Kadhal Kavithai – when music speaks a thousand words

March 10, 2020

I never knew about Kadhal Kavithai, the Prashant/Isha Koppikar starrer directed by Agathiyan, at the time of its release.  This is strange for two reasons.  One, I used to watch Tamil films a lot back then, especially afternoons after school on Sun TV.  Two, I had watched and liked Kadhal Kottai.  It’s also not like being away from Chennai (I lived then and continue to live now in Mumbai) deprived me of the chance to watch more recent films because I had watched Jeans on TV as well.

Years later, I heard the songs of the film whilst on my never ending expedition to hunt down interesting Ilayaraja songs and came away mostly underwhelmed.  I didn’t mind the tune of Kadhal Meedhu Oru Kadhal but didn’t enjoy the orchestration.  I appreciated Diana Diana best overall.  Devoid of surprises but at least melodic and sonorous.

And THEN, it happened.  About ten days back, I saw Navin’s upload of the Kadhal Kavithai BGM pop up on my Youtube recommendations (in case you don’t know, Navin has uploaded the BGM themes used in many, many Raja films, new and old). Out of curiosity and curiosity alone, I started listening and found myself riveted.

 

 

I listened to it once all the way through.  And then again.  And then again.  And then to select themes which I loved most out of a score that’s beautiful pretty much all the way through.

And NOW I was so piqued I HAD to see the visuals that accompanied this score.  That is absolutely the wrong way to listen to a background score but that’s what us Raja bhaktas do all the time anyway!  I remembered the lead cast from watching the song Kadhal Meedhu and dreaded what I would get with a Prashant-Isha pairing (much like Isha’s Jyothi dreads her first-meeting-to-be with her unknown pen lover in the film).  But I bit the bullet.  My trepidation is justified by the way;  I have previously done this with Idhayam and started speed watching less than half way through the film.

But what I found here instead was that rare film that offered a measure of sensitivity and pure emotions that rose up to the level of the music.  A film that largely steered clear of cliched plotlines of that period like a flashback where the lovers’ parents had a feud (extremely popular since QSQT) or a jealous cousin (Friends) and, amazingly, had no fight scenes.  Some of the Charlie comedy seemed forced and I did not appreciate turning Kasthuri into a loosu ponnu trope though she tries gamely to make a fist of being miscast (even so, this film shines in offering her an opportunity to air her perspective and hinting at the misogyny of the male gaze).  There is no stalking by Vishwa of Jyothi and at no point does he talk to her in regressive lingo, giving the lie to the oft-aired defence of filmmakers that this is how love is made in something-something-somewhere and they are forced to depict society in cinema.  More engaging than all of this is the conceit, which seems to borrow that of You’ve Got Mail but opportunistically pairs this with the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death and resorts to a more anachronistic device for the pen lovers to communicate with each other – handwritten notes appended to bouquets placed at the Diana memorial.  Without giving away too much, you can guess how this plays out – one of the two finds out who the other is and tries to say so and whether or not he/she succeeds is the crux.  OK, might as well let slip that the one who finds out is Jyothi as this will become clear from the scenes I discuss in the write up.  Here anyway is the film:

 

As you can tell from the excerpt of the BGM in the earlier clip, the score pays off towards the end as the emotions swell up to the surface like a Marina wave.  While the rest of it is beautiful too, it is deftly trying to steer clear of elevator music territory, forced into being light and pleasant as befits the movie.  But the last twenty minutes are the denouement of the film and, thereby, the score.

First, at 2:02:16,  Vishwa is asked by Jyothi (via, you guessed it, an unsigned letter) to meet his lover at a temple where in all corners is her name.  She means the divya’jyoti’s all around him.  The maestro beautifully alludes to this with a keyboard theme that evokes the tolling of bells, giving way to a variation on the main leitmotif used in the film.

Moving on to 2:06:04, Jyothi hands Vishwa (in his capacity as the head of a publishing firm owned by his father) a sample of her poems.  The poems are of course the ones she wrote for her then unseen lover at the Diana memorial. She knows but he doesn’t know.  She is teasing him in anticipation of the moment when he finds out.  The score captures the mixture of playfulness and romance in this moment.

At 2:07:10, Jyothi reaches home and is clearly incredibly excited.  She can’t hardly wait for Vishwa to call on her to declare his love to the woman he has loved but never seen until now.  The music leads with a soft keyboard (in the tone of a piano) figure.  Violins join in and soon follows what sounds like woodwind, ending in one of the few overtly baroque moments in this mostly lush and luxuriant score.

This mood continues at 2:09:10, as Jyothi has now readied a bouquet to gift to Vishwa when he calls upon her (at her residence, as she expects he will).  She rushes with great anticipation at the sound of the doorbell only to find it’s her father.  Score leads again with a soft (but slower) piano figure, moving onto a playful but questioning flute.

At 2:10:38…light has given way to dark and it’s night.  Her parents head to her room to check if she is sleeping.  A solo flute signals that she is asleep.  But wait, they close the door and she opens her eyes, looking anxious and sad that Vishwa hasn’t called yet and this is accompanied by the leitmotif, only this time played on solo violin and it oozes aching melancholy without being overwrought.

At 2:14:28, Jyothi hangs up after a heartbreaking call from Vishwa.  The leitmotif plays but with a variation that makes it gloomy and foreboding.  The music is much more in the background here to allow the dialogue to be heard but it makes its presence felt nevertheless.

