Covid 19 – A country marooned by a pandemic cannot offer an alternative to China

April 19, 2021

When India went into lockdown this time last year, there was a strangely positive sentiment coming out of the business community. Their take was that countries would want to hedge against future China disruptions by moving operations at least partially to other locations – which presented India with a tremendous opportunity. Missing in this laudably optimistic view was a reasonable projection of when India could come out of a hard lockdown. Don’t you need to be open for business yourself before you can take it away from others?

There is a sinking feeling of deja vu as UK PM Boris Johnson now announces that he has cancelled his visit to India. Hong Kong has announced halting of connecting flights to and from India from tomorrow. Wait for when others like Singapore follow suit. Which they will if daily covid numbers don’t come down soon in India. They are not likely to as long as politicians insist, among other things, that there is no connection between large rallies and a rise in cases.

Before you talk a big talk, you need to walk the walk. Before India can provide emerging world leadership in fighting covid, it must get to grips with the disease and tame it itself. This cannot happen until you remain in selective denial about what causes its spread (eg Tablighi bad, Kumbh good). It also cannot happen as long as you are dreaming big macro dreams and don’t master the finer details of what it takes to keep the virus under check.

It was known since at least January that the UK and South African strains had been discovered in India. But the responsibility of contact tracing and containing the virus was delegated wholly to state govts with not much input from ICMR or the Health Ministry or other Central Govt agencies to ensure it did not snowball. Likewise, the Maha state govt kept asking ICMR to report on whether the strain discovered in Nagpur was a new mutation and ICMR kept denying the same until very recently.

It is possible that ICMR as a medical research unit needed conclusive evidence to report a finding. Which is where the Central Govt needed to have stepped in and worked with Maha on containing the new strain within Nagpur. And this stepping in requires actual grunt work; merely saying so to the media does not suffice. Both the Centre and state govts have been guilty of this.

For eg, I visited Tamil Nadu from my home state of Maha for a wedding in Feb. As per the rules, I was required to carry an Epass with me (without which my entry could be denied). But nobody ever asked me to show the Epass in Chennai – not at the airport nor outside it. A quick thermal screening was all that was done.

On similar lines, when I was talking to a person working for a CA firm that was assisting us in some import matters, he told me he was going by local train to office everyday. I asked him how this could be when he was not an essential worker and he told me that Railways had allowed buying passes online again. So people just bought passes online and travelled merrily on the trains, hoping nobody would screen and catch them. And nobody did, not from the Railways, not from the BMC.

Just as CM Uddhav Thackeray’s cautious guidance was not reflected on the ground in terms of maintaining vigilance in ensuring covid appropriate behaviour and thorough compliance with the restrictions, PM Modi’s words too remained words as the situation on the ground diverged increasingly from his exhortations to wear masks.

And…unlike last year when Modi set an example himself both in word and deed, covid ostensibly took a backseat to elections in his mind. I have never understood why BJP, that is the rank and file of its national leadership, contests each and every state election as a life and death matter, but that’s another topic for another day. The point is you could now see the PM as well as Home Minister Amit Shah appear before huge rallies…of maskless crowds. Mr Shah was also photographed maskless at the Ahmedabad stadium during the India-England series. Per Orwell’s 1984, you can make the photograph disappear from the media and pretend that yours truly is ‘lying’ but you cannot make those who have seen the photo un-see it. I am not singling out my attack on partisan lines; Mamata didi’s realization that rallies are ill advised in these times comes rather late in the day and little more than an opportunistic piggybacking on Rahul Gandhi’s announcement given that she made no bones about attending similar maskless rallies earlier in the campaign trail.

Now that our leaders were no longer practicing what they preached, the public caught on too. A UP businessman who was penalized for not wearing a mask asked why politicians weren’t wearing masks if what he did was wrong. Rajiv Bajaj too asked why business was made to suffer lockdowns while it was business as usual for politicians. And he is right about that. But…

Speaking of business. Maharashtra Chamber of Industry and Trade (CAMIT) strongly represented against lockdowns and even promised protests on the street against the same. Such a fierce display of unity, however, was missing in enforcing covid appropriate behaviour in their own respective organisations. I am one of those who did not get to continue WFH even though I work for a fairly large sized company. And there are many such. White collar employees on low salaries are being forced to come. They can either spend more than their salary on autorickshaws and stay safe…or bite the bullet and travel by local train. Is anybody really surprised that covid roared back in Mumbai?

Now…if you asked CAMIT, they would say that govt allowed us to maintain up to 50% attendance in offices. Yes, but merely because it is allowed doesn’t mean you have to be callous towards your employees. You have the option of being, er, a little more considerate, a little more mindful of employee safety. And not necessarily because you would get beat Azim Premji in philanthropy but because increased covid cases endanger everyone’s safety, including yours.

We talk about working in silos being the bane of many organizations and India has provided a demonstration of silo-ism on a macro scale. Each one giving themselves ‘exemptions’ from covid appropriate behaviour while blaming the others who do not adhere to it collectively make a total pig’s breakfast of things. Which is exactly what we have done. From low cases in Jan, we are now deep in the middle of a second wave that has already overwhelmed our hospitals and even cemeteries and crematoriums.

The stark absence of vigilant central leadership as they concerned themselves with elections was certainly a huge contributing factor. However, it’s all of us, the entirety of our society top-down. We collectively decided that covid would not be a huge problem for us even if it was for many others; we decided covid was over for office/temple/election/kumbh/ramzan etc. But covid does not know the difference between any of these things. It sees opportunities to spread and preys accordingly.

The second wave in India is deeply concerning to the world as they counted on India being able to produce and export vaccines it would not need, having already gotten on top of the virus. Now they learn that India may in fact have to import vaccines being produced ideally for countries that are unable to make them.

If you cannot rely on China because they are devious, you cannot rely on India because we are unreliable. Divergent roads leading to the same destination. Once more, just as India began dreaming of a bumper economic recovery on the strength of a strong first quarter in calendar year 2021, the second wave now leaves the near future shrouded in uncertainty.

And this time, we don’t necessarily have all of the rest of the world for company. So there’s elsewhere they can look to if India is not ready.

Cover of Dream Brother (Jeff Buckley)

April 18, 2021

Song: Dream Brother

Artist: Jeff Buckley

Album: Grace

Jeff Buckley was one of the greatest singers in rock music and could have wound up one of its great songwriters had he not died so young. His debut album Grace was a sheer tour de force, a beautiful blend of diverse influences as well as moods with delicately vulnerable phrases giving away to violently intense ones in mere seconds.

