Why many Ilaiyaraaja songs sound as if they emerged from a jam session with Salil Chowdhury

Although Ilaiyaraaja and Chowdhury’s backgrounds were different, their musical journey and creative impulses were quite similar

March 31, 2018 04:15 pm | Updated 04:15 pm IST

 Ilaiyaraaja, like Salil Chowdhury in Bollywood, codified the idea of arranging music for films.

Ilaiyaraaja, like Salil Chowdhury in Bollywood, codified the idea of arranging music for films.

Music composer Ilaiyaraaja’s willingness in recent years to open up about his craft has been a source of great delight for his fans and countless pro-am musicologists on assorted Internet forums. For a man long rumoured by many in the business to be “haughty and headstrong”, Ilaiyaraaja, through his frequent public speeches (helpfully made available on YouTube) and serialised magazine memoirs, comes across as a pretty humble genius.

Two recurring themes emerge from this newfound outspokenness. One, like the ancient masters, Ilaiyaraaja steadfastly tries to locate the genius outside of his physical self, as if guided by daemonic spirits. “ Adhu thaana varudhu (It comes on its own),” is how many of his awestruck collaborators, and Ilaiyaraaja himself, explain away the complex, maddening capriciousness of a creative process that has resulted in a body of work so massive it is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Two, he never tires of talking about the overwhelming influence of his predecessor M.S. Viswanathan (MSV) on his music, often going so far as to say his output is merely the leftovers from MSV’s plate.

Ilaiyaraaja clearly has taken the humility business a bit too far. With no disrespect to MSV, Ilaiyaraaja, beginning 1976, has broken so far away from the conventions of Tamil film music, it would be the equivalent of leaping over three or four stages of evolution. And this isn’t one-eyed, fanboy hyperbole.

Consider how Andy Votel, a cult British hip-hop musician, DJ, and record producer, described Ilaiyaraaja some years ago in an essay. It comes closest to capturing his brilliance: “Whatever “genre” of music you choose to like/ love/ promote/ protect/ politicise/ over-intellectualize/ despise/ defend or pretend to enjoy, Ilaiyaraaja has done it. Even if it only lasted for four bars.

And even if there were no less than two other styles of music playing at the same time. This one-man wide-winged pop-culture vulture has been indiscriminately ravaging and regurgitating global pop for over 40 years, and made some of the most joyous, existential and euphoric electronic South Asian pop music to ever grace the dancefloors, picture houses, wedding parties, concert halls and discotheques of Tamil and Malay-speaking countries and beyond.

With a portfolio of 4,500 recorded songs under his belt, it might seem humanly impossible by the standards of today’s Western pop perfectionists and procrastinators to achieve what this mutable multi-instruMENTALIST has already done. Perhaps it actually IS humanly impossible.”

Parallel lives

In Ilaiyaraaja’s ceremony of acknowledging the debt of inspirational gratitude, Salil Chowdhury, the pioneering genius from Bengal, must surely occupy a taller seat than MSV in the very front row. Although Ilaiyaraaja and Chowdhury’s social backgrounds, and the cultural milieus they grew up in, were different, their musical journey and creative impulses were remarkably similar.

If bana sangeet or the music of the forests was the earliest influence on Chowdhury growing up in the tea gardens of Assam, it was the rural folk music of the Western Ghats for Ilaiyaraaja.

By the age of 20, Chowdhury was a recognised name, writing and composing songs of the proletariat, extempore, on Communist Party platforms, being part of its cultural wing, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

As a teenager, Ilaiyaraaja had become a part of his elder brother ‘Pavalar’ Varadharajan’s travelling troupe singing Communist Party ballads in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. By the end of the 1950s — less than a decade into his Bollywood career — Chowdhury had changed the role of music in cinema.

According to Ashok Damodar Ranade, the legendary ethno-musicologist and author of Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries , Chowdhury’s predilection to modernise Bengali song and his almost dialectical relationship with Rabindra Sangeet impelled him to compose his own type of Bengali songs.

“These same musico-cultural forces also made Chowdhury a keen student of Western music and inspired his experimentation in orchestration,” he notes. Before Ilaiyaraaja, Tamil film music was heavily influenced by Carnatic music. Ilaiyaraaja, like Chowdhury in Bollywood, codified the idea of arranging music for films.

Both Chowdhury and Ilaiyaraaja plundered the Western and Indian classical canon to produce a form of music that was in sync with the demands of cinema as a medium.