Lastly, at 2:15:40, Jyothi tells the children, “Akka villaiyaatu mudinchupochu” (My game is over).  There is no music to accompany this statement.  And that is a very important quality that a great composer like Ilayaraja brings to the table.  Silence where the dialogue is enough to convey what needs to be said.  The late Balu Mahendra said he said to Raja during Moondram Pirai, “If you cannot understand my silence, you cannot understand my speech”.  Raja duly obliged then and has obliged many times over since.

I am not going to delve on the climax BGM but suffice it to say that Raja avoids conveying an overwrought sentiment and instead keeps the focus on the tension of the moment.  That takes vision and confidence too.  To understand that the BGM is not fertile ground for him to show off and instead respect the cinematic moment and tailor the score accordingly.  Of course Raja was secure enough in his legacy in 1998 but this wouldn’t change even if you looked at scores from the late 70s.

I will conclude with a cliche but as several directors have mentioned, Raja has a way of using the BGM to arrive at the heart of the cinematic moment on screen and to underscore it so well that even the director may not have known this is what he wanted until he got to see the visuals with the score.  Raja’s scores don’t just support or complement the film, they complete it.   And Kadhal Kavithai is one of the shining examples of this from his vast oeuvre.

P.S:  I did wonder after watching the film what motivated Agathiyan then to work with Raja for this film.  He had previously worked with Deva, never before with Raja.  And never after.  Understand that in 1998, in spite of the success of Kadhalukku Mariyathai, signing up Raja for a urban yuppie A List project was already seen as a risk. The soundtrack underlines why it was a risk.  So, did Agathiyan have kadhal for Raja’s music and did he want Raja’s music to embellish his lovingly rendered love poem?  Would love to know the backstory for this.

 

 

Ilayaraja and scale modulation

March 10, 2020

Much is written about Ilayaraja’s unprecedented use of counterpoint (well, at least the frequency and complexity of his usage of it while not necessarily being the first to appropriate it in an Indian music context) or fugue or other Western classical compositional devices.   It’s all to the good.

But it only accounts for the ‘visible’ (or should I say audible) aspect of his complexity.  And it plays right into the ill framed Raja detractor (may or may not be Rahman fan!) critique of his work – that Raja simply dresses up melodies with too many instruments and makes it sound rather heavy going.  But if this was the case, he would not have been giving hit after hit – whether in rural based films, city films, art projects, mass star vehicles or, well, classical based sagas (Salangai Oli, Sindhu Bhairavi, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi).  Well aware of this argument, the anti-Raja side constructs an elaborate conspiracy theory based on how he punished anybody who dared against him and manipulated people into siding with him even when these songs that continue to find listeners on the internet were actually flops, ya know!  And yes, this is an actual argument against him from a Rahman fan, not making this up, this ain’t no strawman that I am assailing.

But what if the problem is the focus on ornate complexity is incomplete in terms of accounting for what makes his music compelling?  And I have long suspected that to be the case.  I have frequently pointed to songs like Mandram Vandha Thendralukku as counter-examples to demolish the violin-tabla man argument (the song has neither violin nor tabla).  But let’s take that a step further.  With or without counterpoint, ornate orchestration was not new in Indian film music by any means.  Yes, Ilayaraja used these techniques in a much more learned and trained way (he kind of had to be able to, given the speed at which he was writing music).  But that would not have moved the needle for the audience as a whole in the 80s.   What enticed them to listen to his songs is a deep but subtle subversiveness in his music.

It had to be a subtle; with our deep grounding in melodic traditions (as opposed to harmonic in the West), we Indians are very conservative in our music tastes.  Anything too chromatic would have been dismissed out of hand.  A prominent music blogger found the modulation in Kalvane (Megha) too hot to handle, for instance.  That’s just what it is; such listeners have been pushed by Ilayaraja to embrace more complexity than they otherwise would have been prepared to but sometimes it jars (for them, from their point of view).

But at the same time, Raja was not satisfied with the way things were in Indian films or their music, as much as he revered his illustrious predecessors in Hindi and Tamil.   He has often voiced his preference for indulging in monkey business, by explaining an unusual musical choice as being driven by a need to avoid boredom.  In short, he didn’t want to sound cliched.  Hence, the need for subversion.

For this post, let me focus on modulation.  Ilayaraja is extremely fond of modulation.  He has done it in the melody itself a few times (known as grahabedam) and it’s very noticeable to Indian ears.  But his attempts at harmonic modulation are a much more pervasive part of his music and less talked about.  Let’s take one song dating to the start of his 80s juggernaut – Perai Sollava from the S P Muthuraman film Guru (starring Kamal Hassan and Sridevi).  It’s the kind of soundtrack that Raja fans do like but would likely not rank it among his top 10 works (most definitely not top 5).

But even in a happy, romantic duet where Raja doesn’t have to do much to deliver a hit (voiced by SPB and S Janaki and pictured on Kamal and Sridevi), there is much going on that’s interesting. That is how he engages your attention.  Every interlude is interesting (as usual) but I will focus specifically on the second interlude starting at 2:08.

It starts off with a guitar figure in the F# major scale (F sharp).

This is followed by a trumpet and saxophone conversation that surreptitiously slips into Bb major (B flat).

As the saxophone winds this conversation to a close (with a rush of strings as the saxophone trails off), guitar comes back (with strings still in play) and we are back in F# major.  All this happens in around 20 seconds or so.  How is all this achieved, covering so much ground so quickly and yet not sounding cluttered at all?

It is because he uses common chord modulation but in an unusual light.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modulation_(music)

A quick note.  Scale in Western music roughly corresponds to raga in Carnatic/Hindustani music.  In India, we often mistakenly use scale when we actually mean the pitch, or the note that we are singing/playing in.  A scale has a collection of pitches/notes.

