Raja in Kannada land

Isai meets Isai, the concert series to mark the 75th birthday of the legendary musician Ilayaraja, comes to Bangalore. As the countdown for the concert tomorrow begins, a recall of his great songs for Kannada films is the happiest occupation for an ardent fan

Uniformly, the music of Ilayaraja has cast a spell on every listener. The enchantment is so powerful that each of us try to make meaning of his music. We try to locate and understand his genius. It could be the exposure to rich folk forms during his early years in his village Pannaipuram, we think. It could be the songs he heard at the Kaliamman or Mariamman temples during his childhood, it could be all the theatre that was put out by the Gandhiji Untouchability Eradication and Village Progress Union in his village, it could be the revolutionary songs that his brother Pavalar Varadarajan composed and with whom Ilayaraja sang and played the harmonium. Could it be a supernatural force, something like the Namagiri goddess that the mathematician Srinivasan Ramanujan speaks off? It could be Salil Choudhry’s influence for whom he was a guitarist. It could be G.K. Venkatesh, whose assistant he was or it could be M.S. Vishwanathan who was the most enduring force in his musical life. The list of surmises goes on.

Raja in Kannada land

Ilayaraja, on his part, doesn’t refute any of the above, but he doesn’t wholly accept them either.

Most of the listed reasons have made an impact on him and shaped his musical imagination, but in almost every conversation he consistently says it cannot be easily explained. “There is an element of the unknown. Like it is with God. If you knew God, would you pray?” he asks, hinting at the enigmatic in his music. In it, there is a reflection of the music of past masters, there are influences from formative years, there is music taught by Dhanraj master, there is spontaneity and labour, concerns of form and style, but there is something beyond all that can be understood logically. “It is something more than all this. That something else creates the magic,” Ilayaraja says, placing his music in the physical and within the processes, but also pulling it away from boundaries that are tangible.

How did Ilayaraja develop a pan Indian musical language? He has achieved stardom in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and Kannada languages. With plural musical streams within him, Ilayaraja is conversant with most of Indian and Western musical forms. His understanding of the medium of cinema is so extraordinary that he has harnessed his knowledge of multiple forms to produce the greatest of music. His association with theatre has given him remarkable insights into the manner in which music works best for films. As he himself says in one of his articulate moments (interview with The Hindu): “Performance is an important component of a music composition and art. Without performance, the composition will not be good music. Today, digital technologies have helped compose music, but they are mechanisms and they do not incorporate performance to create sounds that produce music – the interplay of various instruments and artistes playing them. I believe this is the core of a musical composition which is reflected in mine.” Ilayaraja, therefore, turned the khyal, the kriti, the symphony, the revolution song, and the folk into grand pieces of theatre, giving them a new musical life.

As Isai Meets Isai, the concert marking Ilayaraja’s 75th year, is all set to take place in Bangalore tomorrow, one remembers how he stormed the Kannada imagination with Maatu Tappada Maga (1978) four decades ago. The film has the upbeat and happy “Entha Soundarya Nodu” and the lilting “Baanu Bhoomiya”, both with superb background scores, and the latter even switches into the qawwalli mode in parts (also remember he does this in the playful, “Ene kelu koduve ninage”, from the film Geetha). However, it required a Pallavi Anupallavi (1983) for the Kannada audiences to wake up to the remarkable music that Ilayaraja scored for Priya (1979), Janmajanmada Anubandha (1980), Nee Nanna Gellalare (1981), Shikhari (1981), and Bharjari Bete (1981).

Let’s take the song, “Hey Kavithe Neenu”, from the film, Priya. The song begins with free flowing melodic phrases by both the male and female voices. As you are soaking in its reflective quality, Ilayaraja introduces a prominent rhythm pattern (bongo) over the main melody, transforming the tonal quality of the song within seconds. The stanzas restore what he originally builds, but again, with the background score for the second stanza – a plaintive shehnai and this time the rhythm instrument is tabla – he alters the mood again. The violin and sitar exchanges before the third stanza are rich -- building the excitement of love, music and poetry, as the lyrics hint. Ilayaraja, interestingly, keeps the main melody consistent, but creates drama through the background score, especially with the percussion arrangement.

