Monday, December 28, 2009

Ilaiyaraaja - 2009 - A summary

Its year-end and boy don't we all love the annual rituals - round-up and awards!

A 'mind', a brain, physically 66+ old, stretched and squeezed constantly for the past 33 years in the art of 'creation', conjuring musical piece after musical piece, in arguably the most mundane
and non-conducive of environments for an artist, which will yet show no dearth of creative juices - this post is born out of utter
awe and adoration of this grey matter. A humble dedication to the man Ilaiyaraaja (IR).

2008 was a seemingly dull year with just an Uliyin Osai towering sky high amidst some uninspiring stuff. Eager but apprehensive followers (and blood-thirsty detractors) watched on as IR set foot in 2009.

And the year began with a smack! Naan Kadavul, the first album to be released - song: Om Shivoham - Raaja sent the ball flying out of the park! A straight six over the bowler's head off the first delivery! I sat puzzled, with moist eyes and goose bumps. 'How and from where did he pull this one out?' I pondered. And how would he follow that up? A classic and elegant cover drive - Kannil paarvai. Complete surrender! I simply didn't have a choice!

One significant difference between the outputs of 2008 and 2009 is his association with certain films, which were superior not just in the context of budget but also in their quality. Naan Kadavul, Pazhassi Raja and Paa despite being just ok films, managed to have a good run at the box office. Whether these movies were convincing cinematically remains a questionable affair, but one very apparent fact is that Raaja delivered big time in all these three biggies, be it in songs or the background scores. These apart, there were also a number of deplorable films, but the overall quality of music in these seemed better compared to similar duds of the past few years.

Alright, now let’s get down to business – what the post promised to deliver!

Interlude/prelude/postlude of the year:

Enter the king’s abode; the world where the man reigns supreme, undisputed and unparalleled. He unleashes his wild creativity in these little durations in songs; an imagination beyond the grasp of many Indian film composers. Irrespective of the film and the album’s quality, there’s one thing that can be assumed for granted - a couple of interesting interludes. This year, with several solid albums to his credit, the quality of the interludes only got better. Collaboration of talented musicians almost always yields in creative and exciting outputs. So was the case of the partnership this year of IR and Hungarian musicians Attila Lazlo, Bela Lattmann and Janos Nagy. The usage of the electric guitar, bass and the keyboards in Paa stands out with mint fresh quality with several brilliant jazz passages in the interludes and in the background vocal accompaniment. This has added another dimension to IR’s already multi-layered music and has left fans yearning for more. (A similar dash of experimentation could be traced back in the song Kathum Kuyile from the movie Kizhakkum Merkkum which had some magical guitar work by Prasanna.) I sincerely wish for more of such collaborations as it seems to bring out a more inspired IR. The dashes of jazz apart, some of the other styles that featured this year in the interludes include the characteristic string-ensemble, tribal, folk and classical.

Listed below are some of my personal favorites of the year:

a) Om Shivoham (Nannavanu - Kannada, unreleased): prelude and second interlude –Fusion of Vedic chants, folk devotional songs and carnival music - it takes an IR to conceive something of this sort. The most striking part is how he gels them while still retaining the authenticity of each of the individual components. In the second interlude, the transition from the Vedic chants to the folk chorus (some mesmerizingly authentic folk singing) and then on to the ubiquitous Naadhaswaram and Thavil section is goose bumps stuff in totality.

b) Om Shivoham (Naan Kadavul): prelude and second interlude – IR conjures up images of boundless intensity, a Rudrathandavam like energy here. The Udukkai, drums and conch along with the frenzied chorus chant of Harahara Mahadev gives the song a catapulting start. In the second interlude he chooses to give the thandavam effect using an incisive Veena solo with Udukkai and Tabla keeping rhythm. He very grippingly winds up the interlude with a crisp solo Tabla mukhda. The flow of musical ideas in this guy’s mind seems inexhaustible!

c) Ilavayasu pasanga (Madhiya Chennai) – This piece struck me like a bolt of lightning when I heard the song for the first time. The song, frankly speaking, is quite ordinary and the dumbass lyrics only add to the listener’s irritation. But the second interlude stands testimony to one of Indian film music’s most creative minds. A mind which does not differentiate and classify music into genres and one to which all musical forms seem to unify and blend into a unique sound. In this interlude, what starts off with a funky western style violin backed with a catchy rhythm guitar, suddenly but seamlessly progresses into Indian classical style with Mrudangam beats. The whole piece, though short in duration, is one of the funkiest interludes this year.