Look at the notes of F# major and Bb major.  Only A#/Bb in common, right?

Wrong! Look again.  Ah, you see it now!  And no worry if you don’t, for here is the explanation.

The quirk of F# major is its E# note is actually played on the F natural.  And the Bb major has an F natural too. So, he pivots on this note into the Bb major (rather on A# itself as you would normally expect to be where the modulation happens).  We as lay listeners realize immediately that something unusual is going on but can’t put our finger on it and before long, he has returned us to the charanam.

That’s not all.  As the interlude progresses, the saxophone abruptly sustains the A#.  This is a little jarring when you play the notes standalone on an instrument.  But in the total composition, of course, there is a group of violins rushing in which smoothens the transition (and also lends it a ‘major’ as opposed to a ‘minor’ quality).

Speaking of which, notice how mysterious most of the interlude sounds?  That’s because Raja intentionally avoids using adjacent notes which would emphasise the aforesaid major quality and instead drops at least every other note while hopping onto the next one.  The first consecutive sequence, which is the last guitar figure as the interlude ends, has a very major quality and ends on the note of F#.  Flight safely landed in turbulent weather by expert captain Isaignani!

This is but one slice of the many ways in which Ilayaraja defies our expectations of film music and makes his own work unpredictable, in spite of how much music he has turned out.

 

Ilayaraja and recording quality

April 10, 2019

The below was originally written by me in the comments of a Quora answer to address a question about why recording quality in Ilayaraja songs isn’t that good/lousy/worst depending on where you’re coming from.  It was a very long and elaborate explanation and I felt I should preserve it somewhere where it can be easily retrieved for future reference rather than a comment on a Quora answer.

  1. Recording synth, drums and maybe a few other instruments is not the same thing as recording a large orchestra. Why is this? Because there is a limitation of the number of tracks the engineer can record (it has been considerably overcome in the digital age). In analog days, even Pink Floyd’s masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon (widely held to be an audiophile’s delight) was recorded on 16 track. From what I understand, IR only had access to 8 track recording which was even more constrained.

    So anyway, because there are only so many tracks available, when a lot of instruments are used, the sound gets dense. You may notice the tracks on Agni Natchatram sound better. This is because for the most part, they don’t have such dense orchestration (albeit it is still very sophisticated). I will quickly use an example from Western music. I used this in a similar discussion on Baradwaj Rangan’s blog.

    This track was recorded at the iconic Trident Studios, London by David Hentschel, a top producer of the 70s who worked with many top bands/artists like Genesis/Elton John. But see how dense the sound is:

 

Now, another track from the same album, you can hear the drums better here, because it doesn’t use heavy orchestra.

The point being that in capturing the dense orchestration, the sound becomes thin. Raja had the same problem and as mentioned earlier, he was working with 8 track. It was also not easy in pre liberalisation (1991) days to acquire anything that would have to be imported. Rahman fans dislike this being mentioned because they see it as taking away credit from him but a lot of things fell in place in the ecosystem in the 90s which weren’t there before. Be that as it may, the point is even with the best technology, because of Raja’s very style of using lots of instruments, the effect cannot be compared to the well separated sound of Rahman. Consider an album like Neethane Enthan Pon Vasantham which was recorded in Hungary and mixed and mastered in Abbey Road studios, London! Even then, I heard complaints from popular bloggers like Sureshkumar that the sound is too dense. That is just how a heavily orchestrated track sounds on a recording, as I have demonstrated with the above example, being a then state of the art production. The band, by the way, were with Warner Bros at the time so budget too would not have been a constraint.

2. There were limits to what could be done with analog. Digital recording came into being in the 80s but was still primitive at that time. It reached maturation in the 90s…just as Rahman broke through! So Rahman has to be credited for being so up to date, so quickly adapting to the possibilities of technology. But even if Raja had adapted, the 80s recordings would have remained. And I am saying nothing much could have been done to improve them significantly.

3.  Views are also coloured by the poor audio quality of the recordings played on TV whether in music channels or as part of an old film. I am guessing their print has deteriorated a lot and a result, the sound lacks resolution very badly. However, good remasters are available pretty easily on Youtube and my impression is at least from around 84–85, the mono recordings disappeared and mostly all Raja recordings were stereo and pretty good. Not as good as Rahman, but as I have explained, that’s not an apple to apple comparison. But the below recording quality is more than acceptable imo.

Just to illustrate my point, compare this to Rajshri production’s upload of the same song and see how much more grainy and disturbed the latter is:

 

4. Now only one point remains. That is, why didn’t recording improve in the 90s when the technology became available. I would say in patches, his recordings did improve. If you compare the first upload of Oru Poongavanam with the below one of Madathile Kanni, the recording has clearly improved in the latter:

 

But from the late 90s, the recordings in general went down the drain with the few exceptions where he worked with a big banner and got ample budget (in these cases the recordings were great, like Pithamagan, Virumaandi, Mumbai Express, to say nothing of films with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra like Hey Ram, NEPV). I have to assume he was not getting the kind of fees he used to and unable to retain a good sound engineer. Or the ones he had did not update themselves.

When Raja got into the field, sound engineering was a very specialised activity. It still is and Rahman was ably assisted by H Sridhar for many, many years. Anyway, because it was specialised, the musicians left the recording activity to the engineers with some guidelines for what they wanted the recording to sound like in terms of balance. By the time digital disrupted the ecosystem, he had been a pure musician for too long to now get involved in recording. Perhaps his son Karthik Raja, who anyway was involved in Raja’s scores, should have helped him out in this department. However it may be, the transition from analog to digital was bound to catch him off guard.

