Ultimately, there’s a kind of spirituality underlining every musical phrase if you can create that emotion. Music can be appreciated in different layers, on different levels,” explains Dr L Subramaniam, one of the finest violinists and composers of India. A composer would probably find the tonalities or colours of an orchestral piece fascinating, while technical accomplishment would excite a soloist; the average listener would search for sweetness of melody, for emotional expression. His own skills — as a composer, a violinist, a performer — veer toward rare virtuosity, but not for a second does he question the weight that raw emotion carries.
A rich theme of duality and counterbalance runs through Subramaniam’s work. He’s been prolific for close to four decades and, it’s safe to say, has been at the forefront of the idea of “global fusion”. Subramaniam’s idiom of musical expression is one that shuttles seamlessly between the traditional and the radical, and his collaborations with renowned musicians across genres the world over — Herbie Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty, Yehudi Menuhin, Stéphane Grappelli, Stevie Wonder, to name only a handful — have propelled the confluence of eastern and western music that we take for granted today.
He’s 68 now, but Subramaniam is still an active performer, spending time on the road playing concerts for eight months each year. In fact, he’s heading off to tour the US and Europe in August, for which he should be away for almost three months. He’s also hard at work on four large-scale orchestral pieces that he’s been commissioned to write, with submissions staggered between October and February. “Writing for an orchestra is very time consuming. Every note has to be written; it’s not like Indian music where you can improvise. You have to write for all instruments… the oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone…”
He composed the music for 1988’s Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala (1991), both by Mira Nair, and has a host of other film credits as well. However, by and large, he’s steered clear of the territory given his countless other musical commitments — “I have done music for films very intermittently and selectively. The main reason for that has been that performance takes up the majority of my time. I’m not here most of the time — I’m travelling — so I don’t want to take up projects; that wouldn’t be fair to the producers.” But he now returns to scoring Hindi films with Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File, a new film (releasing in August) by Anant Mahadevan about the life of freedom fighter Gour Hari Das, starring Vinay Pathak, Konkana Sen Sharma and Ranvir Shorey.
A conversation at a film screening between Anant Mahadevan and him and Kavita Krishnamurthy (his wife) led to further discussions, wherein Subramaniam was captivated by the director’s vision. “The story he told me — a true story about Gour Hari Das — was very moving. He was very passionate and wanted the story to be brought out in the best way possible, and his expression of the whole thing led to my involvement in the project.”
The film is about Das, a freedom fighter who had to battle bureaucracy to receive official certification for his work in the freedom struggle. “If I’m really convinced and I like a project, I take it. For the film, I wanted to bring orchestral colours to the music.” He has composed an interpretation of Vaishnava Janato, one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite songs, for the film, with Pandit Jasraj and Kavita Krishnamurthy lending their voice to it. “It’s been done totally differently,” he says, “I’ve modified it to make it accessible for the modern generation. It’s not easy to follow the original song unless you’re classically trained or inclined toward that. With films being a form of mass media, the music has to reach people across all age groups.”
The movie has a few songs — including one in English penned by his daughter Bindu, who is a singer/songwriter — but most of the music functions as a background score. “There is absolutely no scope for item numbers or any song where the hero and heroine are acting or running around. There’s no lip syncing or songs being visually represented. The focus is on bringing the emotion of the character or the strength of the scene through the music. ” The music takes hold and dictates the momentum during scenes of emotional depth, and Subramaniam has incorporated the idea of global fusion here as well, using a full string orchestra, respected performers and state of the art recording and mixing facilities to maximise the impact of the music. “Selectively, I’ve played in some places as well, to add further emotion where required.”
“People shouldn’t think that classical music will only survive if we do innovations or collaborations with western music. It has survived.”
As for the state of Bollywood music in the country, he maintains a distanced sense of practicality and realism. “Whenever it comes to mass media, the success of the music goes with how the movie does. This is a commercial avenue. There was a time when lyrics were poetry, and the music was classical-based. With Shankar-Jaikishan, Madan Mohan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal especially, people liked it; it attracted the masses. Now there is a different direction to the music, but it’s reaching the masses. It’s a commercial venture and success in monetary terms is what counts for anybody who is investing. That way, I think they’re all doing wonderfully well, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing this.”
While the score has been composed keeping in mind accessibility and the tone of the film itself, Subramaniam also believes that the music will result in audiences seeking out a greater appreciation of complex classical and fusion music. He cites how, in the past, exposure to his experiments with western music led to people discovering Indian music as well. “Even when I was initially… before I was known much… I used to play a lot of classical concerts. After I played with Herbie Hancock, and especially after the Conversations album [with Grappelli, which came out in 1984], a lot of people starting coming to Indian music concerts, asking for autographs. That was their introduction to my music; they would tell me they’ve heard Conversations or the New York Philharmonic piece [Fantasy on Vedic Chants, which he wrote]. They heard those pieces, and they’d say, ‘Let’s hear what his music is.’ That’s what brought them there.”
He stays supportive of contemporary musicians undertaking formal experiments with different styles of music, citing the evolution of film music from melody and poetry driven sounds to a far more physical, rhythmic tendency of modern times. However, Subramaniam also remains steadfast in his belief that classical music will survive just as well. “Even in pure classical music, there can be an interpretation of existing ragas. Within the classical space, you can be innovative, go in different directions with the alaps to make it interesting; there are a lot of ways to do that for the present generation. People shouldn’t think that classical music will only survive if we do innovations or collaborations with western music. It has survived. As for people who want to take a contemporary line — go in the global fusion direction — it’s important to have an understanding instead of shooting in the dark and hoping it might click.” He also cites the Laxminarayana Global Music Festival, which Subramaniam initiated in 1992 as a tribute to his father after his demise — the festival has grown immensely since its inception and is held across multiple cities and countries, and will celebrate its 25th edition next year — as testament to the growth of the music that he has been at the forefront of: Indian classical music and fusion.
“It helps a lot to know the science of music, especially if you want to write a composition with western tonality; it helps to know what the range of the instrument is,” he says of his own approach toward blending traditionally different kinds of music. “You have to think of the breathing space, convey that space — there’s no point writing bassoon lines with a violin range. You have to have the language to communicate. Especially in a collaboration, you try to create a common platform so that everyone’s comfortable; where you don’t pull out the other person where they’re like a fish out of water. Otherwise it’ll just be the two of us playing what we know separately.”