d) Paa – in terms of instrumentation, this album screams of class, quality and experimentation. I just cannot get enough of the prelude and interludes of Gum Sum Gum and all the versions of Mudi Mudi. The way he orchestrates the three version of mudi mudi - damned may I be, but I would’ve returned home happy had he given me an album with just 6 different versions of the same tune without any other songs! It’s startling and also saddening to know that a number of people, including several alleged ‘music reviewers’ have failed to identify, understand and appreciate the stark differences in instrumentation in these three versions. I do not intend to undermine the musical sensibility of the masses nor do I wish to project an elitist notion, but how hard is it to differentiate an electric guitar+bass+drums combo from a violin ensemble+guitar one? It makes me think if we will ever get to see the true musical genius of this man, for a large portion of his potential could well go untapped due to lack of fair recognition and encouragement.

e) Enge Sendralum – Kannukulley: the prelude and interludes of this song are made of the stuff that makes IR so dear to many fans like me. The inimitable, intricately woven, quintessential western classical music (WCM) styled strings section. The brilliant harmonies and the violin solos quite easily puts to rest any doubts about IR running out of steam. This one is as good as any classic from IR’s younger firebrand days.

f) Kannil Paarvai (Naan Kadavul) - Sticking to the adage ‘saving the best for the last’, I reserve my personal top-favorite interlude to finish the list. The second interlude of this song has had me hooked right from the very first listen. Life momentarily halts and everything around me diminishes into a mute oblivion when the strings section starts playing. In trademark IR fashion, the WCM string ensemble gets to play Carnatic raga based notes. This time around, to elevate the experience further, it is the intoxicating Raskipriya scale. The piece starts off with a section of the violins bowing a constant Ma note while another section traverses a short but poignant Rasikapriya passage. The notes, from what I understand, roughly appear to be:

Ni Sa Ni, Sa Ri Sa, Ri Ga Ri Ma

Ma Pa Ma, Ga Pa Ma, Ga Ri Sa Dha…

To me, during this brief sustain at Dha, a deep sense of sadness builds up in the heart. The rest of the interlude is like the violins conveying the remorse of the situation and its characters, telling me their pain and sorrows. It might be a small and simple strings section, but I personally find so much soul and life in it.

Song of the year:

Om Shivoham – Naan Kadavul

If I’m asked to give a one word answer explaining the reason for picking this song, it would be ‘ferocity’. Naan Kadavul, as claimed by its maker, was supposed to be a film based on Aghoris, Some of characteristics that are generally attributed to Aghoris are their fierce devotion, aggression and anger. Did IR bring out these emotions in his music? Oh yeah and how! The selection of instruments (udukkai, table, veena, drums, cymbals, conch, etc), the base ragam (Panthuvarali?), the style of singing, the inclusion of Vedic chants, the song’s tempo; every aspect of the song seemed bang on target. To me, Raaja’s forte is his ability to push the boundaries of a genre, while still staying faithful to its roots. Some reviews had labeled (or ‘written-off’ to be precise) this song as just another bhajan/devotional song. One can only pity the naivety of such ears (and hearts). In some sense of the term (a rough one that too), this song does fall in the Bhajan category. But is that all the song has to offer? The orchestration, its power and aggression are unlike any other devotional song of Raaja. And for the manner in which the song was treated in the movie, which to me is the year’s most ‘emotionally convoluted’ film, only reiterates the ill fate of Raaja’s music on screen.

For this power chord which struck a chord deep in the heart of this atheist – a bow to the King.

Just-missu - Kannil Paarvai (Naan Kadavul), Kunnathe Kunnakyam & Aadhiushas (Pazhassi Raja), Mudi Mudi (Paa), Idaya Baagilu (Suryakanthi), Kooda varuviya (Valmiki)

Female vocalist of the year:

Shreya Ghosal - Kannil Paarvai

On many occasions, IR’s choice for vocals of a song has left me puzzled, disappointed and even irritated. Why would somebody want to compose a Endrendum Aanandame and then pick Malaysia Vasudevan of all singers to render it? If I were left wondering thus in the past, this only appears to have increased off late. Take for example this year’s ‘Oli tharum sooriyan’ from Valmiki. What on earth is Bela Shinde doing in this master-stroke of a song? With her current Tamil diction, how does she manage to find a place in it at all?

