Song across cultures



MAKING OF A BLOCKBUSTER: Ilayaraja at work with his collaborators.

MAKING OF A BLOCKBUSTER: Ilayaraja at work with his collaborators.  

IT is amazing how a set of verses on Lord Siva composed by a minister in the Tamil Pandya kingdom has grabbed the attention of South India's biggest film stars, a Union Minister, a Catholic priest and a frail old man at Music Academy, Chennai, on June 30. All thanks to the man known as "king".

"Thiruvasagam in Symphony" is Raaja Sir's (as Ilayaraja is reverentially known) biggest blockbuster. He needed the combined melody of around 300 musicians and singers for the effect.

The break up according to him was a 90-piece orchestra in Budapest, 60 East European adult voices with a choir of 25 children; a choir of 60 Indian voices, 40 Indian musicians and 10 voices from New York.

"I have never done anything like this before," he told Stephen Schwartz, Academy Award winning lyricist who collaborated with him on the project.

Richard King, a Grammy awardee and sound engineer, mixed the final scores at Sony Studios, New York.

Later, at a pre-launch press conference, Ilayaraja said, "Western classical music is participative. Look at the number of people who are involved in a symphony. Our traditional music is lonely," he says of his experiment that spans cultures.

He dared to touch a sacred verse and take it on a cross cultural journey. Now that it is finished and ready, he thinks he "needs to change it in about 200 places".

While his film songs drive some admirers nuts, that genre is no big deal for Ilayaraja. "Give me half an hour and I can finish a film."

But when it came to the Thiruvasagam, the 62-year-old's heart melted when he connected to Manickavasagar's spontaneous religious experience. Ilayaraja recognised the humility of the minister who experienced God. Thiruvasagam is recognised as the spiritual biography of Manickavasagar and is one of the 12 Saivite canons.

The verses struck a chord in G.U. Pope, a Christian priest, who translated the work into English in the early 19th Century. It was printed in Oxford with Tamil letters cast especially for this purpose. "Polla vinaye", Ilayaraja quotes the two words from a verse that moved him to begin his oratorio. "I didn't begin with the conventional first stanza Nama Sivaya Vazhga."

About 30 months into the making, Thiruvasagam was becoming a blockbuster that he would take the trouble to market. Ilayaraja would give pre-launch interviews, address press conferences, and even provide sound bytes to what he had once pooh-poohed as "lifeless TV cameras". But this was different. After all, the Thiruvasagam had taken more out of him than all his movies. But it had also given him much more. It had given him a philosophy and a conviction that this would be his last birth.

An excited Fr. Jegath Gaspar Raj, founder of Tamil Maiyam, agreed to anything it would take for Ilayaraja to complete Thiruvasagam in Symphony. "At Tamil Maiyam, we went on a borrowing spree to fund the project. Our borrowings now stand at about Rs. 75,00,000, some of it at over 20 per cent interest rates," he says. To pay it all back, they need to sell at least 2,00,000 CDs in the first three months.

Several observers point to the secularism inherent in a Christian organisation funding a project on a Hindu religious work.

"In Tamil Nadu, there's a legacy of cultural involvement of Christians in the Hindu religion, right from the days of G.U. Pope. If we didn't do the project, it is not Thiruvasagam's loss, it is ours," said Fr. Raj

Contact Tamil Maiyam at 150, Luz Church Road, Mylapore, Chennai - 600 004. Ph: 91-44-24672217/24993314/55873355. E-mail:,

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