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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Musical Varnashrama

Sometime in the early 1990s when Maniratnam's Roja became a runaway hit and consequently AR Rahman the new posterboy of film music, and when PCs ran on MS DOS, my cousin in his then trademark laconicly imperious manner remarked that all film songs recorded before 1992 be star-dot-star-delled. I was so taken in by the expression that I wholeheartedly agreed with him. Back then Ilayaraja bashing was as fashionable a carrying an i-pod these days. It was perhaps IR's vice-like grip on the music industry which got people to dislike him. Because he was a permanent fixture in all the movies, the audience wanted something, or rather anything new. I just can't understand how people can rubbish such a wonderful, massive body of work based on some of the most flimisiest, utterly specious grounds. But if by some quirk of fate, somebody had in him the power to star-dot-star Del all the pre-92 music, life wouldn't be half as beautiful. When I was in Chennai last week talking to a dyed-in-wool carnatic music rasika on the subject, I tried to tell him about IR's mastery over the classical form. His contention was that all said done IR's music didn't have bhava. When I reminded my friend of the kind of accolades IR recieved from carnatic legends like Semmangidi Sreenivasa Iyer, he sheepishly said that people are forced to make public statements that are politically correct. But those who look for bhava not in music but in the musicians caste are unlikely to find it. For some ARR is agreeable simply because he was born a brahmin!!
No wonder journalists like S Anand of Outlook dismiss the December music season as a snooty Tam-bram extravaganza with virtually no wider appeal. I wish I could prove him wrong.
In the world of carnatic music elitism manifests itself in other forms too. You can't win too many friends if you don't happen to be an MS fan. "Blasphemy," cried my father when I told him that her music was too "bhava-laden" for my liking. I do like some of her songs (Annamacharya kritis for instance). I really doubt if the carnatic cognoscenti would have revered her if she hadn't been fathered by a bramin and married to another. Anyway, she is a great musician and a some would even say a tapaswini, but I also consider her a nationalised Nehruvian relic akin to our PSUs. N Ram, who perhaps considers himself Nehru's intellectual and spiritual heir has quite fittingly misappropriated her legacy.

Coming back to Ilayaraja, I think he has done more for carnatic music than most of our purist musicians and prurient critics. His adaptation of carnatic ragas is unmatched and his usage of classical violin is just exemplary.

I've done enough thinking for the day and Im off to listen to some IR stuff.
Here's an article written by guitar Prasanna on IR's genius. Thankfully, Prasanna has all the credentials to talk sense. He is a brahmin and what's more, he studied in IIT.

“Have you written invertible counterpoint up a tenth?” Raaja (I am taking the liberty to call him affectionately as “Raaja” since he is after all, a “Raaja” in what he does!) has asked me this question a few times– a question I don’t encounter much, at least in India. In an age where most musicians (of course only in India!) spend their time reading the latest software manuals rather than reading books on harmony, counterpoint, orchestration or Carnatic ragas or whatever, Raaja is and has always been an anachronism. I have had several intellectually stimulating musical conversations with Raaja on principles of counterpoint, Bach, Tyagaraja, jazz harmony and much more. (Raaja has often asked me about jazz and I remember how excited Raaja was when I played him great jazz like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’). Raaja’s vast knowledge extends far beyond music. For instance, I have seen him quote passages from “Tirukkural” effortlessly in casual conversation.
In every field of activity, there are a chosen few that transcend their idiom. Let’s face it! Film music is not classical music. By itself, film music as a medium does not have the spiritual depth or artistic dimensions of say, a Tyagaraja pancharatna kriti or a Bach “Musical Offering”. It’s a medium of popular entertainment just the same way pop music is in the west. That DOES NOT however mean that it CANNOT be artistic. (I think readers will get this ‘distinction’ that I am making), it’s just that its scope and purpose is a little different. Raaja has transcended the idiom and brought elements of ‘higher art’ into it while still maintaining the ‘immediate appeal’ that characterizes (and should characterize) a mass medium like film music. It is doubtful if any musician in the world dealing with a popular musical medium (like pop, rock, film music etc) has ever brought in such an immense and breathtaking array of musical vocabulary and has internalized and reflected it in so personal a way. (What can we call Raaja’s music? – Tamil folk melodies meets Carnatic music meets Hindustani music meets 70’s disco music meets Bach meets electronic music meets ……….) What is amazing is that finally it bears a patent/trademark of homegrown Raaja. (It is not Bach, it is not Earth, Wind and Fire, it is not Carnatic music, it is Ilayaraaja.) In my personal opinion, Steely Dan and the later albums of Sting come closest to standing rock solid on musical and artistic sophistication, while still being couched in a ‘commercial’ medium.
I grew up with Raaja’s music and I can clearly see how I can revisit his old songs and find such technical virtuosity in his writing – his unmatched use of chormaticism in ‘Indianish’ melodies, his extensive use of intricate counterpoint, his vast knowledge of Carnatic music, the ‘correctness’ of every chord in his songs and above all the speed with which he composes clearly show that the man is secure, knows exactly what he wants and delivers. Raaja has raised the standards of us, South Indian listeners so much, that there are many of us who never bothered to listen to Hindi songs for e.g.. (we never needed to, right?). He has raised the standards of musicianship to such a high level among studio musicians in Chennai (I realized the huge gulf, when I worked with string players in Bombay for e.g.) that many times I wonder how the musicians even played some of the parts that are there in his music.
I have never heard a guitar even remotely out of tune in Raaja’s songs for example (believe me, that’s very rare in general). I have to make a special mention of Raaja’s use of the electric bass guitar. I have never heard such meticulous written bass parts (its clearly written carefully), as it is in Raaja’s - song after song after song. Mention also to some brilliant acoustic drum work (a lost and ancient art in India) on Raaja’s songs.
I would like to end this article with what Raaja himself told me once (about the limitations of being in the film medium) “Enakku innum niraya ideas irukku. Ithule ellam panna mudiyathu. Ithu Mint Streetille okkanthu Jabam panra mathiri!” (translated as “I have lot more ideas. I may not be able to do all of them in this. It’s like sitting in the middle of Mint Street and meditating”). I am sure we’ll agree that he has meditated exceptionally well on Mint street!

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