Among the myriad inspirations Buckley looked up to was none other than the great Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Buckley used to perform Yeh Jo Halka Suroor off and on in live shows. Not very well, I am afraid, but those were commendable efforts for someone schooled completely in Western music as Buckley was.

On the song Dream Brother from his album Grace, Buckley indulged this side of his music more. The recurring guitar motif sounds more like a sitar and the melody definitely evokes Hindustani raga formations. There is also a hint of an aalaap performed by Buckley in the interlude.

For all that, the song remains a ROCK song through and through. It retains a Western core with all these Hindustani influences. We say here that Ilayaraja didn’t use clumsily combine Indian and Western, he appropriated Western influences into a strong Indian musical core so that the songs remained very Indian in their sensibilities even with all the counterpoint, the independent basslines and the dazzling chord changes. Likewise, there is something distinctly Western about Dream Brother even with the song being heavily steeped in Hindustani influences.

I can’t possibly touch the dizzying heights Mr Buckley could with his spell-binding vocals. But I try nevertheless. So here’s my attempt:

Graf – Seles 1990 Berlin – when the German wall of women’s tennis fell at Berlin

April 16, 2021

I have written previously about the Graf-Seles Australian Open 1993 final and the Graf-Sabatini 1991 Wimbledon final. The former match left the Graf-Seles rivalry at a tantalizing juncture, where Seles seemed to have sorted out Graf. The latter match saw Graf veer to the precipice of an ignominious choke before rallying back brilliantly to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

But Berlin 1990 is where the troubles really began for the German who had dominated women’s tennis in the late 80s. Domination isn’t the word. Graf won her first slam at the French Open in 1987, followed it up with an unparalleled-in-the-graphite-era feat of four slams in a single year along with the Olympic gold in 1988 and won a further three slams in 1989. She also defended her Australian Open title for the second year running in 1990. She had ascended to no.1 on Aug 17, 1987 and was still the reigning no.1 when she met Seles at the German Open final in Berlin, 1990. She would only relinquish the no.1 spot on Mar 11, 1991…to Seles.

I chose to write about this match because over the years, Graf’s personal troubles concerning the blackmailing scandal have come to be attributed for this loss, with Graf herself voicing this narrative in an interview with Peter Bodo. However, that is not what I saw when I re-watched the match recently and further I spotted Seles exploiting some of the same patterns of play she would in future wins over Graf.

Coming into this match, Graf had won every match in the tournament in straight sets. She had also been undefeated all year up to that point, winning the Australian Open, Tokyo, Amelia Island and Hamburg. Thus, there was no sign yet that anybody was about to shake up her stranglehold over women’s tennis. Which is not the same thing as to say there was no sign yet that Graf’s level was more vulnerable than in 1988 or 89.

Graf won the Australian Open final that year in straight sets over Mary Joe Fernandez who was contesting her first slam final. But the affair wasn’t as comfortable for Graf as a straight sets score would suggest. Looking at this highlights reel would give you an indication of how laboured the match really was.

If that does not convince you, examining the stats for the match should. Graf made 29 unforced errors against 20 winners. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that Fernandez made the same number of errors against just 10 winners. It was a match in which both players hit not a lot of winners for a lot of errors.

There was then something sluggish and a tad erratic about 1990 Graf. So, no, it didn’t have much to do with the blackmail scandal and if I had to guess, I would explain it as fatigue catching up with Graf; she had worked herself to death to keep winning and ’90 was the first year tennis seemed to feel like a job for her. So why would Graf attribute that to the Seles loss at the German Open? Maybe because what she already saw left her apprehensive? Maybe because it was a convenient explanation retrospectively to adroitly deny the possible impact Seles’ stabbing could have had on her (Graf’s) career?

At any rate, watching Graf quickly win the first two games of the match, you see in fact the picture of regal confidence. Watch her swat the spare ball away at 26:45 after winning the last point of the game with a volley. Yup, there was, if anything, a swagger about her that day. As if telling the upstart Seles to bring it on.

Unfortunately for Graf, Seles did bring it on.

The ways in which Seles troubled her were both tactical and mental.

At both 51:24 and 51:50, Seles showed the courage to attack Graf’s forehand corner. Graf couldn’t get the ball past the net on the first occasion and on the second, produced a short lob that Seles hit a smash winner off. The conventional wisdom had been that one must attack Graf’s backhand because her forehand was so strong. But Seles was able to catch Graf moving to protect her backhand corner. You can hear the commentator point this out too. This used to make it hard for Graf to respond in time to fast and deep shots into her forehand corner, even with her being so quick on her feet. Seles exploiting this had the additional benefit of weakening Graf’s confidence in her forehand. As you can see in this match too, she often pressed and made wild errors at times on her forehand. 37:20 being a particularly bad one.

Seles also found that because Graf had such late preparation on her forehand, she could be rushed if forced to hit on the rise repeatedly. The point at 47:50 demonstrates this. At the first time of asking, Graf converts the half volley with a high but deep forehand. But Seles keeps up the pressure and asks the question again and this time, Graf blows it long. Seles’ brilliant ability to step inside the baseline and hit early and hard repeatedly meant that Graf wasn’t too comfortable engaging her in baseline arm-wrestles. In my post on the Australian Open match, I mentioned an example of Graf losing precisely such an arm-wrestle rally when she mistimed a forehand and let Seles get on top from thereon.

Seles also showed brilliant anticipation which resulted in her winning points in positions where Graf was used to winning the point herself. At 41:10, Seles is caught midcourt as Graf takes on her forehand squash slice with a topspin backhand. A shot she rarely uses so the unpredictability combined with Seles’ awkward court position should have done the job. And yet, Seles reaches at the ball with a one handed forehand and finds the open court for a winner!

Seles was also able to drag Graf wide on the backhand side and open the court up for a winner. So it wasn’t as if she gave Graf a pass on the backhand wing. No, rather, the pressure was relentless from both sides.

Which brings me to the mental aspect of it. Seles brought to bear a different kind of pressure from what Graf had been used to until then. She was used to serve and volley pressure from Navratilova, Shriver or even Sabatini on occasion. Sabatini also engaged her in grinding rallies from the baseline but Sabatini rarely hustled her or shrunk her response time. In those situations, Graf could afford to be patient and wear Sabatini down.

She could also count on the likes of Sabatini to capitulate under pressure on important points. Why, even Navratilova lost the US Open final of 1989 from a commanding position in the second set (having already won the first).

