I apologise at the outset for that terrible title. It isn't fair, I know, to pit talents like that against each other. I will also admit that it looks, at first glance, like a cheap stunt to reel in the shocked reader. And for the record, I extend this apology to Rahman fans and Raja fans alike. That said, can you tell me, without missing a beat, without hesitation, with a clean conscience, that you never, ever weighed the music of one over the other? That your loyalties weren't the least bit tested by the emergence of one or the rediscovery of the other? Aha! You blinked!
The first ones to take umbrage at the comparison are the Raja fans. Their fierce loyalty is often adulterated with nostalgia. Do hold on to that flame-thrower; be with you in a moment. I met Rahman first, so I've got to talk about him right now.
That I have listened to Raja before I have Rahman is only logical. However, what I'm talking about is impact. The year was 1993 or 1994. I was ten and for the first time, we had a music system at home. Not your everyday cassette player. This one was something else; an exotic gift from a seriously rich friend. There were six speakers in all, four of which looked down at us from high corners of the living room. Two of them sat by a box with a glass lid. This machine played LP records. PG (seriously rich family friend) was talking all the while, but I couldn’t hear him. My ears were completely tuned to those speakers. I kept looking at them, one after the other, like a confused pigeon. He gently placed a record inside the box, swivelled the stylus over the record while sliding a finger along its length and imperceptibly, touched the needle to the now rotating disc. The next three minutes excited and terrified me like nothing else in my 10 years on this planet. Alien, unfamiliar sounds; rhythms that seemed to pound inside my chest and my gut; music hitting me from every direction.
>Chandralekha from Thiruda Thiruda, I decided, was awesome. Rahman, I realised, was God.
Couldn't get enough of it. >Thee Thee from the same movie. Roja was quite popular by then, but since I didn't think chinna chinna asai was such a big deal, I only went back to it later. >Kadhal rojave, >Pudhu vellai mazhai...incredible music. If there were any doubts at all that Rahman was the master of this universe, that his was the only music that mattered, Rangeela blew them all to smithereens. I mean, >Hai rama...what a song. It's not even the singers. Hariharan was brilliant, of course, but the music, that heavy tanpura in the beginning, that deep, deep raaga, and how it all comes together...I was an addict. I'd play that song and all I had for the rest of the world was an unfocussed gaze. Then I'd hum the song. Then I'd play it again.
Then I listened to Pachchaik kiligal from the Kamal Haasan-starrer Indian. And the spell broke.
By his own admission, Rahman floundered for a few years, not sure of what the Tamil audience wanted to listen to. Before he got his groove back, I'd moved on to Telugu film music, some world music and ten seconds after that, I swore allegiance to Ilaiyaraja.
I wouldn't say he was the catalyst, but Kamal Haasan was in the frame this time too. The song I'm talking about is >Valai osai from Sathya. Amala was candy in that song. I already had a mammoth crush on her from her roles in a string of Telugu blockbusters - >Shiva, >Nirnayam and >Raja Vikramarka. She transcends language. Ahem, back to the present. Or past. Or the past present. Sorry, Amala has that effect sometimes.
A still from the film Sathya. Photo: Special Arrangement
Valai osai. Even through the brilliant storyboard in that song, and Kamal's signature collision-kiss, and the shot where he mistakes her bicep for a muffin, and the sequence on the footboard of a Pallavan that fuses public transportation with the identity of the Chennai male; through all that, the music itself was for me the most vivid aspect of the package. For me, this song is the perfect example for the definitive structure of a Raja song.
I've often been affected by the following phenomenon: when I particularly like the work of a artiste - it could be a song, a poem, a character - I tend to seek out variants or versions of what first struck me, from his/her repertoire. In Raja's case, the second song of his that reeled me in after valai osai was >Poongatru from Moondram Pirai. Similar orchestration, with instruments that reminded me of the first song. I then moved backwards in time and discovered a cache of sheer genius. >Aasaiya kaathula from Johny, >Madura marikkozhunthu from Enga ooru paatukkaran, >Azhage Azhagu in Rajaparvai, >Idhu oru ponmalaip pozhuthu in Nizhalgal, >Poova eduthu oru maala in Amman kovil kizhakkaley. That last song knocked it out of the park. Not your regular rural tune, this one. Full of tangential notes, but which remain firmly earthy.
By this time, the whole world, at least the Tamil film pocket, had all but gagged and locked up Ilaiyaraja in a dark room with his old records and stuck on cobwebs on his awards. Stuck on, because real cobwebs would've taken much longer to grow.
I did note with pleasure Rahman's growth in albums like >Minsaara Kanavu and >Iruvar. I also listened with dismay as he recycled his own tunes across languages. For instance, inspired work from >Thakshak, completely violated in the Tamil film >Star. Meanwhile, I fed myself on Raja's music and turned into a die-hard fan who could never see eye to eye with those who claimed Rahman was the best thing that happened to Tamil music.
Fate, I am forced to admit, comes full circle. It tends to double back with more verve when you take a stand on some matters, or express a non-objective opinion. This is either a cosmic conspiracy, or a law of nature which we humans can comprehend only on hindsight. I, a musically inclined bachelor and Raja fan, got married one day, to a Rahman devotee.
There were arguments. There were words. And a traumatic episode involving a keyboard. I might still have a 'q' embedded in my scalp. There was some common ground, naturally - the Rahman songs I mentioned above, and the Raja songs she swears by - >Andhi mazhai in Rajaparvai, Valai osai, >Pani vizhum malarvanam and the quirky >Sorgame endralum. But liking these songs upheld our credibility. 'Fine' taste in music dictated that you accepted some entries from the rival camp.
There was one other aspect though, quite annoying, but completely beyond my control.
Every memorable moment of romance we've shared so far has had an ARR song playing in the background. Here's a sample - the two months post delivery was a harrowing time for us. Her life revolved around the baby, and mine revolved around her. Things finally stabilised at one point and we decided to take off for a few hours. Grandma Chinnu took over and sent us on our way. In our trusty Maruti Alto, we set out with no destination in mind. We simply drove along the OMR for two hours. We spoke five sentences in all, three of which had only three words each. It was like we were reunited after a long separation. All through, the songs from ARR's >Vinnaithandi Varuvaya were playing in loop.
So, despite the arguments, I declared myself a Raja fan forever. Every musical bone in my body, all the relevant neurons in my brain, were tuned to the maestro. Alas, someone else pulls my heartstrings these days.
(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at email@example.com)