Friday, 2 June 2017

ILaiyaraaja – The Alchemist

What determines the process of transformation?

When something or somebody undergoes a transformation, does that thing or that person realise that ‘yes, the transformation is in progress’?
Like many questions, this one is not that easy to answer. For that to happen, we need to transform ourselves.

Let us look at this very interesting episode. Thirumangaiyaazhwar, one of the 12 Vaishnavaite saints, goes to a temple in ThiruindaLur, a place near Nagappattanam and looks at the Lord. Words start oozing out from his mouth. Words which are not ordinary;  words which are poetic.

’Once upon a time you were white in colour- as white as the milk. Then you assumed the dark colour(of the clouds).  You were golden in colour and you also had the hues of blue. So, tell me now- What is your real colour? I want to see it here.’’

முன்னை வண்ணம் பாலின் வண்ணம் முழுதும் நிலை நின்ற
பின்னை வண்ணம் கொண்டல் வண்ணம் வண்ணம் எண்ணும் கால்
பொன்னின் வண்ணம் மணியின் வண்ணம் புரையும் திருமேனி
இன்ன வண்ணம் என்று காட்டீர் இந்தளூரீரே.

Generally (or traditionally), Lord VishNu is identified with Blue or Black(AaNdaaL calls him ‘Aazhi mazhai kaNNa’ and ‘KaNNan enum karuntheivam’). Occasionally, poets have associated Him with gold and this had to do more with the heart and less with his ‘complexion’.

But, here is one poet who calls him ‘white’. Is it just to sound different or is there any other meaning?

White is supposed to be pure (no, I am not talking about complexion or the colour of the skin of mortals). White colour is also associated with innocence and goodness. Golden colour is associated with compassion, courage and wisdom while Blue symbolises confidence, intelligence and truth. What is Black then? It symbolises fear and ignorance.

Now, read the poem again. White, Black, Gold and Blue. Note that he asks finally as to what colour is His true colour.

Does the Divine transform Himself? Or do we –mortals- transform ourselves? How does this ‘so called’ Transformation happen?

Yes, I have gone back to the question I asked in the beginning and yet I don’t have an answer. But I do feel that certain things happen within me when I read such poems. It could be because of the beautiful rhyming words of Tamizh. It could be the vibrations which these words give. It could be because of the emotional upheaval. It could be because of the thirst to know the inner meanings. It could be because of the questions raised by the poet. Or it could just be because of the poetic beauty.

Whatever it is, I get transformed.

If great poets like Thirumangaiiyaazhwar had the power to create magic with simple words, some great music composers had (and have) the power to transform us with some simple music.

Needless to say ILaiyaraaja is a living example.

Now, let me clarify on that ‘simple’ part. By ‘simple’, I don’t mean ‘easy’. Nor do I undermine the intricate complexities inherent in his music.

Composing music for film songs is not as easy as it is perceived to be. But what distinguishes a genius from others is the ability to create compositions which sound simple and yet have hidden complexities.

The song I have taken up on this special day is an example.

Suvvi Suvvi’ from ‘Swati Mutyam’(1986) is a song which is very pleasing to listen to. If you take out the beginning, it sounds simple. There are certain other features of the interludes too and I shall touch upon these soon.

But is it simple?

The composition is based on Madhyamavati, a classical raga. This raga is supposed to be a very auspicious raga which is capable of driving away all evils. I am not going to get into the details of the sequence in the movie and how aptly the Maestro chose this raga for this situation. My objective here is different.

The tune which sounds very classical in the beginning, changes colours and sounds folksy in the interludes and then it is a mix of classical and folk in the charaNams.
How does this transformation happen?

Let us first look at the beginning.

It starts with SPB humming something. That ‘something’ finally turns out to be Madhyamavati. He first goes to the taara Shadja (upper ‘Sa’), has difficulty in touching the mandra shadja (lower ‘.sa’) and finally is able to touch that with the help of the person who is a music teacher.

What a musical transformation!