But Seles was both relentless and fearless. The onslaught of fast and deep balls on both sides forced Graf to hit on the rise way more than she enjoyed, forced her to respond sooner than was her wont. She also couldn’t count on Seles to crumble under break point pressure or choke away an advantageous position. If anything, these were the situations in which Seles seemed to thrive and produce her best.

One other tactical piece combined with the above to make Seles already an unique threat for Graf in 1990 – her returning. Graf had a great first serve but her second serve was decent, just getting the job done. Seles pounced on every weak-ish second serve, either hitting return winners or forcing the error anyway. This made Graf doubly anxious on her serve and she ended up conceding serve way more than she liked.

And so it was that after sprinting to a commanding 2-0 lead in the first set, Graf gradually disintegrated as Seles won 6-4 6-3 in barely over an hour.

One does not know if the blackmail scandal still weighed on Graf’s mind when she reached the French Open final later in the same month without dropping a set – only to lose yet again to Seles in straight sets!

While Seles would not win any more slams that year, neither did Graf. Graf also lost at the US Open as well as Virginia Slims finals to Sabatini that year, opening up a period where Sabatini kind of owned Graf.

Not just Sabatini – Novotna, Sanchez, lots of players began to bother Graf in 1991. Somehow, Graf won her only two encounters with Seles that year (neither of them coming at the slams) and with relative ease at that.

But the damage had already been done. Even when she wasn’t playing Seles, Graf no longer had the steely invulnerability, the quiet but cocky confidence of the late 80s. She could and did lose her rhythm frequently and found herself descending into a string of errors that would often lead to her expressing her frustration with herself rather vocally on court. It was finally in 1995 that Graf showed the clutch and wiliness of old as she prevailed in tough matches at the slams again and again (including against Seles at the US Open where Graf bounced back from a 6-0 drubbing in the second set).

That was then. But after the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, 1990 saw the fall of the German wall of tennis. In the space of a few weeks in May, Seles ended the reign of the once indomitable and utterly undisputed champion of women’s tennis.

Dee Dee Belson and the story of unsung singers/artists/sportspersons etc

April 2, 2021

I heard Dee Dee Belson for the first time today while going through Linda Eder’s Star Search performances. If you’re coming at this from an Indian vantage point, you may not be familiar with Linda Eder but she is a well known Broadway singer and was married to songwriter Frank Wildhorn for a few years. She’s fairly bigtime, so to speak.

But Dee Dee Belson? Let’s get to her. The fact that I haven’t posted a URL for her name probably gives you a hint…

First up, she contested the finals of Star Search in 1988, up against Linda Eder.

Linda Eder sang Looking Through The Eyes of Love, a song originally performed by Melissa Manchester. Linda kept it simple on the surface but added a high section probably sung in whistle register that isn’t there in Melissa’s rendition and also brought forth more warmth. I would suggest you to listen to her renditions of Bring On The Men or Don’t Rain On My Parade to get an idea of how much Linda is singing within herself here. Linda carefully chose a song that would be a walk in the park for her and did full justice to it.

Dee Dee sang Since I Fell For You and performed it with lots of gusto, adding high scat. Perhaps, though, this out of the box and adventurous rendition wasn’t ‘fit to size’ for the platform. Linda’s more accessible approach won the day and she won the finals.

However, as you can tell, Dee Dee’s own performance was brilliant in its own right. The nature of a contest forces judges to pick winners and losers but, really, music isn’t a competition. Dee Dee was expressing herself in her own voice just as Linda was. We can have space for both in this planet. Or can we?

For have a look at their trajectories since then.

Linda’s undefeated run in Star Search caught the attention of Frank Wildhorn, who was then writing songs for famous artists like Patti LaBelle and, yup, Whitney Houston. If you’ve ever heard Where Do Broken Hearts Go, that’s his song. And as the songwriter, I can bet he made more money when the song charted #1 than Whitney did for recording it. But that’s another topic.

Frank had been writing a musical based on the R L Stevenson novel Jekyll & Hyde. He was enchanted by Linda’s voice and cast her in it. From thereon, began a musical collaboration that morphed into a romantic relationship and, eventually, a marriage. He wrote two other plays – Scarlet Pimpernel and Civil War – in which he, again, gave her songs. By and by, Linda became a Broadway star and the play Jekyll and Hyde received Tony Award nominations though it didn’t win any of them. Through this time, Linda appeared on the Rosie O’Donnell show as well as on David Letterman. Told ya, she was fairly big time for a while. She decided, though, that she had had her fill of the fame game and settled down in Upstate New York to raise her son (as well as dogs and horses), performing a more limited schedule for the consumption of fans as opposed to high profile televised events. She wouldn’t have known then, of course, that televising music shows other than the Grammys would become increasingly a thing of the past in the US. She had had her own PBS concert in 1999 anyway (from which the Bring On The Men performance is taken).

So that’s for Linda. As for Dee Dee, she sang songs on the 1990 TV series Cop Rock. One look at its IMDB page should tell you how that worked out.

But that wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t directing the show. She also sang a song on the movie Don’t Tell Her It’s Me.

The movie tanked and the song was never released. But you can hear it here:

As you can tell, she had a beautiful voice. If a song of hers were slipped into the radio in the middle of Celine Dion hits, you wouldn’t think something was remiss. It would fit right in (and note I am not saying she SOUNDS like Celine).

Dee Dee had minor repute as a jazz singer but, as said above, there’s no wikipedia page about her. All I could glean about her work was she made an album named after her on little known Impact Records. According to discogs, the album, made in 1992, was only ever released on cassette.

She died of a heart attack in 2009. She was 49. Yeah.

That’s the long and short of it when it comes to Dee Dee Belson, a Star Search finalist. Star Search was basically a drab and unglamorous version of American Idol (though its format was more like the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa show of old). So, lots of people would have watched the show in 1988. Lots of people would have known her name. Some parents and grandparents would have been telling kids to remember Dee Dee’s name. And yet, she wound up but a mere footnote.

And here’s the kicker. She was the daughter of actress Pearl Bailey. She wasn’t a nobody. She had privilege, she must have had a network. All that isn’t always enough, though.

There was a Tamil movie 12B that imagined two alternative stories that hinge on the protagonist being able to catch the bus (route no. 12B, hence the name). What would the counter history where Dee Dee won Star Search have looked like? Would it have opened more doors for her? And would it have necessarily hurt Linda or would she have still been spotted by Frank Wildhorn? There’s no guarantee. Sunil Gavaskar used to urge rookie players in the Indian cricket team to get a century and not get out in the 80s or 90s. His rationale was that selectors only focused on the centuries and forgot about the near-centuries. Likewise, somewhere, a news article mentioning Linda as the Star Search winner probably impressed Frank enough to pay attention.