They deployed Western classical symphonies in the most unlikely situations. Ilaiyaraaja, for instance, interpreted Mozart’s 25th Symphony as a street-theatre folk song in ‘Ada Veetukku Veetukku’ ( Kizhakku Vasal , 1990) and a Communist call-to-action song in ‘Manidha manidha’ ( Kann Sivanthaal Mann Sivakkum , 1983). Likewise, Chowdhury adapted a Soviet march number he had heard in Moscow’s Red Square in ‘Dharti Kahe Pukaar Ke’ ( Do Bigha Zameen , 1953).

Pan-Indian appeal

“Salil’s Leftist leanings prompted and strengthened his alert use of folk music from different Indian regions as well as his conscious employment of chorus and orchestra as devices to musically mark and express the essential collectivity of Indian society. These devices helped him in adding tonal colour to music — the lack of which in Indian music that many have felt. They created a viable basis for a pan-Indian appeal through music,” noted Ranade.

Not surprisingly, the pan-India nature of the new musical language Chowdhury created enabled him to become the first film composer to earn sustained stardom across the north, east and south of India. It’s perhaps why ‘Dhitang Dhitang Bole’, a Bengali folk song Chowdhury tuned in 1954 (Hemantha Mukherjee) travelled with effortless ease two decades later to Kerala in the form of ‘Theyyam Theyyam Thaare’ ( Neelapponmaan , 1975) sung by P. Jayachandran.

In fact, a fair case could be made for Chowdhury’s entry into Malayalam films in the mid-1960s, fast-tracking the emergence of Ilaiyaraaja. A mere imaginary reconstruction of the joyous collaboration between an established master and a prodigious protégé, whose primary means of communication must have been music rather than the spoken word, makes my spine tingle.

According to Gautam Chowdhury, a longtime friend of Chowdhury and the curator of Salilda.com, Chowdhury and Malayalam director Ramu Kariat became friends during an early-60s IPTA tour of Eastern Europe.

The friendship resulted in the 1965 runaway hit and national award-winner Chemmeen . Chowdhury thereafter composed music and background score for nearly 30 Malayalam films and a dozen across Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

In the early 1970s, Ilaiyaraaja, while working as a freelance musician and assistant to Kannada composer G.K. Venkatesh, had also become the lead guitarist in Chowdhury’s Chennai orchestra where most of his recordings took place. Chowdhury was among Ilaiyaraaja’s earliest admirers. “Our main guitarist in Chennai is the best composer in India,” Gautam recalls Chowdhury telling him.

Many of Ilaiyaraaja’s songs, right up to the mid-80s, sound as if they had been thought up at a jam session between the two. The way Ilaiyaraaja’s ‘En Kanmani’ ( Chittukuruvi , 1978) starts off, you can pretty much feel the song jaunting towards Chowdhury’s ‘Janeman Janeman’ ( Chhoti Si Baat , 1976). Both songs feature lovers in early stage flirtation in a city bus. There are numerous such songs where you can sense the similarity of musical ideas, with uncannily similar picturisation. By the same token, some of Chowdhury’s later-day Bangla songs such as ‘Emono Saghana Barashay’, sung by his daughter Antara, sound as if scored by Ilaiyaraaja.

Both Chowdhury and Ilaiyaraaja impishly hid Easter eggs in their works that listeners often discovered several decades later, and singers found difficult to keep pace with. They both harnessed a multiplicity of musical forces that made their works seem an intricate and complex weave. In Lata Mangeshkar and S. Janaki, Chowdhury and Ilaiyaraaja found the perfect vehicles for their relentless experiments.

Among many other things, Chowdhury pioneered the extra-musical use of music in films. He used chorus extensively, treating voices as instruments. Even by a conservative estimate, there are a thousand Ilaiyaraaja songs that are chorus-usage case studies. I give you two ready examples: ‘Poonthalir Aada’ ( Panneer Pushpangal , 1981) and ‘Andhi Mazhai Pozhigirathu’ ( Raja Paarvai , 1981).

Chowdhury’s interest in timbre and realism, for instance, led him to use the rhythm of the typewriter in ‘Arzi Hamari Yeh Marzi’ ( Naukri , 1954). Ilaiyaraaja took such Chowdhury ideas to a whole new level.

In ‘Punjai Undu’ ( Unnal Mudiyum Thambi , 1988), the sound of the woodcutters’ axes meeting the tree supply the base rhythm; the clank of the betel nut pestle and the twang of steel coffee tumblers provide rich tonal colour for ‘Chinnanchiru Vayadhil’ ( Meendum Kokila , 1981).

The more you listen to them, the more you’ll be convinced that Chowdhury and Ilaiyaraaja are giant trees from the same nursery.

The Bengaluru-based writer, translator, classical music addict and fountain pen freak fancies himself as the world’s bestest rasam maker.

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