What happens during this process is that we are exposed to different facets of Madhyamavati. But it does not stop just with this. He attempts to climb up again. This successful attempt covers the entire gamut of the raga. It is an exponential curve which finally culminates in a pure classical rendition of the raga by the teacher (Janaki touches new heights here!). The jiva swaras of the raga- ‘ri’ and ‘ni’- form the undercurrent of this exposition in which brigas flow like a cascade and where the melody pulls us like the gravitational force.

The first line of the Pallavi is reminiscent of a telugu folk song.But the same line when rendered the second time, glistens with classical hues with some added sangatis. The mesmeric flute and the translucent bells appear in between and make it more attractive. Towards the end, we literally hear the ripples.. ripples of music.
The ripples continue in the first interlude as well.

That the Maestro is adept in using natural sounds is a well known fact. And yet what he does here is unusual and unthinkable. He starts the interlude with the  strings which play with a passionate charm. Then he sounds Madhyamavati with water and the kudam(vessel used for carrying water). Is a raga possible with water and a vessel? Yes, if it a jalatarangam. But here, he does tarangam with jal without the help of any proper musical instrument.

Raaga Raaja joins hands with Laya Raaja with the ‘water’ and the ‘kudam’ sounding in tisram. He gives the ‘kaarvai’ too.

The water first sounds  ta – dhi – ta (3 broken down to 6 with the 2nd,4th and the  6th being silent) and the vessel responds in the same pattern.

The pattern then changes to ‘ta ka dhi - - -‘.

It is ‘ta ka dhi mi ta –‘ then and finally ‘ta ka dhi - - -‘.

That is the Maayajaal of Raaja Jala Tarangam!

The interlude is then inundated with a flood of melodious phrases. The humming of SPB to the backing of the strings is sublime and sumptuous while the sitar/keys/flute melody is sensitive. The three instruments sound different combination of swaras in their unique way. The sound from the keys is dainty, the one from the sitar is imperious while the raga from the flute is classical, showing the beauteous niches of Madhyamavati.

The lines in the CharaNams have an intense emotional base. But these also abound with rich musical sentiment illuminating the raga in the process. The mid octave notes dominate the lines with the jiva swaras playing no small role yet again. The taara shadja (upper ‘Sa’) appears in the second and third line with the taara rishabham(upper ‘Ri) appearing only twice in the fourth line. This indicates the poise and also is in keeping with the sequence.

Another point to be noted here is the absence of any melodic instrument backing the vocals-which is again not usual in his CharaNams. The bass guitar alone backs the vocals in a very subtle tone. The flute appears towards the latter half of the CharaNams, between the 5th and the 6th lines.

Percussion plays the Tisram in madhyama kaalam in the first 6 lines while it plays in the mel kaalam(faster mode) in the 7th line. However, here again there is a contrast with the tempo of the vocals slowing down when the line is rendered the second time . This time the percussion instrument is totally absent and the rhythm guitar alone backs the vocals.

The Nature Lover does it again in the second interlude. It starts with the subtle fading away of the flute sound. Almost simultaneously, the sound of the bells(the ones tied around the neck of the cow) follows in Madhyamavati. A special soft and malleable sound from a stringed instrument follows. We are enveloped by the melody from the flute which makes swirling sancharas in Madhyamavati. In fact, all these three sound together-sans percussion- taking us to empyrean heights.

The sitar takes over and sounds with expressional elegance. No, it is not the sitar alone. There is the sound from the strings too which play in higher octave with musical sensitivity. The sitar falls silent after two tisrams and the strings and a single stringed instrument caress us like feathers. This happens twice. The strings then aquiver with pleasure, bringing out the dignity and grace of Madhyamavati and Tisram in the process. After two  ‘ta ka dhi mi/ ta ka’ s played literally by the group of strings, the sharp percussion plays ‘ta ka dhi mi/ ta ka’ twice.

Transformation at its best!

What determines the Transformation?

I am sure this cannot be answered even by Thirumangaiyaazwaar and ILaiyaraaja..
..because the answer lies in their works!