For the love of Raaja

Here are four reasons I should not be writing a post about the music of Ilayaraaja.

1)      It is utterly stupid to try and write something about the music of a man, most of whose music I am yet to discover. I am slowly going album by album, spurred on by two friends, both of whom have obviously listened to and internalized waaay more of Raaja than I have. I have a looooong way to go.

2)      Better and more worthy listeners and writers than I, have paid handsome tributes to Raaja. Readers have hung on to every word of theirs, and nodded here and Ah!ed there. I am most definitely not a worthy successor.

3)      I am not a long time connoisseur of Tamizh film music. This means that I cannot compare Raaja’s songs with anyone else’s and draw clever, insightful parallels. I cannot with a flourish say, “And in 1982, XYZ composed ABC which one may indeed say is comparable to Raaja’s PQR!” Readers love such things, especially the erudite variety. They can vociferously agree or disagree, in turn quoting six other songs as a support framework.
(Besides, I wasn’t born yet in 1982. Just saying. Not that the year of birth should have much influence on someone’s knowledge of anything.  Unless it happens after their lifetime. But I digress.)

4)      I am technically unsound. For the longest time, for instance, I did not realize that interludes were called as such. Everything sans the actual vocals falls under the broad umbrella of ‘BGM’ for me. BGMs 1, 2 and 3 describe: the intro to the song, the interlude preceding Charanam 1 and the interlude preceding Charanam 2, respectively. I don’t know my ‘parts of a Tamizh film song’ at ALL. Purists look at me pitying and with scorn. Muttered insults abound.

Okay, so now you know what not to expect from this piece. For those of you who are lawyers and like your disclaimers in black and white: Don’t Expect Any kind of Intelligent Analysis, Deep Insights Of Any Nature, or Any Value Add To Your Knowledge Of Raaja.

And yet, none of these factors though true is sufficient to dissuade me from writing about the pleasure his music gives me.

For those of us lucky enough to experience it once in a lifetime, true love takes us by surprise, shaking the foundations of our orderly existence and splashing our hitherto dull lives with hues to match the rainbow: the glorious red of passion, the dark green of jealousy, the sea blue of contentment.

Imagine falling in love afresh every day… plunging to the depths of bottomless sorrow, rising to the heights of ecstatic joy, and experiencing everything in between: querulousness, pleasant surprise, gentle flirtation, overpowering anger, dismay, bitter betrayal, light mischief.

No day is like another, and yet every last one glorious.

Welcome to the music of Ilayaraaja.

I have seldom taken to anything as freely as I did to Raaja’s music. I am normally as anti-newness as it is possible for a person to be. Very few songs catch my fancy at first listen. And then there is the ready censure. Somewhere, in a song that the whole universe adores, I must spot a small part where the shruti does not align. Or where the voice wavers. The concept of looking at a song as a whole and not dissecting it, was simply not introduced to me. I am slowly picking it up, and not sure if even should.

One of the first Raaja songs I heard was Ninnukori Varnam. For a long time as a child, I was confused about whether this was an alternate Carnatic take on the popular varnam. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and the ‘interludes’ were fabulous! I remember trying to master it on the Casio keyboard while in primary school.

Raaja’s intelligence at composition blew my mind. As a small child, I was absorbed with what little I heard of his music from time to time.

When I first heard Aagaya Vennilave (Arangetra Velai) at seven or eight years of age, I was puzzled. The song seemed to follow the meter of ‘rupaka taalam’ which I was somewhat familiar with. This is why. I have tried in my novice way to draw the meter of the pallavi of the song.

1     2     3   4   5   6    1      2       3       4     5      6

aahaaya veNilaave  tharai meedhu vantha thEnO?

1     2     3   4   5   6    1      2       3       4     5      6

azhahaana aadai soodi arangerum veLai thAnO?

So far, so good. But then!

1          2      3      4      5      1           2   3   4    5   6    7
malar soodum koonthale   mazhai kaala mEgamai kooda
uravAdum vizhihale iru veLLi meengaLai aada

The lines “malar soodum koonthale mazhai kaala mEgamai kooda  /uravAdum vizhihale iru veLLi meengaLai aada” followed a 5-7 split metre.  This could not be rupakam because it did not come in cycles of 6 and 6! The world had ended. I grimly looped the song and told myself my taalam was bad. What was the point of music classes! My mother did not seem to care one way or the other. She was happy to just listen. This further irritated me.

