Hari Sivanesan - credit SAMA Arts
Hari Sivanesan (credit: SAMA Arts, photo courtesy of the artist)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 02 Mar 2023

Hari Sivanesan: Creating a live score for an Indian silent film classic

Film Interview Representation Sound
Dilan Gunawardana - Stories & Ideas
Dilan Gunawardana

Digital Editor, ACMI

...in just 3 weeks.

On Sunday 12 March, we'll be screening the 1927 Indian silent film Muraliwala on the big screen at Fed Square, accompanied by a live score composed and performed by Hari Sivanesan and a unique South Asian based ensemble. Ahead of the screening, we spoke to the internationally acclaimed veena virtuoso about co-crafting the film's soundscape, South Asian representation in the arts, and working with Ravi Shankar as a teenager.

Dilan Gunawardana: I just want to first congratulate you on the Sangam's performance of the Agam suite in February at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Hari Sivanesan: Thank you.

DG: It was a little surreal to see traditional South Asian music being presented to such a large general audience and being received so enthusiastically. What were your feelings after that?

HS: I think there was certainly a sense of exhilaration, and I think it was because I could see how much it meant for so many of the others [in the Sangam Ensemble] and in the audience. There was an incredible high.

Coming from London, as I did seven years ago, it’s a real contrast. In London, this kind of event happens fair regularly. There'll be a multiple week-long South Asian Arts takeover of the South Bank Centre and other mainstream performance centres, and it’s just the norm. When I arrived here, I remember Googling all the typical places where I thought these concerts would be, and just thought to myself, "Where is everyone?"

With this performance, there was just a momentous energy gripping everyone, who were thinking “okay, hold on… there's a bunch of South Asians on the stage at the Bowl with a whole Symphonic Orchestra…”. I was really riding everyone's happiness because I felt so thrilled that everyone felt that buzz. At the time I think my own feelings were numb.

We have had such amazing feedback since the show and that really has been testament to the incredible talent and creatives and production that were a part of our team. There are simply too many to name but the unique vision and talent of the co-curator of Sangam, Priya Srinivasan, and from the MSO side, the incredible orchestral score and composition from Alex Turley, with constant support from Ben Northey, is what the work was built upon.

DG: Was this the first time you've worked with the MSO?

HS: This was the third time in fact. A few years ago, Sangam were doing some work with Bunjil Place, in the City of Casey and I asked, "Have you got an orchestra we can collaborate with?" We were working with some emerging/mid-career artists at the time, young 20-somethings, who were considering a career in the arts. I had thought, "If I get the [City of] Casey based Orchestra, we can do something together." Robin Batt, from Bunjil came back to me suggesting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. So, it started there!

In the two previous collaborations with the MSO, they came to Bunjil Place and we performed there, however this latest collaboration was actually from them, suggesting the Myer Bowl.

DG: Tell me more about Sangam.

HS: Sangam is a platform for South Asian performing arts creatives. It started as a festival in 2019 with me, Priya Srinivasan and Uthra Vijay, and it has developed over time with changing needs. At the beginning, the festival model worked, and it was great. We did workshops, international collaborations etc. However, the need for Sangam’s intervention has evolved over time.

Currently, we see it as a platform for diverse Victorian South Asians to showcase themselves in their own way, especially for those artists, who are navigating multiple worlds. Hopefully, Sangam is a platform where they can feel that they can be themselves through that journey

The MSO performance is a great example. For that last piece, we went through several musical genres. There were four dancers from five different genres of dance and multiple musicians across 4 genres of music. I don't think we've worked across such diverse South Asian genres like that, to create one holistic outcome.

Hari Sivanesan and the Sangam Ensemble perform with the MSO at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl

Hari Sivanesan and the Sangam Ensemble performed the Agam (The Interior Landscape) suite with the MSO at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in February 2023. (photo courtesy of Hari Sivanesan)

DG: How did you approach doing the score for Muraliwala? Where do you actually start with something like that?

HS: Can I take it a step back?

DG: Sure.

HS: ACMI approached me and asked, "What do you want to do?" They have a partnership with Insite Arts and an ongoing program called Not-So-Silent Cinema where they have run a similar event for several years.

ACMI suggested that it would be great if one of the soundscapes to the films shown this year was South Asian. That's where the conversation started. At first, they asked, "Do you want to do Laurel and Hardy? Do you want to do Charlie Chaplin and put a South Asian score against it?" and at the time I thought, "Oh yeah, that's pretty interesting!".

