Friday, 15 April 2016

ILaiyaraaja- The Tender-Hearted Musician

Quite often we come across terms like- ‘it touched my heart’ ‘oh, it was a moving rendition’, ‘melting..’, ‘heartwarming’, ‘soul stirring’..

What makes one say all these? Is it because of their emotional quotient? Is it because of their sensibility? Is it because of their aesthetic sense? Or is it simply because of their predisposition to certain things?

Before I go further, let me tell you that the fact that we human beings are guided by our emotions cannot be refuted or denied. What makes us more emotional and what makes us less emotional or even what makes us emotionless (!) depend on various factors. At times, it is ingrained in our DNA. At times, our environment and our upbringing influence this. At times, what we read, what we see and what we listen to and what we have experienced so far have an impact on this. Many a times, it is a combination of all these.

That is why, what appeals to one may not appeal to somebody else. After all, didn’t the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius say ‘what is food for one man may be bitter poison to others’ as early as 1st Century BC? Is it then true that everything in this world is relative and subjective? If yes, is there nothing like ‘refined tastes’ and ‘sophistication’ in this world?

Any great work of art has the capacity to ‘move’ us. But again, if we do not find anything great in a work considered to be great by many, is it the problem with us or is it with the work? Or worse still, is it the problem with the majority?

Point to ponder..

In my view (and this itself sounds subjective!), if a work touches our heart, makes us emotional in a genuine way and also makes us explain as to why we are moved by it, then it is a great work.

Rather than elaborating this, let me quote a poem from the Sangam literature:

 நின்ற சொல்லர் நீடு தோறு இனியர்
என்றும் என் தோள் பிரிபு அறியலரே;
தாமரைத் தண் தாது ஊதி, மீமிசைச்
சாந்தில் தொடுத்த தீம் தேன் போல,
புரைய மன்ற, புரையோர் கேண்மை;
நீர் இன்று அமையா உலகம் போலத்
தம் இன்று அமையா நம் நயந்தருளி
நறு நுதல் பசத்தல் அஞ்சிச்
சிறுமை உறுபவோ? செய்பு அறியலரே!

Here is a girl who talks about her man to her friend who says he might go away very soon.

Says she,

Sweet in nature, he keeps his words always. Never does he leave my shoulders. His Love is as great as the honey from the cool pollen of the lotus kept on top of the sandal tree. The world cannot exist without water. I cannot exist without him. Can he even think of afflicting my fragrant forehead with green sickness? No, he can’t even imagine doing this!

This of course is a loose translation and I have tried my best to give the essence. The poem is replete with symbolism, allegories and similes. Take the one related to the lotus pollen for example. Lotus flower as such is known for balance, calmness and for its sense of duty. By specifically mentioning lotus and not just saying any flower in general, the poet emphasises the character of the man (of course as seen through the eyes of the girl). The pollen is symbolic of his heart, the sandal wood indicates the girl’s heart and the honey is their love. The symbolism of water and the world is of course too obvious to be explained (in fact, later on, ThiruvaLLuvar adapted the line in one of his kuRaLs).

But what defines the poem and moves me or touches my heart is the last line where the girl says ‘can he think of doing this to me?No, he doesn’t even know how to do it’. One sees the love of the girl, her unshakable trust in him and most importantly her innocence in these four words, making one even wonder as to what happened after that.

Did he go away? Did she cry? Did he come back?  

This is what a great work can do to us. Not only does it make us appreciate the beauty but it also melts our hearts. Of course, it makes us raise some questions which remain unanswered.

That poem was written by Kabilar more than 2500 years ago and is part of ‘NatRiNai’, one of the works during the sangam era.

It is not that only poetic works and that too composed two millenniums ago, move my heart. Many contemporary works -and not necessarily poems- too melt my heart. The musical composition I am taking up today is one such work.

In fact, there are many reasons for me to be moved by ‘Yenaadu vidiponi mudivesene’ from ‘Sri Kanakamahalakshmi Dance Troupe’(1987).  First of all, it is based on Ahir Bhairav. Next, it is set to the 5-beat Khandam. Then, it is the magnificent (should I say soul-stirring?) rendering by Janaki and SPB(see for yourself as to how different the latter sounds). Of course, how can I leave out the brilliant, thoughtful and spontaneous orchestration?

Let me first say a few words about the raag. As the name suggests, Ahir Bhairav is a Hindustani raag. Though some (or even many) call it as the counterpart of the Carnatic raga ChakravAgam, the fact is that the two raagas differ in the way of rendering. There are some prayogas in Ahir Bhairavi which give it a distinction. For example, the ‘ga ma ri sa’ and ‘ga ma pa ma ri ri sa’ are used frequently in this raag. Moreover, the vaadi swar(the strongest note) is ‘ma’ and the samvaadi(strong though not the strongest) is ‘sa’. The rishabh(‘re’ or ‘ri’) is made to oscillate while the ‘dhaivat’ (dha) is plain.

