Renowned violinist, composer and conductor, L Subramaniam is recognized the world over for his versatile talent. With his latest outing, Gour Hari Dastaan – The Freedom File, the maestro makes a comeback to Hindi cinema after 25 years. In an exclusive chat with Pandolin, the acclaimed artist talks about what drew him towards this film, creating the reprise version of the famous song ‘Vaishnav Jan To’, dabbling with different genres and more.

L Subramanium

L Subramanium

What prompted you to make this comeback?

I didn’t take it as a comeback since Ananth (Mahadevan) approached me when I met him during the digital release of Love Story 1947. Post that he came to my place and spoke about the film. He explained that it was a true story and how in reality Gour Hari Das was running around for 34 years to prove that he was a genuine freedom fighter and had completely lost hope. So the true story is what got me involved in the film, in the same way that Salaam Bombay had done in the past.

What was your thought process while composing the reprise of ‘Vaishnav Jan To’? Was there a brief from Ananth about it?

Basically ‘Vaishnav Jan To’ was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite songs. Ananth heard the song and really liked it. Originally the whole approach to ‘Vaishnav Jan To’ was that unless you’re trained musically, particularly classically, it is not an easy song. So it was not accessible to a commoner. But when you do a film, your whole idea is to be accessible to even a commoner and not only to people who know classical Indian music. With that thought, the ‘Vaishnav Jan To’ reprise has an orchestral arrangement and is easy for a commoner to try to sing. Also, because it has been shown in different international festivals, I have orchestrated it in such a way that western tonalities are strongly supporting it.

Gour Hari Dastaan is not like a regular film where you have 4-5 songs and an item number and the songs are picturised on the hero and heroine. There is nothing like that in this film and that’s one reason that differentiates it from others. Basically the scope is also different because it is based on a true story. There are no item numbers, no love songs and no common formula thing. I’ve focused more on the background score with orchestral flavor so it would give an international tone, for a more international audience.


Much like most of your work?


What are the key differentiating factors in this version and the original song?

This song has a completely different melody as compared to the original. But then it is a much simpler melody with full scope for harmony. So it blends with both western harmony and Indian music. The key thing is also that the raga based melody is different. But the arrangement is totally orchestral; fusion arrangements with a global fusion approach, with full orchestral sounds.

L Subramanium

What inspires you while creating music and how do you approach the creation of a melody or a song?

When you write a composition for an orchestra, it is an entirely different thing. For a film, when you just see it and the character, you hear something in your mind, a voice, something that will enhance the mood or the character. Either you write for the character or to enhance the mood of the scene. For instance there is a depressing scene when you feel that Das (Vinay Pathak) will never get the Tamra Patra (Freedom Fighter certificate). But he finally gets it and Konkana (Sen Sharma) is coming down the stairs to tell him. That scene has been expressed so beautifully without any words. So you try to bring the emotion in those kind of spaces. You hear what is happening, how you can enhance it and you try to go in a direction that will enhance the whole scene.

Also, you are the only musician who has performed and recorded South Indian Classical Music, Western Classical Music, both Orchestral and non-Orchestral, and also composed for and conducted major orchestras. You’ve also composed for films and collaborated with a wide range of some of the greatest musicians. Out of this wide palette of things, which do you enjoy doing the most?

Honestly there are two genres that I enjoy. One, when I play Indian classical music, peacefully. It was my father’s dream to make the Indian violin a globally accepted solo instrument because during his time it was an accompanying instrument. And accompanists were not given any prominence. He wanted to bring it to the forefront so that we were comparable, or people respected us as much as a classical violinist of another genre. So I worked for it all my life. It was my father’s dream which became my dream. I enjoy that very much, now that the recognition has come and I play in the open air for ten thousand people.  When you start playing you totally forget yourself and once you are finished playing, your state of mind and energy is something I cannot express. When your inner voice guides you, you get involved spiritually. There is a mental peace, some kind of emotions and vibrations that happen within you. And that cannot be compared to anything else.

On the other hand, I started composing so that our Indian music won’t be treated like ethnic or part of world music. I want to bring the global music concept. As a composer when I studied compositions and writing, that brought different things. On one side I was asked to write for orchestras while on the other I had to write for Yehudi Menuhin to play at UN. As a composer I always enjoy writing for major orchestral things. Within the next six months I have four major orchestral performances that I have to do. So that takes most of my time.

How different is composing for an orchestra as compared to a film or an album?

While composing for an orchestra, you have to imagine everything and create a theme and emotions. There are three sections and sub-compositions. And you have to know each instrument and what will sound best. In orchestras you write for every instrument individually. When they play collectively it has to be harmonious so people will enjoy it. So its not like one person sings and everybody accompanies him. Orchestral writing is very complex, you need to know orchestration. Sometimes you write multiple melodies, which become individual melodies but also become counter melodies for other melodies. So when you play all the multiple melodies together, it becomes a collective impressive sound. It’s a whole different technique and when you write, you have to hear the whole orchestra in your head before you write.


Dr. L Subramaniam and his wife Kavita Krishnamurthy at music launch of the film.

Dr. L Subramaniam (in Yellow) and his wife Kavita Krishnamurthy at music launch of the film.

You’ve collaborated with so many different artists from the East and the West. Is there any particular artist that you would like to collaborate with again or you had the best time collaborating with?

One of the people whom I had the best time with was Yehudi Menuhin, unfortunately he’s not there any more. The other person is Stephane Grappelli who was also a tremendous musician. Also George Duke, with whom I have worked a lot. I have collaborated with many violinists but I really enjoyed playing with Menuhin and Grappelli and we became very close in the process, even though they belonged to my father’s generation. They never collaborated with any other Asian violinist and I was the only person who they also wanted to collaborate. with. It became a special memory. The collaboration with Menuhin was for United Nations while Grappelli was for my album ‘Conversations’. That became a milestone for musical compositions.

Your first steps into music were with your training in Carnatic music, a tradition you inherited from your father. Later you went to study western classical music in California. This makes you sort of a creator of a global music concept. But do you think Indian classical music is being given its due importance in the contemporary world?

It has changed tremendously. In the 70’s people hardly knew about it and thought it was ethnic music; playing on the floor and things like that. But because of my father’s technical innovations, improvements and creativity, the whole approach has changed. So now they look upto Carnatic music. All the musicians I have collaborated with have immense respect for Carnatic music.

As for the future, do you have any projects lined up? Are you open to working for films now?

Very selectively. I don’t want to get into the full thing. If it is very interesting and if there is a scope for music, I will get involved.

– Garima Verma