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Thiruvasagam in `classical crossover'

By Dhanya Parthasarathy

MAESTRO AT WORK: Ilayaraja at the recording theatre of Prasad Studios in Chennai. — Photo: N. Balaji

CHENNAI, NOV. 25. It is as if someone put an "Sssshhh!" sign on all four walls in Ilayaraaja's room at Prasad Studios, Vadapalani. Seated cross-legged in the far corner in the bare room, Ilayaraaja is imprisoned by a hundred cassettes, a surprisingly uncomplicated tape recorder, music notes, books on Thiruvasagam and a Harmonium.

This rectangular room is where he catches a tune leaping in his head and turns it into a haunting melody that millions of movie fans cannot seem to shake off for years.

He says "vanakkam" and grins, which makes him look like exactly he does on television. His white kurta is crumpled in the sleeves. He is unshaven. And he spends some time searching for a sheet of paper in the creative mess. I am relieved to see traits of normalcy in the man variously praised as "genius", "maestro", and has thousands of fans who grew upto his music.

Before he takes on the interview, he has one question and a pang of uncertainty. "Do you know some music?" Thanks to years of parental pressure and threats, my answer is in the affirmative.

* * *

Ilayaraaja's most extraordinary effort yet is less than a month away from release. He has tuned six hymns sung by an eighth century minister, Manickavachagar of the Pandyan kingdom, into a tape that can be slipped into a car, in the middle of a traffic jam on Mount Road. Thiruvasagam is considered as sacred mystic poetry in Tamil Nadu.

And a stirred Ilayaraaja took the tune in his head — and got a 90-piece Budapest orchestra, 60 East European adult voices with a choir of 25 children, a choir of 60 Indian voices, 40 Indian musicians, 10 voices from New York — and produced an oratorio. Academy award winning lyricist Stephen Schwartz characterised the music as "a classical crossover ... unlike anything I have ever heard before."

How the light bulb flashed in Ilayaraaja's head has all the ingredients of a touch-your-nose-with-your-arm-around-your-head story. "In 2000, I was in Budapest working with a Hungarian conductor Laszlo Kovach. One day, I had a piece of music in front of me — a requiem in Italian with a German translation. Laszlo was conducting the music for the Italian version. Though I know no German, I just wrote a different tune for the German translation. When my friend saw the sheet on which I had composed this music — his eyes widened. He was impressed! That's when I knew," he says. That's when Ilayaraaja knew it was possible that a traditional work could have a different interpretation.

And after 12 days of 4.30 a.m. to 9 p.m. composing in June this year, came TIO — Thiruvasagam in Oratorio.

Admiration for G.U.Pope

Ilayaraaja holds up a copy of G.U. Pope's translation of Thiruvasagam. His admiration for Pope's effort is clear. "This was a priest who taught himself Tamil in six months on a ship to India... . Pope took 10 years to translate Thiruvasagam," he adds.

Ilayaraaja roped in the lyricist Stephen Schwartz to translate and paraphrase a short piece from Thiruvasagam in English. Schwartz, impressed by the "stunning blend of Indian and Western instruments" and the maestro's "quiet and gentle personality," wrote verse that matched the emotional appeal of Thiruvasagam.

"I am just a man/Imperfect, lowly,

How can I reach for/Something holy?"

A wish fulfilled

"This has to reach the younger generation," says Ilayaraaja, his bright eyes behind the clear glasses are in earnest.

In earnest, because this experiment puts him back decades — into the heart of an amateur uncertainly awaiting his first break.

In earnest, because he has felt "the bone-melting lyrics that erupted from a spontaneous religious experience" move him, a feeling that he wants the average young person to enjoy.

In earnest, because the completion of this dream is a wish fulfilled for this 61-year-old, who says, "this may mean I will never have to be born again, in this form or another."

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