This grammar is followed in most of the places in ‘Yenaadu..’

I mentioned about the taaLa and that the composition is set to khandam. Generally, khandam is used in dance for aggression especially in mel kaalam. But this taaLa when used in the keezh kAlam gives an amazing feel and I cannot think of any film music composer other than ILaiyaraaja for effectively using this taaLa like this.

Can we now look at the other aspects too of the composition?

The composition starts rather very differently with the sound of the breeze and the chirping of the birds.  A brief humming of Janaki to the backing of a subtle violin and the bass guitar leads us to the Pallavi. No, there is something before that. The humming itself follows khandam (4 cycles) though there is no percussion. The humming stops and the percussion sounds now with a unique sharpness.  In fact, there are two sets- bell sound and the tabla, with the former sounding all the 5 syllables ta ka/ ta ki ta and the latter sounding the first, third, fourth and the fifth in the first cycle and only the last three in the next cycle. Coming to think of it, the prelude itself underlines the emotional base of the composition.

The Pallavi is captivating and brims with beauty. The emotional overtones in the second and the third lines cannot be missed. Generally in his compositions, the instruments in the Pallavi or in the CharaNams either play after each line (at times after each phrase or after a couple of phrases) or along with the vocals( bass guitar for example). But these bits will play different sets of notes. In ‘Yenaadu..’, the violin which backs the vocals, plays the same notes as that of the vocals. This is somewhat unique.

The first interlude is different too. The swaras rendered at a leisurely pace give perceptive insights into the raag. The sustenance at the shadjam for two cycles is meditative while the swaras that follow-with the flute and the guitar nodding their heads- heighten the experience. So tranquil is the atmosphere that even the percussion decides to remain silent. The profoundly pleasant sitar follows now with the percussion entering slowly and the flute and the guitar nodding again. Janaki now renders swaras again-this time to the backing of percussion- and the sarod repeats the swaras with passion. But what happens after this is stupendous. The bass flute glows with iridescence and after a while it is silence for one cycle followed by the guitar which plays the descending notes.  Isn’t this mesmerising?

His classical compositions are enchanting not so much in the way he sheds light on its beauty as on how that aesthetic beauty evolves in his hands. This composition is a classic example. If he gives the sketch of the raag in the Pallavi and an insight into the raag in the first interlude, he expands the raag in the CharaNams with emotions being the bedrock.  All the three parts of the CharaNams are evocative and provoke the deep seated emotions hidden somewhere inside the heart. Musically too it is elevating with the sympathetic strings appearing after the first, second, third and the fourth lines. The backing of the tabla and the way it plays khandam gives a ghazal feel.

We see the percussive flashes and the playful Laya Raaja in the second interlude. The mridangam sounds ‘ta ka’ and a very different instrument sounding like a moving bell replies ‘ta ki ta ta ka/ta ki ta. 2 cycles of khandam shown very differently and this happens 4 times. A unique bass sound now emanates (probably from a bamboo flute) and plays a kind of infatuated melody with the jaalra alone backing it. The latter in fact plays only the third syllable(ta) leaving others blank. Now, even as this bass sound continues charting a melodic path, there is a call and response between the sitar and the guitar first and between the flute and the guitar next. Finally, the sitar plays a slithering coruscating melody with the resonant bass guitar backing it. The guitar replies. The sitar plays again and then they join together.

Moving.. Stirring..Heartwarming..

Is it or is it not? Or is it just my perception and feeling?
You tell me..

Sunday, 3 April 2016

ILaiyaraaja- The Music Messiah

The villagers were distraught.  

Once upon a time, the place was full of lush green fields.  Happiness danced on the face of each and every villager. Rivers of milk and honey flowed in the place and happiness danced on the face of each and every villager.
But now the same place had turned arid. There was no water to drink and hardly any food to eat. Cattle were disappearing. So was the membership count in the households.

Prayers were offered and special poojas done. But nothing would change. They had only one option left- to invite that child prodigy to their village and ask him to sing. This child prodigy started composing hymns from the age of 3 after a divine intervention. This village-ThirunanippaLLi- also happened to be the native village of his mother.

So off he went sitting on the shoulders of his father. The clairvoyant that he was, the moment he landed there he could sense the curse of the land. This ‘curse’ a.k.a. karma is a huge topic and it is better left untouched here in this post.
The genius then sang:

கடல்வரை ஓதம் மல்கு கழி கானல் பானல்
               கமழ்காழி என்று கருதப்
படுபொருள் ஆறு நாலும் உளதாக வைத்த
               பதியான ஞானமுனிவன்
இடுபறையொன்ற அத்தர் பியன் மேலிருந்து இன்
               இசையால் உரைத்த பனுவல்
நடுவிருளாடும் எந்தை நனிபள்ளி உள்க
               வினைகெடுதல் ஆணை நமதே

This melodious song with the beautiful rhythm, sung with full devotion meditating on that Dancing God, by the child -who has mastered the 4 vedas and the 6 Aagamaas and who hails from the rich Sirgazhi which is surrounded by the backwaters and is full of fragrance emanating from the kuvaLai flowers- from the shoulders of his father, will surely destroy the evil and wash away the sins of ‘ThirunanipaLLi’.  This is my order.