Statutory warning: Gurunomics is dangerous for mental and economic health

November 18, 2018

The day S Gurumurthy, Chennai based chartered accountant and right wing ideologue, was inducted as a board member of the RBI, you could see trouble brewing from miles away.  The renowned economist Jagdish Bhagwati famously said that if Gurumurthy is an economist, then he (Bhagwati) must be a Bharatanatyam dancer.  I am no fan of Bhagwati but in this instance, I have to agree.

Now is not the time, though, for pithy asides because the trouble that was once merely brewing has now acquired the proportions of a shitstorm.  For the past couple of weeks, an unseemly back and forth has ensued between the RBI and the Central Govt with the latter demanding that RBI part with their reserves which the Govt slyly continues to present as the demonetisation dividend.  This, in spite of RBI’s statement confirming 99% plus what-have-you-decimal points of old currency notes had been successfully lodged with the banks by the people, whether these pertained legitimate earnings or black money.  In other words, the black money is now officially white.  But that again is a subject for another day.

Having first frayed tempers, provoking an unusually candid riposte from Deputy RBI governor Viral Acharya, the govt sought to make conciliatory noises and cool the temperature, lest the remaining FII money also escaped India’s stock markets.  But as 19th November, the day the RBI Board is set to meet again, approaches, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has once again urged the RBI to ensure liquidity.  In other words, if you won’t part with reserve, bring down the interest rate (thus, printing notes through the backdoor).  S Gurumurthy, ostensibly the chief architect of the note printing idea (and also a supporter of demonetisation, if I may add), has also given a lengthy speech at the Vivekananda International Speech.  Without saying that that’s his intent, he attempts to drum up support with the public for this note printing idea.

 

For the reason only that Gurumurthy’s words have now unfortunately acquired national importance, I sat through his speech on Youtube.  Trust me – and this has nothing to do with ideological differences – it is a difficult listen because, intentionally or otherwise, Gurumurthy refuses to present Gurunomics in a concise and crisp format.  Instead, he chooses to waste a lot of time talking about the decline of Indian civilisation, our lack of confidence in our own ideas and the attendant need for approval from international agencies established by the Western hegemony, about how experts got Trump completely wrong, so on and so forth.  There is also no structure to the talk as he drifts in and out of tangents until the tangents become indistinguishable from the crux.  I am going to say that I think these digressions are intentional because they are designed to mask the lack of substance in his central argument.  The argument being that India should give the IMF & co a wide berth and print notes as that is what everyone is doing.

Now who is this everyone?  Guru mentions USA and Japan as key examples.  Let us pause here.  USA, a country which until 1980 used to be the world’s biggest creditor and which, prior to Reaganomics (the irony), strongly believed in balancing its books.  It did so again at the end of Clinton’s second term by the way.  Why did USA print notes bigtime again?  Because there was no other way to bail itself out of the 2008 meltdown. Europe belatedly followed suit with its own version of Quantitative Easing (which is the technical term used these days for what is essentially note printing/flooding the market with dollars/euros).  Guru also mentions Japan, which is doing so as well under Abenomics.

As said earlier, extraordinary circumstances forced USA and Europe down this road.  Circumstances which caused the interest rate to nearly touch zero in these countries, with, obviously, low to no inflation.  Japan too has had deflation for many years and Shinzo Abe has only been trying to somehow reflate the economy back to life.

Does the Indian economy have comparable circumstances?  The answer is a vehement and unequivocal no.  India has long trended towards moderate to somewhat high inflation, thus forcing the RBI too to keep interest rates high.  It is not that RBI keeps interest rates high ONLY because the world powers say so.  Even if nobody cared what India did about its monetary policy, RBI would have no choice until India fixes its inflation issue.

I could now drift into a tangent about how govt’s own lethargic implementation of infrastructure projects further fuels this inflation.  Instead, I will stick to the argument that we are not in a position to do what USA and Japan do because our economic circumstances are different.  Now I will devote a few sentences to explain what would happen if India indeed printed notes in a big way as Guru suggests.  We have seen this movie before and I will get to it in a bit.

  1. When the govt prints notes, it essentially means money is available more easily and at a cheaper cost to people at large.
  2. What do people do with this easily available money (it’s actually called easy money policy)?  They buy more stuff than before because they have the money to.  More food, more cars, more houses even.
  3. What happens when more money chases the same stuff?  The price of that stuff increases. I.e. inflation.
  4. There’s more.  To compensate for this inflation, manufacturers now have to pay more salary to their staff. That means it now costs more for manufacturers to make the same stuff than it did prior to note printing.
  5. When product ABC is now exported at a cost of say rupees 110 instead of rupees 100, what do you think happens?  People don’t want to buy, simple.
  6. When people don’t want to buy your exports, you lose foreign exchange.  You keep losing until eventually you reach a crisis situation.  Alternatively, you stop defending your currency with the US dollar reserves you have and let it drop.

Folks, as I said, we have seen this movie before.  What is the name of this movie?  It’s called UPA2.  At the behest of both our industrialists rattled by the meltdown as well as Western powers who suggested India and China should pick up the tab while the developed nations fixed their house, the Indian govt followed an easy money policy and also offered tax cuts to industry.  For a few years, all was well as India experienced some of its highest ever GDP growth.  But the consequences of such steroid-fueled growth caught up very quickly with us.  Imports kept going up (obviously as everybody had money to spend and with US weakness, the Indian rupee strengthened) and inflation first crept up and eventually began to soar.  Property prices too soared, eventually reaching unsustainable levels, particularly in Mumbai. There was much outcry too over the soaring prices of vegetables, fruits and foodgrains.  By 2012, the economy seemed to be in disarray.