I remember being confused for a few full hours  before I realized that it was indeed rupakam and that the sum of 12 can be split both ways: 6 + 6 and 5+7! Simple maths can sometimes seem way more confusing in musical form and add to this the fact that I am no genius. To add further to all this confusion, the interludes were in an entirely different taalam all together: Aadi talam! Once I had the song ‘figured out’ to a reasonable extent, I strutted about, chest puffed out with pride. It seemed then, the ultimate achievement.

But what the mind cannot fully analyze to perfection, the heart can still enjoy. Aagaya Vennilave was and continues to be one of my favourite songs, rendered to easy perfection by a vibrant Jesudass and the splendid Uma Ramanan.

Another song that fascinated me when I first watched it / listened to it, was ‘Oru Poongavanam’ (Agni Natchatiram) – as much for the music as for the cinematography. The beginning of the song was so inventive; if a person who had never heard the song overheard the first two lines, they would be inclined to think they had caught the ending of the song, because of the way it tapers off.

Oru poongaavanam pudhumanam…

Adhil roamaanjanam dhinamdhinam…

Think about it, wouldn’t they make fitting ending lines, the way the tune has been composed? And they form a natural ending for the song too.

And in line with the soft, sensuous nature of the video, the music swathes Nirosha, undressing and dressing her in the imagination of thousands; caressing her every movement, capturing her every mood. Small wonder Karthik is captivated! With music like that in the air, I could fall in love with pretty much any man. There is a dreamy quality to the song that I loved at first listen and still continue to lose myself in, every now and then, as if Raaja had composed it especially for me to listen and revel in.

A favourite that I had heard before, but paid attention to (and therefore truly discovered) only recently is ‘Aaathadi Paavada Kaathada’ (Poo Vilangu). Raaja’s earthy rendition coupled with the terrific catchy tune makes it a must-listen. This song is to me a shining example of Raaja’s intuitiveness while making music. The song is apt for the accompanying video, that of a young lad who catches his love bathing and mercilessly teases the shy girl, alternately flirting and pleading – and yet, it is so much more than a light hearted number; every time I listen to it, I can hear also the woman’s heartfelt, if shy, response – perhaps why each charanam ends slightly more seriously than the rest of the song.

(Bear with my imagination – after all, half the beauty of music lies in what mood and meaning the listener invests it with, at that listen.)

I am now compelled to describe my love of the most enchanting BGM in Punnagai Mannan, a brilliant Raaja musical. We know it only too well, that slightly-over-two-minutes portion of the movie where an overwrought Kamal, tormented by conflicting emotions of love and frustration, commands Revathi to “Clap!” and the proceeds to dance his heart out, initially by himself and then as if drawn inevitably to her, clasping hands with her in tandem. As the couple moves on the dance floor: hands clasped,  eyes locking, bodies swaying, Raaja’s criminally beautiful background score takes the celebrated scene to a whole new level. It is breezy enough for the couple to dance, but heavily invested with a meaning that sends shivers down my spine. Closing my eyes, I can feel my pulse dancing in answer.

This is Raaja adding a layer that did not exist before the music.

Above all the maestro’s perfection takes my breath away. Not one note is out of place. On the fifteenth, and thirtieth listens, each song of his gives me the same sheer, perfect listening pleasure that it gave me the first time I pressed the play button.

Take ‘Unna Nenachen’ (Aboorva Sagothargal). Or ‘Vaana Mazhai Pole’ (Idhu Namma Boomi), recently introduced to me by a friend. Perfection is Raaja is perfection.

To remedy my deficient knowledge of Raaja, I am dedicating a week this year to him. This week, I propose to do a Raaja marathon, only it will be a learning marathon for me. Seven days of sheer Raaja, starting today. I started with the apt Puttham Pudhu Kaalai (Alaigal Oivadhillai). Macchana Paatheegala (Annakili), Raaja’s first number followed, succeeded by Andhi Mazhai Pozhigirathu (Raajaparvai) and Enna Satham Indha Neram (Punnagai Mannan).

I am welcoming the new year with Raaja’s music ringing in my ears. If there is a better way to usher the new year in, I genuinely don’t want to know yet.

Thank you for coming past the disclaimers to read so far. Please do tell me which Raaja songs or albums I should not miss over the coming week. And share your unique love of the Master of Music in the comments section.

Happy New Year in advance.