So…this is a long winded way of saying that, basically, the world of music doesn’t just revolve around Whitney, Celine, Mariah, Christina or Beyonce. There are so many, oh so many singers out there. And there are many more like Dee Dee that you may never hear of. Many like her of whom you cannot find much to listen to even if you wanted to (as I want to). It’s show business and they show us merely the very tip of the iceberg. They funnel out, often arbitrarily, the stack and select a prized few offerings for our consumption. While this has changed a tad in the streaming era, chances are that unless you are a voracious music nerd like me, you basically think of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande or Katy Perry when you think about contemporary female pop singers. Oh, and Billie Ellish. Sorry.

And it’s that way just about everywhere. You’ll never hear about wonderful theater actors who never made it to the big time unless YOU were personally there marvelling at their performances.

It’s that way in sport too. I have once watched two women slug it out ferociously in the finals of a $25000 tennis event held here in Navi Mumbai. It was absolutely fantastic to watch. Amateur players in the city (like myself) gathered to watch it and we marvelled at how hard they were hitting the ball, harder than we could ever hope to. It was like they were from a different planet.

And YET, both players were ranked between 200 and 300. I cannot remember their names anymore though I think one was from Serbia and the other from Russia. And no, neither of them made it, neither of them could break through to the big league.

But at least there is a semblance of fairness in sports. Their ranking was a true reflection of where they stood. Had either player come up against Serena Williams, she would have won without lifting a finger, that’s how good SHE is. We can, of course, debate how some players enjoy privileges and facilities in their formative years that others don’t (though the Williams sisters grew up in Compton so…). But other things being equal, the sporting world simply rewards who is the best on the day, in the match. That’s more objective than the best corporate performance appraisal systems you’ll find.

That can’t be said of the art world. Who makes the cut and who doesn’t can depend on extremely subjective factors and even just plain dumb luck. Being at the right place at the right time counts for more than talent. Which sounds fair enough but the thing is even the artist may not realize they are at the right place at the right time. They may often simply tap serendipitously into the zeitgeist. One can, again, find exceptions to this rule. Stevie Wonder made it through sheer force of talent as did Ilayaraja, as did Rahman and so on.

But what is more frequently observed is the 12B syndrome. Where a single event and its outcome may perhaps define your future and to a disproportionate extent. And where it may not even be necessarily something you did wrong. Dee Dee Belson poured her heart out that evening on Star Search. And it wasn’t enough. Yet, who can hold it against Linda Eder either – a consummate mistress of technique who has proved herself more than worthy of the prize? Yes, it’s complicated. I mean, it’s complicated for me, a huge Linda Eder fanboy, so imagine what those who may not have been so fond of her singing and who knew Dee Dee well would feel about it.

Alice In Chains – Rooster (cover)

March 21, 2021

Song: Rooster

Band: Alice In Chains

Album: Dirt

OK, fair to say this is my most ambitious cover so far. So…fair warning, there are little hiccups here and there.

The late Layne Staley could sing with amazing distortion high up. For me, high distortion is still a work in progress but I managed a decent amount of it in the low verses.

The placement of the words also gets tricky and it’s very specific. I do better when the meter leaves room to breathe. Oh well, it is what it is.

I love this song as it describes how the valour of a war veteran was completely cast aside and he was mocked as a ‘rooster’ for getting captured. Does that remind you of how a (in)famous politician mocked John McCain? Now consider that this song was written in 1992 and referred to the humiliation the band’s guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s father went through and which Jerry witnessed in his growing up years. So…did said infamous politician simply hold a mirror to the ugly side of America’s soul?

Ponder over that while you listen!

Thoda Thoda Malarndhadhenna (cover)

March 7, 2021

Song: Thoda Thoda Malrandhadhenna

Film: Indira

Singers: SPB, Chitra

Music: A R Rahman

I love, love this song. I listened to the tape of Indira over and over and over back in the day, like other classic Rahman albums from the 90s.

I don’t often feel the urge anymore to listen to Nila Kagirudhu, Ottakara Maarimuthu or Acham Acham Illai. Not that they are bad songs, far from it. Any Rahman album back then was just a Thriller-like collection of superhits one after the other.

But it’s Thoda Thoda that goes the extra mile. It manages to combine an almost delicate sentimentality and vulnerability (particularly reflected in SPB’s singing) with a quiet but intense longing (the interludes).

I will write more about this someday but there are actually many similarities between Raja and Rahman at a broader ‘flossophical’ level than people may realize. The two are the only ones who have a complete mastery over every instrument and how to extract a hundred different sounds from it, the only ones up to the 90s who could regularly write authentically Western instrumental parts and the only ones too who understood that intensity is about momentum, not volume. As Raja did in Mandram Vandha, so too on Thoda Thoda, Rahman shows how a downbeat, quiet and soft as hell song can still be breathtakingly intense.

With that lengthy intro, here then is my attempt at it. I tried and gave up on emulating SPB’s particular level of softness on this track. 🙂 I felt I was better off just opening my throat and singing with a decent amount of intensity while retaining the melodic flavour of the vocal lines. The melody is also more difficult, more intricate than it may appear to be (so kudos again to Rahman for building in this kind of subtle difficulty into the track) so I kept it simple and shelved the many different phrasing variations I had planned for this song.

What happened to Ilayaraja’s mixing?

February 6, 2021

Yesterday, as I was returning home and listening to music, I noticed how much fuller the sound is on newer (late 90s and onwards) recordings of Ilayaraja songs compared to the 80s ones (which, for understandable reasons, have a super compressed sound). I wondered why then do we complain about the recording quality of his later releases.

If you don’t believe me that the sound is fuller in new recordings, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Vaanaviley. You simply won’t hear such a full sound on the 80s recordings.

But if you’re paying attention, you have already noticed something is off here too.

I felt likewise. To find out what, I thought let me check out Oru Poongavanam:

Listen to the first interlude and you can feel the music coming through different places in your headphone set (oh yes, you absolutely need to use headphones to get this effect). Bass in the middle with the respective lead instruments – flute/keyboard/violin – on top and drums on left and right.

Cut to the charanam and you will see that there are two different percussion layers in the left and the right channels respectively. So each time they play, your mind darts to the sound to find out where it’s coming from. Vocals right in the middle anchoring the song throughout.

