Thursday, 2 June 2016

ILaiyaraaja- The Perceptive Musician

That young and beautiful girl sees that man from the balcony and instantly falls for him. That man along with his brother and a sage, looks at her too and disappears Somewhere deep inside she feels she knows him for eons.. She rushes back inside and falls on her bed. Tormented by the thoughts of the man, she is unable to move, unable to talk, unable to sleep. She sweats. Looking at her condition, her friends start fanning her.

Let me stop here for a minute, introduce the girl, the man and most importantly, the poet and then continue.

The girl’s name is Sita, the man- Rama and the poet, Kamban.

This sequence is of course very familiar to many but what may not be familiar(or known) is the fact that in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sita sees Rama for the first time only during the swayamvara when Rama breaks the Bow. But the great innovator that he is, Kamban adds a lot of imagination to the sequence in Bala KANdam to make it more romantic. Not only is it romantic but is aesthetic too and is a treat for all lovers of poetry in general. In fact, much later, AruNaachala Kaviraayar followed the footsteps of Kamban and incorporated the same sequences in his Rama Nataka kritis. Who can forget the most popular ‘Yaaro ivar yaaro’ in Bhairavi?

Going back to Kamban and his verse, let us see how he describes Sita now.

She is burning inside. Her friends ‘fan’ her to make her cool. Now, the fan rather than cooling her down, spreads the fire (recall what happens in a Hindu ceremony where a agni kuNda is kept and the pundits fan the smoking wood to make it burn intensely!). Her garland burns. Her ornaments burn. And she melts. It seemed as though a golden statue was melting.

அருகில் நின்று அசைக்கின்ற ஆல வட்டக்கால்
எரியினை மிகுத்திட, இழையும் மாலையும்
கரிகுவ, தீகுவ, கனல்வ காட்டலால்,
உருகு பொற்பாவையும் ஒத்துத் தோன்றினாள்.

We feel the smoldering heat in the first 3 lines. The last line is like a snow fall- a sudden one at that. This is one of those poems where the contrast appears only in the last line and that alone is enough to make it shine with beauty.

But apart from the decorative poetic words, where Kamban excels is in the art of understanding his characters. A poet (or for that matter any writer) of course understands his characters well. After all it is he/she who creates the characters. But geniuses like Kamban make the readers ‘feel’ the character and situation as if it happens to them. This is because such geniuses get into the skin of the character as they say! The result ? Ecstasy for connoisseurs!!

The same logic applies to ILaiyaraaja. The reason for his songs sounding so beautiful is because he understands the situation (at times even better than the director. That is why, the picturisation doesn’t match the quality of the songs) so well, assimilates everything and then gives the tune and writes the notes for orchestra.

On this special day, let us see a composition which is very different and even be called as outlandish. Generally, we the listeners expect a duet song to be peppy. We love the beats. We love the steps. In a kind of fantasy mood, we even tend to substitute the hero/heroine with us. Imaginations are always wild you see..

For geniuses too, imaginations are wild but the difference is that while our imaginations are mish-mash, that of the geniuses are beautiful. We saw Kamban’s imagination which was running wild in the first three lines and suddenly changed track. In a similar vein, the song we are seeing today has a very different beginning. It does change track soon, but what makes it a composition par excellence is something else.

Viraha runs as an undercurrent throughout ‘Unnai Edhirpaarththen’ from ‘Vanaja Girija(1994). Such songs can be peppy too. But the composer chose to make it as sober as possible with the result that it leaves us in a state of calmness. We feel the calmness not just while listening to the song but long after it stops playing.

The choice of the raga is interesting too. Madhukauns is a simple audav(pentatonic) raga in Hindustani Music. Surprisingly enough, despite it being the pratimadhyama counterpart of Suddha Dhanyasi-which is a popular raga in Carnatic Music- this raga has been more widely used in Hindustani Music than in Carnatic Music. It goes by the name Sumanesa Ranjani in Carnatic Music and there are very few compositions, these too composed in the latter half of the 20th Century. In film music, only Raaja sir has used it more prolifically.

Yet another different feature of ‘Unnai Edhirpaarththen’ is that the male voice (SPB) appears only in the second CharaNam and continues till the end.. The female voice (Swarnalatha)sings the Pallavi and the first CharaNam and does not appear at all again. Unique indeed! Probably we can call it as two solos in one song!! But again, the ubiquitous chorus which is superimposed on both the male and the female voices stop us from saying so. Without a doubt, a new genre.

If one listens to the first part of the prelude, he/she can be excused for believing that it is an eerie song, probably sung by a ghost. We hear the sound of the breeze first and this is followed by a sustained sound of the keys and a humming. The latter is backed by the rhythm guitar but still the thought of the ghost lingers in our minds. It is the stringed instrument- which sounds like a cross between a mandolin and a guitar- which brings us to the mortal world. The fading effect before the Pallavi is exciting and enticing too.

The Pallavi is sensitive and elegant and has a mesmeric quality. While the suppleness is not a thing which can be easily missed, what should not be missed is the rhythmic pattern. There are two sets of-one giving a very subtle sound and the other, a soft ‘whip like’ sound. The 4- beat chatushram cycle is divided as

Ta ka dhi mi/ ta ka dhi mi/ ta ki ta/ ta ki ta/ ta ka
(4                 /4                  /3          /3           /2)

But the percussion plays only the first syllable in the first part, the first and the third in the second part, leaves the entire third part blank, plays the first and second syllable in the fourth part and leaves the last one blank.

This ‘kaarvai’ has the desired effect in the composition and our heart beats too are in sync with these beats.

This pattern is maintained throughout except in some phases and we shall see that soon.

Another aspect of the composition is the chorus which backs the vocals humming different sets of notes. Of course, the instruments too back the vocals almost throughout the composition. All these take us to a dreamy world.

That this composer has an instinct to stratify different melodies is a known fact. In this composition, this is done so beautifully that it is like a façade of tranquility and peace. Musical architecture!

With felicitous fluidity, the strings move along with the other special stringed instrument in the first interlude. The keys give a smiling repartee. The chorus takes over and the ever-romantic recorder joins now playing in its usual shrill tone. The bass guitar and the rhythm guitar too show up now and then. A musical treat to be savoured gently without any interruption.

The lines in the CharaNams are etched with musical motifs and at the same time, are contemplative. These too create some special moments of solitude. Technically speaking, the prati madhyma(ma2) is used as a metaphor for viraha and this shows the brilliance of the composer(yet again).

The second interlude is a blend of delicacy and dexterity. The strings sound with regality. After a brief pause, the second set of strings replies gracefully. The tabla tarang enters now and sounds ‘ta ki ta/ ta ki ta/ ta ka’. Note that the percussion which has been there consistently from the Pallavi playing the pattern described earlier, is silent here. The interplay between the two sets of strings and the tabla tarang continues for 2 cycles.  The strings then repeat the same melody and this time the original two sets of percussion return with their pattern. The recorder plays a different melody even as the strings move. The chorus hums in lower octave with the stringed instrument playing the same melody played by the strings. It bubbles with emotional ripples.

Are we already melting like the Golden Sita?