And then, in 2013, the US Federal Reserve announced it was going to taper off Quantitative Easing.  The mere announcement triggered panic in emerging markets.  Why?  Because tapering meant those easily available dollars were going to go back to US.  The rupee crashed even as D V Subbarao, the weakest of our RBI governors in terms of being unable to resist Central Govt pressure, left office on an unhappy note.  With some out of the box thinking, the UPA govt appointed Raghuram Rajan as the RBI governor in spite of him not previously holding any position with that organisation.  His exemplary forex management arrested the rupee’s slide and, more importantly, cut down volatility sharply. But all that is history as we know RR too had to go and can perhaps guess why.

That brings us to today and to Guru’s speech.  Guru blasts the UPA govt for allowing what he called bogus foreign money to flood the Indian markets.  He is referring to the inflow of QE dollars into India.  It is not clear what India could have done to just stop that money from entering the economy short of following tighter monetary policy which they should have.

But if they ought to have followed tighter monetary policy then, when there was actually a glut of dollars, why exactly does Guru recommend note printing today?  Today when US interest rates have increased and are set to increase and the dollar is going from strength to strength.  Should the RBI cut interest rates now and the govt actually just take RBI reserves and spend it on projects (possibly including but not limited to gigantic statues), there will be a further exodus of dollars from India, pushing us closer, again, to a forex crisis.  Guru praises India and Japan’s currency swap agreement as something we ought to have done long ago.  We have been, actually. The previous arrangement was for a currency swap of $50 billion.  It has now been hiked to $75 billion.  All good. The only problem is our imports from China alone are $68 billion!  Japan is only our 15th largest trading partner.  You can get around the rules of the economic jungle for only so long.

It beats me why, having criticised UPA 2 correctly for pumping up the Indian economy artificially, Guru proposes exactly that as the cure NOW.  Is it yet another attempt to cover up the govt’s colossal failure with the demonetisation experiment?  Or is it in fact, contrary to his pleas for original ‘Indian civilisation’, nothing but a slavish attempt to imitate Japan just because?

However it may be, and I don’t have a CCTV planted in Guru’s mind, the short point is the prescription, if implemented, would be a complete disaster for the economy.  I see, from the Youtube comments, that Guru, though, is winning favour with his talk.  You see, all it takes is for someone to speak with an appearance of confidence, of knowing what he’s talking about.  It doesn’t matter whether he really knows.  We have seen THIS movie(s) too before and they go by the initials of NM or DJT depending on your choice of language. Guru talks a lot of crap in the midst of some valid observations about experts getting predictions wrong or that there is no universal theory of economics.  But it doesn’t SOUND like crap and that’s all that matters.  Poor Urjit Patel’s introverted reticence is no match for Guru’s confident bluster.  It’s Dravid v/s Srikanth and who would you pick as the more confident batsman if you didn’t know their records?

In order, therefore, that the gullible public is not taken in by a mere appearance of authoritative expertise, I posit that every S Gurumurthy speech on economics should be preceded by a statutory warning.  The warning is as follows: Gurunomics is dangerous for mental and economic health.  Enjoy it but do not ingest it.

The pros and cons of Raju Bharatan

November 11, 2018

I recently finished reading Naushadnama, Raju Bharatan’s loftily titled unofficial biography of the late, great music director Naushad Ali.  As always, Bharatan’s writing left me with very mixed feelings.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore Bharatan if you love the ‘golden era’ of Hindi film music, especially the 1950s and 60s.  For those more interested in the work of R D Burman, there are other excellent sources like Anirudha Bhatacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s R D Burman – The Man, The Music.  But there is nobody else who could have actually cared to publish his account of Naushad’s career in 2013.  And there is nobody else who could have done a better job content wise.  As Anil Biswas himself once dryly remarked to Bharatan, “Nobody can beat your knowledge of the history of film music.”

Hindi film music, to be precise.  Not that Bharatan seems to care.  There are stray mentions of, say, Sivaji Ganesan but otherwise there is no evaluation, even in passing, of the greats of Tamil music like M S Vishwanathan or Illayaraja.  This would ordinarily be irrelevant, except that Bharatan loftily declares Naushad the composer of the (20th) century.

A few other such dubious pronouncements aside (like Bharatan waxing eloquent about Priti Uttam Singh’s vocals on Naushad’s last film score – Taj Mahal), Bharatan overwhelms you with his truly impressive ability to collate and present a zillion factoids, sometimes compressed into a single page.  This, combined with his peculiar writing style, doesn’t make for the most enjoyable reading experience.  I don’t have the book by my side just now and when I do, I will edit this article with a delicious (!) sample of Bharatan’s inimitable style.   For now, I will just say that it is, well, fascinating that someone so fond of Naushad’s music with its sheer symmetry, elegance and aesthetic purity would choose to write in a manner so devoid of these very qualities!

Thankfully, the factoids make up for it and not just from the perspective of a trivia freak.  Bharatan digs deep and brings up aspects of these performers that may sometimes belie their public perception.  At the very least, you will find unexpected insights into their personality, their working style, views, so on and so forth.

Whatever else may have been his drawbacks, Bharatan was certainly not insufferably politically correct and sycophantic in the way most of our film journalists are.  He challenged these personalities and put them on the spot, getting them to articulate the considerations behind their choices.  For example, why Naushad swiftly moved away from Talat to Rafi.  It is explained, in Naushad’s own words (at least as quoted by Bharatan), that this had nothing to do with Talat’s fondness for alcohol or cigarettes.  A wonderful explanation summing up Talat’s strengths and limitations as a singer follows after which one would find it hard to deny that he didn’t quite fit into Naushad’s sweeping, epic, semi-classical vision of film music.  At least the vision he adopted from Baiju Bawra onwards.