At 2:45 there is a very soft hi-hat stroke on drums that is lurking in the left corner. And when the big fill comes on at 2:48, it’s in the middle. This darting of the percussion tells your mind that something is about to happen and builds up excitement.

Now what is all this business of sound darting from one channel to another or feeling like it’s right in the middle called? Mixing. While there are many, many other things going into the mixing than what I described (and which would take an actual professional musician to describe, unlike yours truly), the above are very noticeable ways in which you can tell that there is a lot of creative input going on into the mixing.

A common argument put forth to explain why Raja ceded space to Rahman in the 90s (because Raja fans can’t simply accept that after a decade and a half of avalanche of Raja goodies, the audience simply wanted something different and great in its own right) is that Raja was weak with the sound engineering aspect of the music.

But this is not strictly true when it comes to the 80s, the period when he truly lorded over Tamil and Telugu music. As the Oru Poongavanam example shows, within the constraints of whatever technology he had to work with then, he was in fact striving to create a dynamic experience for the listener. So it’s not as if Raja’s role was after writing the notes and teaching the singers what to sing and the musicians what to play. He was dictating how the mix shaped up in a way that made the song engaging from start to finish.

Oru Poongavanam – and Agni Natchatram as such – is the high watermark of creative mixing on Raja albums. But you can hear it elsewhere in that period (say 1985 to 88/89).

Try listening to Vaa Vaa Vaa Kanna Vaa with the headphone/earphone over just one ear and you will find that the keyboard intro sounds weird. That’s because there are actually two keyboard parts playing simultaneously and they are in different channels.

Similar is the case with the intro of Sangeetha Megam or Vaan Megam.

The mixing is often so good you can feel the effect of it even in bad mono versions of the songs like Oho Meham Vandhadho:

For a better version of what the song should sound like, try this:

This is not a coincidence because the mid-late 80s period was his most productive, with many of his most memorable songs and soundtracks figuring in this period. While comparisons become difficult with his maddening prolificity and some connoisseurs may make an argument for the more experimental, adventurous early 80s phase or for the more world music/heavy symphonic turn of the early 90s, the mid 80s phase is from where the maximum must have songs of Raja get picked from. And while the mixing alone doesn’t explain his success during this period by any means, it is a significant part of the, uh, mix.

Now cut to the mid 90s and the mixing starts to suffer. Mastana, for example:

The recording itself isn’t bad but the mixing is devoid of flavour and as a result, instruments seem to come and go in a procession without stamping their authority as they seemed to in Oru Poongavanam.

This procession like effect would become an annoying feature of his music over these later years.

Take Khajiraho, a stylish yet poignant duet that would have benefited from a better mix.

Or Antha Naal Nyabagam. It has often been said that in later years, the singers let down Raja but this is one instance where Vijay Yesudas and Shreya Ghoshal’s soulful singing went in vain.

And here’s the more confounding part. On the odd occasion when a Raja song broke through the clutter in recent years and made an impression, the mix was good, if not great.

Here’s Ilankaathu. Listen at 0:25 how beautifully the bass is recorded, as if underneath the guitar:

Sayndhu Sayndhu, recorded and mixed abroad. And you can tell:

While Unna Nenachu is not perfect, it is a major improvement over the Dhoni/Chithiraiyil Nila Choru/Ulavacharu Biryani efforts. Listen at 3:03 and the reverb from the violin part splits into the channels. These are the things that give us chills when we listen even when we cannot put on a finger on the reason for it.

So just why, why did he stop investing effort in the mix? Beats me.

And here’s a last befuddling aspect of it. In the 80s, when Raja did all this creative sound darting from one channel to the other stuff, not many people at all in India had walkmans. Not many had good stereo systems either. Most listened to music on tiny 2 in 1 decks, transistors or on clunky and primitive television sets. Or in cinema halls that did not have Dolby sound. So was he putting all this effort for his own satisfaction when he listened to the output on headphones before OKing it? 😀 AND when the audience did start to have the equipment that would let them hear these things, he stopped paying attention to it.

I think this should go down as an only Raja fossible (but this time in a dubious sense).

Gamestop is the endgame of net-fueled demonetization

January 28, 2021

As an ‘early millennial’, I heard the sermon about markets a zillion times during my teenage and adolescent years. The sermon where they said the fundamentals were great, the markets would take care of themselves and that regulation was anathema.

There was nothing Wall Street hated more than regulation. Even the 2008 meltdown led not to self reflection but to frenzied attempts to lobby the new Obama-led administration to not inflict regulatory ‘harm’ on Wall Street. Attempts which largely worked in spite of the populist movement Occupy Wall Street. And yet Dem supporters wonder why their party bled House and Senate majorities during the Obama years…

But I classified this write up under economics and not politics so the objective is not to indulge in bipartisan bashing of politicians. That’s so boring and so 2020.

I want to talk, instead, about the most exciting bit of news I have heard in a long, long time. That is, of a bunch of Redditors ganging up to make the stock of the ailing company Gamestop soar, not just frustrating hedge funds attempting to short sell the stock but pushing one of them, namely Melvin Capital, to the brink of bankruptcy. If you truly are out of the loop about this, you can read here. Or watch here.

The popular narrative about this is of internet successfully trolling Wall Street fat cats or the more romantic notion of stealing from the rich to give it to the poor.

But Gamestop-gate also represents the endgame of a game propelled by big tech for a long, long time and one that Wall Street endorsed right until now – that of demonetization.

This is not demonetization in the sense we Indians understand it thanks to what our Supreme Leader did back in 2016.

In this context, demonetization literally means destroying the monetary value of a service. Now…that service could be producing and selling a music album, publishing a book, booking a cab and so on. They don’t call it demonetization, at least not most of the time. They call it disintermediation and that makes it much more popular with the customers.

They purport to eliminate the middle man from all these transactions (also including other things like flight booking) to deliver convenience and economy to you – the customer. The problems with this argument are two fold. One, in a service-led economy, a lot of our work is indeed facilitating a service by being a middleman (or working for one). So…you may enjoy this consumer utopia right up to the point your own industry gets disintermediated out of existence. Two, if a multitude of small intermediaries are collectively replaced by one or two or at the most a handful of tech oligarchs, it is not clear that this will continue to benefit the customer long term.