But then I took a step back and considered the work I do. I thought about how when I first came here, I felt like parts of the arts and cultural landscape were a desert. I remember being so sad for the first two years after arriving. I really reconsidered whether the move was right for me and my family, and struggled with whether this was the right place to bring up my kids, if there's just no brown representation anywhere? That’s really where I was coming from when I thought, "What film is going to encourage South Asians to turn up to Fed Square and kind of own it?" And that's why we chose to seek out a South Asian silent film specifically.

Initially, I was looking for a film based on the Ramayana because I thought it would cover more of Southeast Asia. For four months we tried to get a copy of that from the film archives in India, but not really succeeding. Eventually I said "Just me give me anything in the same genre. Something I can work with.” The National Film Archive in India sent us Muraliwala and we decided to run with it. We only got the green light for this performance two days after the MSO show [which was on Wed 15 Feb].

DG: Oh, wow.

HS: Suddenly on that Friday we got a copy of the film, and it was good enough to go to Fed Square … We had three weeks and two days to bring this together and so, like a mad man, I said yes.

In response to your question, I would have loved for this to be a three-month, chill, passion project, but it's not that. It has turned into a group of crazy creatives, who are cool with figuring this out in a few weeks.

I've asked a peer of mine, Vijay Thillaimuthu, to look after the general sound dramaturgy or soundscape. Another colleague of mine Pankhuri Agarwal, is working with the script and research. The three of us sat together and went through the film, minute by minute, second by second, scoped it and split it into scenes. It needed to be retranslated translated because the English subtitles were questionable. The film had three languages in it – Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati – so Pankhuri helped with translating it.

I wanted to make sure that the feeling of the film we conveyed was according to its meaning at the time, in 1927. The English translation we had was probably very apt for the time, but would I let a modern audience read that? I don't know.

After our initial scoping and scene separation, I established a track per scene… in essence, it's going to be a full 12 tracks of new music.

DG: I know that you do a lot of contemporary and experimental work in your practice. Are you going to weave some of that into the Muraliwala score, or are you going to keep it more classical or traditional?

HS: Great question. If I had done Laurel and Hardy, for example, it would have been interesting to make the score super classical and juxtapose that against the film. But my thoughts on Muraliwala were the opposite. If I'd just gone down a classical route, it almost would be, "This is perhaps what the score would have been." But my point is for the soundscape is to feel relevant.

It's still going to have classical elements, but I also want it to be foot-tappy, catchy. So, I'm really hoping that our communities will bring their older parents, their kids. This is the moment for our community to take over Fed Square. I really want for people to say, "That was a really cool tune", without it necessarily feeling Bollywood. Some negotiation between Bollywood and the classical, is basically where I'm heading. So, relevant-classical.

DG: Tell me more about the Ensemble for Muraliwala .

HS: The selection of these artists has really been driven by two factors; The first being the genre of the music which I feel to be a contemporary take on light classical Indian music and the second being the film itself and its needs in terms of speaking to the characters, emotions and incidents involved.

For the Muraliwala score, I’m so excited to be performing with a wonderful team; Lakshmi Kumaraguruparan on vocals, Bimal Singh Gabbi on vocals and Taus, Ravi Madhawan on multi instrumentals, Pirashanna Thevarajah and Chris Lewis on multi percussions, Subramanya Sastry on Bansuri (flute) and Selene Messinis on keys. A big shout out to Pankhuri Agarwal and Ruiqi Fu as well for her work on media and research. The Muraliwala project is a real collaboration and will be the product of every one of the fantastic artists involved.

DG: You’re an acclaimed performer of the veena – what is it about that musical instrument that drew you to it?

HS: Like many South Asian first generation migrant parents, mine took me to a music school. My mom wanted me to learn violin because she herself had wanted to learn violin as a kid, and never got to. The week that we went to a music school, the violin teacher wasn't there, so we went from room to room, checking out all the other instruments and apparently – I must have been seven or eight – I saw the Veena and I was like, "No, this is it.” My parents were very blasé about it, "Oh, it will pass, it’s a phase..." because at that time, importing in a Veena from India… I remember we paid £850 for it, back then [in the late 80s]. A veena today costs $850. At the time £850 was a mini fortune.

I ended up learning from a teacher and going to a music school where I did somewhere between 16 to 22 hours of lessons a week for years. After a while, it stopped being a chore and just become part of me… it’s almost like I don't know how to exist without it.

hari19 - damien vincenzi

Hari Sivanesan (photo credit: Damien Vincenzi)

DG: Were there many schools for that kind of music in London at the time?