The song is esoteric and has a lot of inner meanings but what is to be noted mainly is the description of his place of birth Sirgazhi. The rich description is contrasted by the phrase ‘naduviruLaadum’. The one who dances in the middle of the night-which is full of darkness - dispels the darkness!

That is why Thirugnansambandhar is still considered a genius par excellence. Needless to say that the powerful words turned the arid land to a fertile land and that the village regained its lost glory. Without a doubt, he was a saviour.

In more than one way, ILaiyaraaja too is a saviour. When film music as a whole was losing its charm, he with the right and beautiful blending of all major forms, injected and infused fresh blood, in the process showing us various dimensions of music-some known and many unknown. Words too acquired new meanings in his tunes making us listen to his songs again and again.

Today’s song, ‘Hey Paadal OndRu’ from ‘Priya’(1978) is one of the many thousands of his compositions which shine not only with beauty but also is rich with classical elements. Based on that exquisite raaga called Kaapi, the composition is yet another example of his propensity for classicism and aesthetic values. Most importantly, the songs of ‘Priya’ were recorded in stereophonic sound- the first ever Indian film songs to be recorded thus. This was a precursor to many new sound technologies that one comes across now in the 21st Century!

It starts with the rhythm guitar sounding in tisram for two Aavartanas of chatushra ekam. Though many of you who are following the group must be familiar by now with the terms like tisram, chatushram and Aavartanam, let me explain once again for the benefit of all. ‘Tisram’ is a 3-beat cycle while ‘Chatushram’ is a 4-beat cycle. One Aavaratana is one TaaLa cycle. A composition can be in ‘tisra nadai’(nadai-gait) and yet can follow a 4-beat or an 8-beat cycle.

What makes the Prelude of ‘Hey paadal ondRu’ very captivating is the use of vocals. Janaki sings the akaaram for 6 cycles with Yesudass continuing for the next 4 cycles. Note that he takes over from where she left and expands the raaga and that we see the beautiful and complete sketch of Kaapi in this akaaram itself. The jalatarangam imparts a rare musical quality with delicate but powerful touches and the violins respond briefly with gusto. A rhapsodical portrait of the raaga indeed! The violins then play the panchamam(pa) and takes us to the Pallavi.

The Pallavi is structured beautifully and brilliantly with the raaga chaaya swaras embellishing the words. The swaraga3’ is one of the alien notes used in Kaapi and this along with the swara ‘ma’ gives the raaga a special fragrance (note that it is ‘gama gama’ literally!). Then there is this ‘gamanipagari’ usage which gives Kaapi its authenticity. The Master uses the ga3ma1 phrase in the second line and comes up with ‘’ in the last line!

The tisram sounding so sharp on the percussion-only in the Pallavi- is another speciality the composer is known for.

The Royal Kaapi- or rather the Raaja Kaapi- continues its journey like a prince and a princess in the interludes.

For a change, the Prince and the Princess sport a classical western outfit and doesn’t it look charming!

The strings glide smoothly with a stunning precision playing the same sets of notes repeatedly and the flute interjects with melodic splendour. The P&P decide to wear the Hindustani costume now and the sitar sounds the swaras with majesticity.

The lines in the CharaNams ooze with Kaapi with prayogas like ‘pani2pa’ ‘ma1ga3 ma1pa ma1pa’, ‘ga3ma1pani2ni2pa’ in the first line, and touching the higher octave in the last phrase of the second line- ‘ni3SaRi2Ga2Ri2Sa’. Note that the last line of the Pallavi and that of the CharaNams sound similar but don’t seem repetitive at all because of the way the chaaya swaras are used.

The second interlude surely reminds one of a wedding. To start with, it is Hindustani what with the Shehnai sounding contemplative sounding some telling phrases and the jalatarangam replying with sobriety. The Shehnai then continues its trip before the Sitar takes over again playing some soft notes with the strings responding religiously. The jalatarangam then repeats the notes of the Sitar in its unique style and the strings welcome this too with a smiling face. Finally, the Sitar and the Strings join hands to complete the wedding.

Western Classical and Hindustani vie with one another to greet the bride and the bridegroom in the third interlude. Two sets of strings sound polyphonic with expressive phrasings. It is then the turn of the Sitar to show some melodic intricacies in the raag with one more Sitar appearing suddenly as if to acknowledge its sister. The Strings follow and move like a cascade with a tracery of spiraling passages.  With calmness personified, the Sitar plays a set of meditative notes with the other Sitar nodding its head blissfully.

Rivers of honey and milk and lush green fields.. Don’t we want to see such a sight again and again and again..