There is a third problem too. It may or may not be a problem depending on how you see it but this is where the force of demonetization is most potent. This process of demonetization is thus far biased in favour of customers at the expense of producers. But it also democratizes the playing field for producers. So…if you are a budding musician, you can today reach out to listeners worldwide by putting up your work on Youtube, Facebook or Spotify. Your monetary potential out of said reaching out is also, however, limited. And there aren’t very many ‘record labels’ left to dole out fat advances to musicians (except a small club of popstars).

I intentionally put record label in quotes. You see, the record, notwithstanding small scale nostalgia for vinyls, as your means of acquiring music died out a long time. It was killed through piracy, by illegally uploading an artist’s work for free on the internet for anybody to download. Whenever Google or the file sharing services like Rapidshare were asked about it, they expressed helplessness and said they had no control over what people uploaded.

Frustrated, the RIAA made attempts to get Congress to pass legislation that would bring Google and others under greater regulation. It almost passed in Congress…until Google asked lawmakers to imagine a life without Google. This would not be the last time. Recently, they similarly arm twisted Australia with the threat of deactivating the search engine for Australia.

The lawmakers predictably caved in. And in that period, the music industry bled some more and by the time streaming services took over, CDs were nearly dead. That is, an album by itself was worth nothing beyond pennies at best. As I said, the potential reward for an album that sold a lot of copies (or got listened to by lots of people) shrunk dramatically. But this was justified as for the greater good of the consumer and musicians be damned!

The same happened with albeit less detrimental consequences in publishing. You can now self publish your work effortlessly. But the fact that you can means traditional publishers are struggling. Big ticket consolidation is already underway in publishing as the only means to survive Amazon. Again, I could publish something, get a few people to read it and feel good about it but that’s mostly as far as it goes. Big advances for star writers are increasingly a thing of the past.

I do not think it is entirely a coincidence that the art world bore the brunt of this disintermediation attack. If you subscribe to Horseshoe Theory of ideologies, you already know that the Far Right and the Far Left often mirror each other in terms of tactics (eg. preferring utter conquest and subjugation to consensus or compromise). Likewise, the uber capitalists share Marxists’ disdain for art. For Marxists, art is airy fairy and lacks the glory of hard labour. For uber capitalists, art is airy fairy and cannot match the high of making money. So… if artists are now struggling, who cares. Maybe they should get themselves a CS degree before it’s too late to sign up to work for a hot tech start up ASAP, right? Newsflash: That’s what many musicians already do, or some version of it.

Anyway, moving on. ‘Demonetization’ has killed music stores and CDs, bookstores and is increasingly imperiling the existence of supermarkets as well. After all, the reason Gamestop was seen as ripe for a mother of all short sells was its business model consisted of offering videogames at malls. Even restaurants aren’t completely free; friends from Bangalore say they dine out a lot less because they order from Zomato. See! So it’s conceivable that an upscale restaurant could shut down because somebody running a home kitchen sells good enough food at a much lower price!

The point I am making is, yes, you CAN have everything conveniently at home and for free or almost for free. But what remains then of social life if there are no bookstores or music shops to go to to hunt for your favourites, no malls to hang out at, no restaurants to have a good time with friends? So far, museums and clubs are impervious to the threat of demonetization but a few more pandemics should do the trick. Note that I don’t advocate one way or the other about this; rather, I am trying to ask the question. I am alarmed, on the other hand, that we are so much in thrall of capitalism that we self-censor ourselves and do not even ask these questions. I mean, do you really think your beloved billionaires are so vulnerable that having a free wheeling discussion about this would somehow imperil them?

So why were the billionaires happy with this arrangement? Because they were making billions more on Wall Street, dummy. Even as the pandemic raged on, they continued to make money on the stock market unabated. It was all good…until Gamestop-Reddit happened.

Now, after all these years, Wall Street is actually talking about the need for, um, regulation. Yes! Not multiple stock market crashes, not the GFC, all it took was a bunch of Reddit nerds beating short sellers at their own game. Suddenly, they feel threatened by these invisible enemies; suddenly, they know what Lars Ulrich felt like about Napster back in 2000.

Too late, the genie is out of the bottle and has been for a long time. If some suits lose their cushy jobs in the ensuing democratization of Wall Street, it wouldn’t be a moment too soon. Wall Street has enthusiastically cheered on the creation of a tech led utopia that would literally represent the ‘End of Work‘ – because there would be no jobs! It’s about time they got a good taste of what this utopia looks like too and I do sincerely hope they like it, nay, love it. Come on, man, markets can take care of themselves. That’s what you told me!

The incredible Annie Haslam – an analysis

December 16, 2020

As some of you may know, I am a huge, huge fan of Annie Haslam, the singer of Renaissance, a progressive rock band that achieved some popularity in the 1970s. While their sad collapse in the 80s resulted in their disappearing out of public view for nearly a couple of decades, Annie’s perseverance in keeping the 2010s incarnation of the band going and her miraculous longevity as a singer has brought her name back in circulation at least in prog rock circles (which, to begin with, are admittedly small).

But there has not been any new material from the band in a long, long time and as far as my listening preferences go, I have kept moving on. This year, I spent some time on Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters, then Tyler’s Igor (last year’s release, I know) and Lianne La Havas’ eponymous album (a gorgeous, gorgeous masterpiece). I skimmed through Nightwish’s release for the year too but I am long past my symphonic-metal phase and not even Floor Jansen could get me interested enough.

Speaking of….Floor Jansen is pretty much one of the best singers today in rock/pop. Note I say singer with no gender qualifier. She really is that great. I will separately do a piece on her one of these days but in short, just imagine the same singer performing Shallow AND Phantom of the Opera for a TV show…and also producing death-growls for the band ReVamp (which she was in before Nightwish). She combines unbelievable versatility (especially for a – sorry – metal singer) with amazing power and a massive range.

It is in this context that I stumbled upon a video of a live performance in which Floor joined Epica for the song Sancta Terra.

As I watched both Simone Simons (Epica’s vocalist) and Floor switch to a low larynx-y head voice for the fifth octave notes, I suddenly recalled Annie Haslam and decided to check out a live performance of Ashes Are Burning. Here it is :

Unbelievable as it may be, the note Annie hits at 0:50 (not sure how you can) is just as high as the one Simone hits at 0:30 in the Sancta Terra performance.

Notice how effortlessly and smoothly Annie glides up to that note, while still maintaining astounding resonance. How does she do it? Wish we knew!

So…that is the purpose of this article. To discuss a little more in depth about Annie’s voice.