Bharatan also engages with the question of whether it was a wise choice on Naushad’s part to so restrict himself to high minded classical based stuff and cede so much market to his rivals.  And yes, it was a rivalry (contrary to the friendly image presented in public) with the others like C Ramachandra, Biswas and Shankar Jaikishan resenting Naushad’s handsome pay packet.   But we were on the subject of his classical based  approach and, whether or not you agree with Bharatan’s own conclusions, I find it impressive that he chose to grapple with these questions.  Questions which are increasingly thought of as irrelevant in film music where the primacy of a composer’s own style and signature has long been lost.

These and many other insights, including a detailed analysis of Mughal-e-azam straight from the horse’s mouth, are compiled lovingly by a person who clearly seems to be a devoted fan of Naushad.  And yet not so devoted as to cross over into fanaticism and become blind and deaf to his flaws.  Thus, Bharatan is able to humanise not only Naushad but the many other luminaries who make lead or guest appearances in the book (Talat’s superiority complex vis a vis Rafi is another such example).  Bharatan shows that it is possibly to deeply adore and admire an artist’s work while also embracing his/her flaws.  Possible indeed for Bharatan devoted his career to it and carved out a Naushad-esque niche for himself in writing about film music.

There are other such tomes that Bharatan has published over the years and, in spite of my initial misgivings when I bit the bullet w.r.t Naushadnama, I plan to eventually get to them as well.  The cons of Bharatan’s page-turners (he will exasperate you into turning the page!)  and at best quixotic and often ludicrous turn of phrase have to be weighed against the pros of what he brought to the table through his frank and intimate interactions with the legends of Hindi film music. In this case, the pros win the day with ease as nobody else even thought it necessary to chronicle the exploits of a composer of whom it was once said, “chaalis crore mein ek Naushad”.  Guess our population went up too much!

 

Aboorva Sagotharargal: The overlooked apotheosis of masala phillums

November 4, 2018

Aboorva Sagotharargal is, of course, the very popular Kamal Haasan triple whammy with, notably, the character Apu being a dwarf version of Kamal.  The circumstances in which he becomes a dwarf set up fertile ground for an avenging angel trope, which is what it turns out to be.  No spoiler alerts required here, as a good deal of the movie concerns itself with said trope and there is no great suspense that would be ruined for anybody who still hasn’t watched the film.  If you haven’t, you must.  Even if you don’t understand Tamil, make do with the Hindi dubbing or try to get Tamil with good subtitles (a better choice imo).

The film was undoubtedly a blockbuster in its time and still recalled fondly when Kamal’s achievements are discussed.  So why do I say it is overlooked?  Because most of the attention focuses, deservedly, on Kamal’s essay as the avenging dwarf and not enough, unfortunately, on the film itself which masterfully brings together many elements of masala and yet rises above its weaknesses without morphing into proto-multiplex/art cinema.

The avenging angel theme here is in itself loaded and evokes shades of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man roles.  From Tall Bombay Star as Kamal sometimes snidely refers to him to dwarf, what are the parallels here?  The parallel is that Appu’s congenital condition (induced by poison forced into his mother’s mouth as she was expecting) leaves him constantly stigmatized, indeed ‘othered’.  Not to get too social engineering on ya, but dwarf could all but be a proxy for Dalit here in that Appu is punished for something that is not his fault.

For a time, he enjoys an impoverished but mirthful existence as a circus clown but this illusory equilibrium is disturbed when he mistakenly believes the circus owner’s daughter has feelings for him.  The predictable disillusionment – and to hear his own mother (brilliantly enacted by Srividya) tell the circus owner that Appu hardly has the stature, socially or physically, to marry his (owner) daughter – does not merely lead to heartbreak for Appu, as it would have for any number of masala phillum heroes.  It leads him to utter despair and disgust with the world he inhabits.  The realisation that his only true friends are his fellow dwarves and as they remind him of all his birth defects, he loathes their company too.  All this depicted in a beautiful passage where Appu speaks not a word and merely reacts with his eyes while Ilayaraja’s outstanding score does the talking. Watch from 6:09 to 7:40:

That is a hallmark of Aboorva Sagotharargal.  Its effective use of visuals and music rather than monologues to convey tons more than said monologues could have.  Another example, moving on, Appu’s mother stops him as he is about to hang himself to death and decides to finally spill the beans on why he is the way he is.  Appu spends time in the town llibrary with old newspaper articles learning of the men who killed his father, Inspector Sethupathi (Kamal senior in a short but effective cameo).  As he reads on, Ilayaraja introduces the ‘revenge theme’ which will make further appearances in the film hereon.  And the clown you saw in both Puthu Maapillaiku and Unnai Nenachen reappears but he is neither ecstatic nor devastated.  Instead, he is angry but, clown that he is, wears his anger not with a scowl but an evil smile with a frightening intensity in his eyes.  By reprising the clown introduced previously in songs, Sangeetham Srinivasa Rao brings us up to speed with Appu’s metamorphosis from gentle dwarf to sinister avenger in one frame.  When this new avatar of Appu first appears as he kills Anbarasan (Delhi Ganesh), we don’t question why he looks so different and yet so similar to the Appu we knew.  Because through a masterful sleight of hand, Rao has already acquainted us with Appu 2.0.

