was a big chip on the shoulder. On one side, there are the Shankars; on the other, the Subramaniams. That kind of legacy is crazy. Anyone I'd talk to would want to know about them. That's why I toured with rock bands. When I was young, I remember being a rebel; dressing up appropriately for classical concerts and then listening to rock and roll punk in school. But, when my mom passed away, [I realised] she did so much for the arts. It's a legacy that must be continued. Then it was about celebrating her." Her biggest takeaways from growing up in a family of legends almost seems like a given: "Be the master of your craft." But unlike the many who pay little heed to this advice, Gingger follows it to the T. "You have to practise your art every day. I don't jump into anything until I learn it. Few people do that today."
Ginger's great grandfather, RV Sastri edited the pages of Mahatma Gandhi's Harijan, evidently exposing her to a lifetime of stories that had the prevalent caste system during that era at its crux. In the years to come, discrimination would become a recurrent subject of discussion, with her grandmother and mother battling gender divide to establish themselves among the A-league. As much as she has inherited their talent, she has also inherited the sexism they faced. "Today, the drawbacks of being a female [artiste] in America have gotten worse, given [our] administration.
Here too, women are asked: Why aren't you married; Why don't you have children; Why are you focusing on your career?" It's almost fitting then that being asked to deliver the rap offering Shuru Karein Kya, for Anubhav Sinha's Article 15, based on caste divide, was a matter that hit closer home. "I don't think [caste divide] is different from dealing with sexism. The kind of things women are fighting for in 2019 is crazy. You can see how rights are being stripped away."
The despair in her voice doesn't miss us when she discusses how sexism in America affects her. "It is hard for female composers to get action films. The percentage of female composers doing big budget [projects] is less than one [in America]. Within that, [there are few] women of colour. You have to convince people that even for an action film, you can write just as many strings as 'he' can."
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