Now…I am not somebody who says it’s ONLY Annie’s huge range that makes her an incredible singer. It’s also her emotional resonance, her ability to interpret lyrics imaginatively and yet with understatement and, hand in hand, her brilliant phrasing. But that doesn’t mean her voice itself doesn’t need to be analysed because it’s a big part of what makes her so special.

For quick reference, I am posting below range compilations of Annie as well as of Floor Jansen. This is not to compare both but to make observations about Annie’s marvellous strength in the fifth octave.

As you can tell, Floor actually belts all the way up to G5. Annie doesn’t. Belting in general isn’t as much of a forte of Annie as you may think. She CAN sing a mighty E5 (which she does most notably on Ashes Are Burning) but as an operatically trained soprano, she doesn’t try to pull and maintain chest resonance high up.

Basically, Annie doesn’t in fact sing in chest register, then mixed, then head, then whistle. She more or less sings in ONE register, switching to a whistle only from E6 and above (yes she has range that high up, coming up to a G6). Even that whistle register is unlike Mariah Carey’s or Minnie Riperton’s. Annie’s super-high sixth octave notes are not flutey or airy and are packed with resonance. In a recent chat with Roger Dean, she called herself a coloratura soprano and her prowess that high up does evoke opera singers like Joan Sutherland or Natalie Dessay, more so than it does other soprano sirens in the pop/rock world.

So…let’s climb down back to the FIFTH octave. In what way does having one register (which is to say all the registers are blended almost to perfection) differentiate Annie from a singer like Floor?

It means there are no ‘gaps’ in Annie’s range.

When you listen to Floor’s high notes, what you see is that, as said before, she belts all the way up to a G5. But above G5, her head voice dramatically lightens and she sounds as if she is mixing falsetto/whistle right away. That is, the quality of her head voice does not match that of her chest/mixed voice. This is bound to happen, by the way, when you are a belter. Because you then amplify your chest voice power as far high up as you can and treat head voice as more of a bonus.

Whereas, Annie starts gradually ‘lightening’ as she goes higher and higher up the fifth octave. Such that as she moves to G5 and above, the transition from her lower fifth range (D-F5) is seamless. She is clearly not singing in a chesty voice and YET, her tone has more resonance that high up than you hear from Floor.

You’re going to complain I didn’t include the very impressive Beste Zanger high notes (where Floor performed Phantom of the Opera). I am going to, in fact, to make a point about what I wrote above.

Towards the end of this video, you see Floor hitting a Bb5. It’s clearly captioned so you will be able to find it easily.

NOW compare that Bb5 to Annie’s Bb5 at the end of Song of Scheherazade. At 27:50.

The main difference you can tell is – and this is a paradox – Annie doesn’t seem to need to round out her sound to get that operatic ‘O’ effect. She is retaining an ‘Aa’ syllable in that Bb5 which adds an effect of greater resonance to it. It’s also harder to sing that way but she is able to pull it off.

It is even more amazing when she sings a B5 the same way on Prologue (at 1:39:02 in this video):

Ashes Are Burning is the last track they performed in this show and there you can hear at 1:57:38 and 1:59:53 again that her E6 barely sounds different at all from her B5. How is this accomplished? In fact, at this point, she WAS singing in one register from the lowest to highest note in her range. That would change in the 80s as she would start making a distinct switch to the whistle register when hitting the E6 (you can hear this in the 1979 performance of Ashes Are Burning too, where she had already made this change).

But before I get to the heart of this paradox, I will touch on another way in which Annie utilises this one register quality. As you can tell in the Ashes Are Burning opening verse-chorus, she is able to sing in a very melodic way almost all through the fifth octave. Note the word sing, not belt. It is counter intuitive but it is harder to keep your voice up in the fifth octave and sing in a gentle but strong tone than it is to belt out ONE big money note in the fifth octave. Annie is able to sound relaxed and yet powerful at the same time through the fifth octave. Best exemplified by this wondrous performance of Carpet of the Sun.

The last “See The Carpet of the Sun” trill gets everyone’s attention but the trill she sings in the main chorus “The Green Grass Soft and Sweet/Of Oceans Mountains Deep” is also equally as incredible. The effect sounds relaxed and breezy to the listener but it’s incredibly tough to maintain that kind of power WITHOUT sounding like Whitney Houston belting out I Will Always Love You.

This well blended and balanced voice production also gives her many options in terms of how she can sing the same note. For example, the Carpet…note above is quite powerful while the high note (the same as Carpet, F#5) on Forever Changing (Forever Gone…) is much, much lighter. Her attack on the C#6 of Wishing On A Star is hard but the Rockalise C6 is like a songbird cooing. Annie is a wonderful example of a singer utilizing her gifts, her skills to enhance her expression as opposed to mere range showboating. Don’t get me wrong, she showboats on almost every song in terms of finding a way to accommodate a high note in it (note how she transposed down Wishing On A Star so that she could conclude it with that massive C#6). But she always does it in a subtle and artistic way. She was already painting the soundscapes with her voice long before she picked up the brush to paint on canvas.

With that said, let’s get back to what I said about not-so-low-larynx singing. Yes, the paradox is even though Annie did learn singing from an opera singer, she didn’t always let the larynx drop right down. Whether she actively resisted it I can’t tell as I wasn’t there in that moment nor am I a pedagogue.

By not getting into the operatic O, Annie could emphasise an Aa syllable and retain a powerful sound way, way high into her range. She could also retain an attractive brightness and sweetness that you’d lose if you dropped the larynx.

But…this is not necessarily the soundest technique if we go strictly by the coaching manual. This makes sense in a way. Annie stood out in the 70s in a way other wonderful sopranos like Sally Olfield did not because she was taking a risk. She tried to manage a balance of expression and technique. Either she consciously took this risk or this is how she unconsciously adapted what she had learnt to Renaissance material.

But the risk taking did not come without a price. Even as early as 1975, the tourbook mentions Annie’s voice suffering after too many concerts in a row.

In 1977, she experienced these difficulties for the first time in a high profile concert (as opposed to a regular one of which no recordings may exist today). At the BBC Sight & Sound show.

At 1:45 when she sings “The Green Grass Soft and Sweet”, you can detect the hint of effort and strain to have to get to the note. Don’t get me wrong, she still sings it beautifully, more beautifully than lesser mortals could hope to but she is not comfortable. She is managing it.

On the whole, that show was heavy going for her though she managed her difficulties well and didn’t drift too far below her ‘normal’ level. Nevertheless, that show changed how she would sing Carpet of the Sun.

Listen here to the Albert Hall performance:

NOW, she is singing green GRAAS, not GRAEZ (American) and OSHAAN and not OSHAEN. Even the AND is more of an AAND sound. In other words, she is letting the larynx drop a little more now.