There are many more such scenes as the one where Raja (the other offspring of Sethupathi, a village idiot transposed on the city) stumbles into Appu’s mother and even has to hold a knife to her to ward off assailants chasing him after they see a reward announced by the police for his head (as a murder suspect).  He promptly apologises to her, saying he would never hurt anyone and had no other choice. In this instance, she recognises him as her other son and reacts in disbelief.  Nothing is said except for Raja’s violins seemingly coming in from thousands of miles away (thus evoking a nostalgic memory?).  When the bumbling Clouseau played by Janakaraj shows a drawing of the suspect of Nazar’s murder to Jaiganesh and Nagesh, Nagesh suppresses a gasp of shock as it reminds him uncannily of Sethupathi.  He never says this; the film treats its audience with respect and is largely devoid of the spoon feeding that is the bane of much of commercial Tamil cinema (or its Hindi counterpart for that matter).

Indeed, it required my wearing out the video cassette of this film that I once had and to rewatch it every time I caught it by accident on TV for me as a lay viewer (as opposed to a professional critic) to unpack the myriad subtexts of Aboorva Sagotharargal.  One last such example of an unspoken observation in the film is the denouement itself.  It is staged grandly in the circus (Appu’s own den like those of arch villains like Gabbar or Mogambo) with Nagesh given an opportunity to confess to his crime before he is fed to the lions.  And who all make up the audience at the circus but people roughly of Appu’s own social class?  Maybe slightly more financially able because they can afford the tickets for the show.  But they are certainly far removed from Nagesh’s own stratum.  Or of all the other influential villains who together plotted Sethupathi’s demise.

Note here that they escaped the long arm of the law (in spite of Sethupathi nabbing them and prosecuting them through presumably the state prosecutor) and would have continued to do so but for Appu taking the law into his own hands.  The sub text then is that the underclass has to take the law into its hands to obtain justice while the upper class remains above the law they themselves wrote (and profess faith in its ability to deliver justice).  Indeed, Appu has to surrender to the police after this last epic crime and will spend what remains of his life in prison.  Thus, he has to take a bullet on behalf of everyone else in his class and, more pertinently, his family and friends to bring the culprits to book.  The Indian justice system summed up without much ado, without any grand AB-esque monologues.

I could go on and on about Kamal’s brilliant three-pronged performance and especially as Appu (imo the highlight of his career, especially the second half), about Crazy Mohan’s rip roaring dialogues, about Ilayaraja doing as Ilayaraja does, faithfully providing magnificence in spades.

But most of all, what makes Aboorva Sagotharargal notable and note worthy is the way it appropriates the must haves of masala (romance, comedy, action, villainy, even the time tested Amma sentiment – Nagesh makes a meta reference to it, spot it if you can) and yet rises above them, offering a more mature treatment of these tropes without compromising on the high octane emotion and entertainment we associate with masala at its best.

Perhaps, the film is a victim of the same circumstances that drove Appu to a destructive path.  After all, a dwarf can be entertaining, funny or sad but never iconic, can he? In a way, the everlasting fondness for Aboorva Sagotharargal combined with the inability to engage seriously with its cinematic achievements hold a mirror to our own innate prejudices.  Even the act of rooting for the little guy has perhaps not stretched far beyond sympathy at the end of the day.

 

 

The mystery of David Suchet’s grey cells

October 26, 2018

Last year, Murder On The Orient Express was remade by Kenneth Branagh with him also starring as Hercule Poirot.  I missed its theatrical run but caught it the other day on TV.  It took some time for me to warm up to Branagh but I gradually came to appreciate his take on Agatha Christie’s iconic creation.  At least more so than Albert Finney’s own essay of said role in the 1974 version of Orient Express.  I had to think that this was at least partly because, unlike Finney, Branagh had David Suchet as a reference.

In fact, like most Poirot fans, I couldn’t not wonder what Suchet would have done with the role all the while that I was watching the film.  That I felt strangely empty at the end further convinced me that, yes, Suchet would have done the trick.

Interestingly, it was another famous ‘Poirot’ – Peter Ustinov – who told Suchet that he would play Poirot well.  Suchet describes feeling reluctant, initially, because (a) he had grown up believing Agatha Christie wasn’t great fiction and (b) Poirot was a joke, a kind of clown.  Indeed, Suchet’s elder brother, a newscaster by profession, strongly advised him against it.

It was when I read this that I realised why the previous renderings of Poirot had felt so ‘wrong’ to me as a fan of the Poirot novels.  I understand why others, specifically those who don’t particularly like Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot, may have related to the way Finney played him. Or even Ustinov.  Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal fictional detective, is all action, fencing and all, flamboyant and of singular personality.  And this has perhaps shaped general expectations of what a detective ought to be like.  Vigilant, restless for clues with magnifying glass readily at hand, keen eyed, this is what a detective is supposed to be like.  And if he isn’t any of that, then maybe a bombastic, loud jerk who happens to be gifted with intellect will do.  Which is kind of how Finney plays it.  Watch at 2:19 in the trailer of the 1974 Orient Express.

But, but, you see, for a Poirot fan, this is pitched too loud.  Mais oui, Poirot is arrogant and not afraid to boast and yet he is introverted and self contained.  He is fond of admonishing Hastings for wishing to see action, saying he would prefer to do nothing but sit in the chair and close his eyes and think (which only lulls Hasting into sound sleep).

It is not difficult to see why this would probably not play out so well on the big screen.  Add to that his quirky physical features and traits and habits – eggheaded but with a beautiful moustache, fastidious and neatly turned out and yet awkward, belligerently firm in his conviction that he cannot approve of murder and yet possessed of almost feminine and feline like grace. These do make for a very interesting character (and hence why Christie’s Poirot novels sold fabulously well) but not for a whole lot of action.