Such blemishes notwithstanding, this year also had some fine singing in solos and in duets. But who walks away with the cake? Shreya Ghosal for Kannil Paarvai. Be it on the musical front or emotional, this song is sublime. Like an intricate pulli-kolam, Raaja weaves this deadly base using a divine Rasikapriya ragam set to an interesting Rupakam beat. And Shreya so beautifully joins the dots to finish the lovely kolam! Her diction is near perfect and her singing even better. ‘Yaarkum pole vizhigal irundhum, ulagamo irullil’, this line has many lessons to offer in its emotions, pronunciation and singing. For the Tamilliterates, this line contains three unique but similar sounding letters – poLe, viZHigal, iruLLil – which even many native speakers/singers fail to differentiate. Hats off to Shreya and IR for this.

Just-missu – Chitra (Kunnathe), Shreya (Shrungara bangara, Nannanne nodovanu, Idaya baagilu), Shilpa Rao (mudi mudi), Sunidhi Chauhan (Hichki hichki, Chinna polike), Rita (Unnai patri sonnal)

Male vocalist of the year:

Vijay Prakash - Om Shivoham

If this selection was to happen based solely on versatility, one man would effortlessly have taken the top spot - Raaja. Sampling the variety of songs rendered by him: the longing and sadness of Thaalaatu keka naanum, the playfullness of Rangu rangu, the classic Oru kaatril alayum, the naughtiness in Muthuthu, the tribal joy of Ambum kumbum, the pitch-perfect Chennai dialect in Ennada paandi – I doubt if any other singer could have done justice to the different emotions and styles in such varied genres.

However, edging past IR, leveraging on the impact of the song of the year is Vijay Prakash for Om Shivohum. His power-packed rendition elevates the song by several notches and his clear Sanskrit pronunciation helps. He did disappoint in Ambum Kumbum’s Tamil version which was only a shadow of IR’s original. But then, Om Shivohum turbo-charges itself ahead of all competitors and puts Vijay in the Numero uno spot for the male vocalist.

Just missu – IR, Yesudas (Onnukonnu, Aadhiyushas), SPB (modhalane baari), Sriram Parthasarathy (yaar ivalu), Karthik (Mouni naanu)

Quick picks – top 3:

Albums: Pazhassi Raja, Paa, Valmiki

Duets: Idaya baagilu (Suryakanthi), Nannanne noduvanu (Bhagyada balegaara), Rangu rangu (Prem kahani)

‘Group’ songs: Ambum kumbum (Pazhassi Raja), Gum sum gum (Paa), Sullikuppam ganapathikku (Mathiya Chennai)

A few nit-picks - some not-so-pleasant developments/trends this year:

Disastrous pronunciation: there were quite a few songs that had cringe-worthy pronunciation, particularly in Tamil. Wrecker-in-chief unanimously elected as Bela Shinde, this crew consists of Udit Narayan, Kunal Ganjawala and other seldom heard names like Ujjaini and Bonnie. Other than the songs which had messy pronunciation of Thamizh syllables, there were others which had a much ‘anglicized’ style of singing. To me this stuff is too hard to digest in IR's music. Even in the very recent Suryakanthi, in addition to the irritating accent of Kunal Weedfellow, there’s Solpa soundu in which the female singing is nothing short of atrocious. I try to pacify myself telling it could have been deliberate, tongue-in-cheek, a satire by IR, but considering that this style has shown up in some more songs this year, it becomes difficult to buy the argument. IR is known for extracting precisely what he wants from his singers. It's surprising to see this attitude wane and get replaced by, what appears like, an unassertive approach towards right pronunciation. Another issue that stuck out sorely was poor selection of singers. Well, this problem has managed to live on almost throughout IR’s career, but there were worrisome turns in this regard this year. To quote a few: Tippu being chosen for most of the ‘fun’/fast paced songs, Bela Shinde getting numbers, which in my expectation, should’ve gone to Shreya, increasing usage of non-native singers (especially those from Hindi film music) like Kunal Ganjawala and Bela Shinde, in south Indian languages, who in spite of having sung a fairly good number of songs already, do not appear to have come to terms with the diction of south Indian languages.


New kenny on the block ;) said...

Hello Sir,

It is a wonderful write-up with lot of information. Brilliant analysis! We truly stunned at your keen listening to those compositions. Thank you!

Have a good one!


~~Raaja rules!

vel said...

fantastic write up - keep it up !

bheemboy bheemboy said...

kenny, vel... thanks for the feedback; glad that you'll found the post interesting.

Chandrasekar B said...

Stumbled on to this just now. Though late, very late in fact, I am glad that I read this. Very insightful and enlightening. This man IR amazes me with his intricate work. Many thanks for the write-up.