She was evidently bothered enough by the Sight & Sound performance that she felt the need to make adjustments to this song.

The late 70s to early-mid 80s period was a peculiar one where Annie delivered some of the most stunning vocal pyrotechnics of her career. Particularly on Ashes Are Burning but also Touching Once and Camera Camera. And don’t forget Jigsaw, the song about which she remarked, “That one does tire me out a little”.

She was only half joking. It was a reference to the increasing difficulties she faced during this period as her voice acted up on some songs or maybe entire shows. In a 1979 interview, she mentions having had to return to UK for 10 days in the middle of a tour due to laryngitis.

Annie doesn’t reflect on the past, particularly not the bad memories. So she has never talked about what may have bothered her during this period. She did make a very veiled reference to it when she said part of the reason her voice has aged well is that she simply wasn’t singing all the time anymore starting with the mid 80s (an acknowledgment that the hiatus, painful as it was, was also a boon in another sense) and that she couldn’t say if things would have still been the same had she had to. We will never know the full extent of her difficulties and we don’t particularly need to know.

What we do know is on Still Life, she debuted the ‘modern Annie’ sound, the sound we have heard ever since on her recordings and the sound that’s barely aged since then.

A classical crossover album was a perfect vehicle for her to move to a more, yes, low larynx sound.

On this and the next album, entitled Annie Haslam, there was more of a link to how her voice sounded in the 70s.

But by the 90s, she had fully transitioned to this new sound.

Note the syllable on the chorus “SEASHAALL Eyes”. And the change isn’t only audible in the high notes. Consider the quality of tone on “Graceful and alluring”. It’s a heavier and more majestic tone than in the 70s but it is also a tone that clearly belongs to an older woman. Yes, you could say that is age-appropriate too. But that tone is obtained owing to the adjustment she made and not necessarily because she got older.

This, I think, is what she is referring to when she says her voice is stronger than ever. That is not what we are necessarily hearing. We feel that while her voice is still incredibly powerful and capable of reaching astonishingly high notes for her age, it is surely not the wondrous instrument it was in the 70s.

But what she means is likely that she doesn’t have to watch out anymore. When she does have problems, it’s more due to bouts of sickness that she has to deal with due to her age. But it’s not the technique anymore. By moving to a more mature and darker sound, indeed a sound that somewhat resembles Floor’s, Annie was able to prolong her career all the way into her seventh decade on this planet.

And with that, I will conclude with the finest exhibit of the ‘new’ Annie Haslam. The brilliant Mystic and the Muse, the most progressive song Michael Dunford wrote after Camera Camera (or even after Song For All Seasons). It’s a very technically challenging track and ends with a sustained D6. Until the last time that she performed this track, Annie was still able to execute that D6 with zero problems. Unbelievable? Yes. One way or the other, Annie’s singing still defies what is possible to this day.

Raja-ranjani – The maestro’s experiments in Sivaranjani

November 29, 2020

For lovers of Indian film music, Sivaranjani/Shivaranjani is associated strongly with Shankar Jaikishan. Especially so for their immortal Mukesh-rendered number Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din. O Mere Sanam from Sangam is another brilliant Shivaranjani number. Those of a later generation would also think of Laxmikant Pyarelal’s Tere Mere Beech Mein from Ek Duje Ke Liye. Come to the 90s and Dhak Dhak Karne Laga is a classic Shivaranjani.

It also happens to be ripped off note for note from Ilayaraja’s Abbani Teeyani Debba!

Not one of my own favourite Raja moments but it’s a good gateway into his own experiments with Sivaranjani.

To be clear, some of his most popular Sivaranjani songs are those where he has handled it the conventional way.

O Priya Priya (also copied into Hindi) comes immediately to mind.

Adi Athadi from Kadalora Kavithaigal

Or Kuyil Paatu from En Rasavin Manasule

But I am more interested in two relatively less heralded songs where he goes off the beaten path.

There is another ragam that Raja is fond of – Hamsanandi.

Look at their notes and there is little overlap between Sivaranjani and Hamsanandi.

And yet, Raja manages to find ways to blend the two ragams! If I had to guess, this is achieved because when you use notes from a ragam without following the sequence, you can still retain its flavour. And then, you change a note or two and hey presto! The ragam has changed.

The first is a song that is very much in Sivaranjani but its treatment is unconventional and evokes a Hamsanandi flavour in places.

The song is Manjal Poosum Manjal Poosum from Sakkarai Devan.

First, the line “Vaasa Poovin Thene” in the pallavi. It overlaps a little with Raathiriyil Poothirukkum, a timeless Hamsanandi from Thanga Mahan.

Come to the first line of the charanam: “Nee illadha nithirai yedhu” and it evokes “Veenai Yennum Meniyilae”, the first line of the Raathiriyil charanam.

Other than these lines, the song stays in Sivaranjani but the phrase most strongly evocative of the ragam is the first line of the song, “Manjal Poosum Manjal Poosum…”. The leitmotif etches the ragam in your mind, allowing him to proceed to take you a long way away from it.

The other song I am going to take up here is Adhikalai Neram Kanavil from Naan Sonnathey Sattam.

Rendered by SPB and Asha, this is a lost classic. I confess for a long time, I never gave this song a fair shake because the intro put me off and I wrongly assumed it was an overly sentimental pathos number. Had I only stayed till the flute portion in the intro, I would have realised how wrong I was.

The interlude stays with flute and proceeds to beautifully elucidate patterns you expect in Sivaranjani. And THEN, from nowhere comes a santoor part that is in Hamsanandi. Which still somehow resolves such that the charanam gets back to Sivaranjani. As far as I can tell, the vocal portions never drift into Hamsanandi.

But in the second interlude, the maestro again orchestrates the proceedings (pun intended) such that he can pursue these experiments. An expansive string section first opens up the horizon and then proceeds into Hamsanandi territory with the last phrase almost getting into chromaticism. This potential for chromaticism in both Pantuvarali and Hamsanandi is no doubt what fascinated Raja.

The thing that’s special about this song is he doesn’t really get into fusion (Indo-Western) territory. Even when the violins come in, they sound maybe Hindustani at times but rarely Western.

It’s another noteworthy aspect of Raja. The master of harmony, the king of walking basslines could completely shut off harmonic development in songs like these and compose just Indian melody, both for vocals and for instruments. And he could still conjure up the space to innovate in these very conventional, traditional Indian settings.

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