Raja in Kannada land

“Kelade Nimageega” from Geetha is a fascinating composition: it is drama within drama. He sets the mood with a structured melodic bit, and for the narration, he keeps the use of instruments to the minimum, except for a prominent hand drum. Most of the performance in the song is created by the stunning use of human voices – he uses it like the chorus in a play, as a counterpoint to the narrative. “Tangaaliyalli Naanu Teli Bande” from Janma Janmada Anubhandha (reminds you of the Madhumathi 1958, Salil Choudhury). There’s a spooky silence which remains throughout the song. He creates different textures for the background score and the main melody, with much of the drama created by the rhythm track which remains foregrounded for most of the song. “Yaava Shilpi Kanda Kanasu” from Janmajanmada Anubandha is yet another remarkable song. Opens with what sounds like African folk, the song layers human voice with unconventional instrumental music. The song is certainly one of his masterpieces, and in fact, the re-recording for Janma Janmada Anubhandha is also among the best in cinema history. Ilayaraja establishes links to the story with such extraordinary brilliance that there are instances in the film when music becomes the chief language. The film gains immensely from the composer’s work.

Ilayaraja gives his master stroke in the song “Yaarigaagi Aata” from Bharjari Bete. The song moves from the general to the specific, which you can see in the opening music bit before the main melody. The setting of the song is in a club, hence opens to western sounding phrases with the chorus that sounds like choir music. The composition takes the most unanticipated turn with the main melody. Composed like a Carnatic kriti (raga Puriya Dhanashree), Ilayaraja juxtaposes it with a background score that is western. You catch glimpses of his intention when he weaves in mridangam bits into the song. Extremely modern and unconventional in its sensibility, the song is an outstanding rendition by S. Janaki. Ilayaraja lays out a brilliant rhythm pattern that keeps changing its contours. It needs a master like him to do something so modern and radical. Ilayaraja overturns categories of Carnatic and Western and fuses them in a way unimagined till then. It is also interesting to see how the same raga manifests differently when he composes “Puththam Puthu Poo Pothatho” (Thalapathi, 1991) and “Ninnai Saranadainthen” (Bharathi, 2000).

With its stunning take off, you can experience blossoming in the opening melody of “Jeeva Hoovagide” (Nanna Neenu Gellalare, 1981)! With lush violin passages and solo guitar bits, the song bears the lightness of happiness. The song ascends melodically with its refrain, and none could have sung this better than Rajkumar. This is also true of “Nanna Neenu Gellalaare” song; it is packed with drama.

“Hakki Goodu Ondu”, “Nagu Endide Manjina Bindu”, “Hrudaya Rangoli” are all masterpieces of this era. “Kanavariso Vayasiralu” (Shikari, 1981) is another unforgettable number. It begins with grand violin passages in raga Kedar till the guitars take over and change the persona of the melody. Set in the pop style, the song is extremely fashionable and young. One can safely say that the song is a milestone in Indian cinema music.

The initial years of Ilayaraja’s music in Kannada cinema is truly avant garde. In fact, it is an encyclopedia of his music. In terms of melody, rhythm, arrangement, background score, Ilayaraja reached the pinnacle of creativity. He was bursting with ideas and set new records for Indian cinema that till date none have surpassed. What he did in terms of arrangement and background score was pathbreaking.

Raja in Kannada land

He brought in elements and aspects that were hitherto unknown to cinema music. For instance, for the first time, he introduced solo instrumental passages. In most of the songs discussed, there are violin, flute, sitar and guitar solos. He completely transformed the notion of rhythm and how it could be used. The way he layers his music has few parallels. Ilayaraja, like R.D. Burman, created new canons in the history of film music.

The maestro remains unsurpassed in the way he infuses spectacle. Listen to “Muttu Muttu Neera Haniya” (Nammoora Mandara Hoove, 1997) -- the folksy chorus, the melody tossing between highs and lows, and the summing up percussion patterns. The highlight is the solo flute which lands on a high from where the chorus soars. “Lalanamani O Lalanamani” opens with a khyal like graceful verse “Anandakandane...”, reminiscent of music that the Kathak form uses. It is followed by a powerful rendition of bols as if to hint the different kinds of percussion design that is present in the song. The adventurous song achieves a reversal of sorts -- the pallavi of the song is a chorus and the stanzas are rendered solo. Another catchy composition of recent times is “Sihi Gaali” (Aa Dinagalu, 2007), which has resonances in his Tamil compositions “Raja Raja Cholan Naan”, “Ilam Kaathu Veesude” and others.

Ilayaraja is a composer of great appeal and musicianship. Even after four decades, and over 7000 songs, his creative energies shine with youthful vigour. From the flamboyant to the traditional, the songs remain evergreen. Ilayaraja’s songs not only has music, it has story, costumes, and orchestra. His theatre is more than art itself. That’s probably what he means when he says: “Thanagave varudu”.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 12:11:24 PM |

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