HS: Before I was 10 years old, there were just 10–12 schools for our music. But by the time I left London, there were hundreds and hundreds of schools. The Bhavan, where I was taught is unique because it's very structured and timetabled and had its own premises and auditorium for concerts etc. Like any academic school, there's yearly exams and attendance is marked.

I grew up in the nineties, which was a great time for South Asian and diverse funding in the UK. I had access to scholarships to go and learn in India and that’s how I met my other Guru. There were lots of opportunities afforded to me there that I don't think people can get here. I mean, they exist, but they are few and far between.

So, I got to perform in places and venues that were pretty incredible, which I didn't realise at the time because I was really young. It was a great time for arts in the UK, at that time.

DG: Speaking of opportunities early in your career, I read that you worked with Ravi Shankar and George Harrison on the album Chants of India (1997) as a teenager. How did that come about?

HS: Ravi Shankar was an honorary member of the Bhavan where I learnt music. He was coming to the UK to work on that album with George Harrison and he needed an orchestra of musicians in the UK.

The Bhavan teachers and other senior musicians all went to his hotel to, in essence, audition. I went along as a 12- or 13-year-old with my teacher just to get his (Shankar’s) blessings.

I remember the audition wasn't mind-blowing. It was basically, "I've got this tune. Can you sing it? I've got four notes. Can you sing these four notes? I’m changing the notes, how about this?”. He kept giving us combinations of notes that were unfamiliar.

At some point, he turns to me and asks, "Oh, who are you?" And my teacher replies, "He’s my student. He has just come to get your blessings." And Shankar says to me, "That's good. Do you want to play something?" So, I played something and then he says, "Okay, that's good. Can you sing?". So, I sang, and he says, "Now sing this." And I sang. Then he says, "Okay, we'll use you." It was pretty incredible, actually, as that certainly wasn’t on anyone’s plan in the room!

The following week, we recorded at George Harrison's home studio, basically in a castle in the middle of Henley-on-Thames. It was amazing because we sat there through Raviji’s music making process. After that, I worked on some other orchestral projects for him including playing for the Concert for George after he passed. I also I toured with him across the States playing veena for a couple of concert tours called ‘Festival of India’, He had a 14-piece multi-instrument orchestra. Watching his process has been an incredible... I didn't realise how much it influenced my mindset about music, and about where the boundaries lie between what's South Asian and what's orchestral. Not many people did that sort of work during that time. He was so unique… That time with him was amazing.

Ravi Shankar performs at Woodstock 1969

Ravi Shankar performs at Woodstock 1969 (Wikimedia Commons)

DG: Going back to Muraliwala, what sort of films did you watch growing up?

HS: All the popular movies, Beverly Hills Cop etc… Everything that kids watched in the 80s and 90s. But in tandem, my parents were going to the local Sri Lankan shop to rent VHS copies of Tamil movies. Every weekend we'd get two or three movies, and we'd just binge them. I suppose I grew up on a lot of Tamil cinema as a kid.

DG: It's amazing how Sri Lankans of our generation have these shared experiences of renting VHS films from local curry shops. You go in to buy some pan rolls and come out with some VHS tapes as well.

HS: [laughs] That's right. I grew up watching a lot of K. Balachander movies. He was an amazing director. I love the actor, Kamal Haasan. I’m a huge fan. And aside from the hours of classical practise and concert hopping and listening, I also very much grew up on the music of Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman.

DG: What are you watching nowadays? Anything binge-worthy?

HS: I prefer thrillers and suspense. I’m also watching House of Cards, Suits, Young Sheldon… quite run-of the-mill. I watch lots of musicals with my kids. Matilda: The Musical has been on repeat for I don't know how long. I watched a Tamil movie recently that blew my mind, Jai Bhim. It’s based on a true story, and they deal with police corruption and caste issues in South India. Great movie!

DG: When you watch TV shows or films, can you turn off your musician brain? Are you constantly aware of the soundtrack?

HS: Yeah. It’s incessant! I can’t stop myself! I’ll be listening to something random and sudden hear a sound. I’m like, "That was a Tabla! Who would put a Tabla in there?” I'm so glad that diverse sounds and instrumentation are being more commonplace; that producers think, “Someone's walking down a road. I'm going to use a Tabla here…”. So yeah, I get really excited when that happens.

DG: Have you been asked to score any screen works before?

HS: No. First time! Most of my previous composition has been for dance, or for orchestral collaborations. But on screen, this is a first! Wish me luck.

DG: I hope you get offers for a thriller or a musical in future.

HS: Absolutely. I would love that!

See Muraliwala on the big screen at Fed Square

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