And yet, Suchet, upon reading the books, did see what we Poirot fans can and always have.  He visualised Poirot exactly the way we did. That is it, really.  When you see Suchet playing Poirot, you don’t wonder to what extent he is doing justice to it, you KNOW he IS Poirot.  Like he just leapt out of the book.

I quote his words:  “The Poirot in the books was nothing like the character I’d seen on screen: elusive, pedantic, and most of all, more human.”  –  yes! yes! yes! – and “I was convinced that I could bring out the true Poirot, as Agatha Christie had written him, to life.”

And thank God he did!  For, without Suchet’s marvellous insight, we may have never had a Poirot who actually embodied the character.  Having watched many adaptations of books, there aren’t many TV/movie characters I can think of who live their original fiction inspirations to the extent Suchet did. Maybe Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon in the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy TV series but because Suchet essayed Poirot in so many episodes, we got to see many more shades of the character over a period of time.

In spite of being warned by his brother that Poirot would not be taken seriously, Suchet, already then a well known theatre actor, took up the labours of Hercule Poirot and gifted us Poirot fans something to cherish for a lifetime.  If you ever wondered what those delightful Poirot short stories would look like in visual form, all you have to do is watch one of the many episodes of the Suchet-Poirot TV series. And it’s not only Suchet, to give credit where due, but the entire cast and indeed the environment that is true to the book.  It’s Christie’s quaint old England coming to life.  Why, even the title music was perfect. Quiet but mysterious and with a sense of foreboding.

And so, after watching Branagh’s competent and visually striking but somewhat laboured film, I trawled through the internet ocean and learnt that, yes, ITV had in fact made a TV movie based on Murder of the Orient Express and, yes, it had none other Suchet playing Poirot.

I found it on YouTube and watched it post haste.  I am afraid I can’t say the film itself was much better than the other two versions.  A little better, maybe, but the problem, perhaps, is the story itself is uncharacteristic of the Christie mould.  There is less ‘logical deduction’ here and it’s more of a morality play.  These, again, may be the reasons it is seen as an appealing one to adapt.  Its issues are more relatable to cinema.  Add the sunset of the Empire settings and it offers a visually dazzling and emotionally charged canvas.  Branagh is strangely subdued in the climax though Pfeiffer rises to the challenge in the one scene where she gets to utilise her acting chops (as with most multi starrers, the star studded cast including Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench has not very much to do).

*SPOILER ALERT* And that, mon cher ami, is where Suchet makes all the difference.  For he understands Poirot like no other actor.  And he knows his beloved little Belgian friend does not approve of murder and, therefore, how painful the moral dilemma he is confronted with here must be for him.  The torment comes through as he counsels against condoning revenge, warning that we will all become savages as we let this pass.  And yet, when asked why, when they did seek due legal recourse, were they denied justice he has no answers.  With anguish that is not fully quelled even as he walks away from the scene, Poirot must, for once, go against his own moral credo.  And Suchet brings out exactly what that means to Poirot and yet why Poirot, of all detectives, can be thought of as possessing the necessary humanity to make such a judgment.

Till the very end, till Curtain was essayed bringing down curtains on the TV series once and for all, Suchet exerted his own formidable grey cells to bring to life the peculiar nuances of this most peculiar detective.  And did it with the greatest respect for the character, rising above the temptation to titillate by caricaturing him.  Yes, there but for the grace of God, goes David Suchet. Au revoir!

 

A Star is Born reignites the old art v/s commerce debate

October 13, 2018

I watched Bradley Cooper’s excellent directorial debut A Star Is Born starring himself and Lady Gaga in the lead roles.  I have not watched the previous iterations of this film and therefore cannot say how watching them would have influenced my reaction to this one.  However, going by the plot descriptions I read of the previous takes, Cooper does bring a different and significant insight to his telling of the tale, one that’s perhaps coming out of his being a passionate fan of music.

Cooper claims to have learnt singing and playing guitar for the film and if that is the case, then he has done a very fine job.  But that is not what is most interesting about the film.  What is interesting is the reaction of his character Jack Maine to the music that takes Lady Gaga’s Allys to instant stardom.

The previous versions would appear to have focused on the resentment of the older male protagonist to his lover’s success (which overshadows his own career).  This is the narration that aficionados of Indian cinema would also be familiar via Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan.  There is just plain envy, no artistic critique involved.  But that is NOT what Jack Maine feels about what Allys is doing (though she obliquely accuses him of it in an angry argument).

It is the music itself that he is reacting to.  To him, Allys is the one-in-a-million voice that captivated him in a drag bar (yes!) and in whom he discovered great, untapped songwriting talent.  He is dismayed to find this talent, one whom he heartily promoted in his own shows, being ‘wasted’ in dance music with lyrics he regards as inane.

It is the classic art v/s commerce debate.  But, unlike many critics and journos who feel compelled to make politically correct plebeian arguments whilst discussing this, Cooper frames the debate in a manner that would soothe the hearts of musicophiles.  No, he says, the problem isn’t that it’s popular.  As a matter of fact, Jack Maine is very popular too in the beginning when he meets Allys for the first time.  He can’t get anywhere without getting recognised and photographed and this attention creeps out Allys.

No, the problem for him is this new music is not true to who Allys is.  She may not think so herself but she duly submits to a complete image makeover and learns to dance, all at the behest of a controlling manager who can take her to paradise but only if she absolutely doesn’t compromise on any of his instructions.  Individuality, anyone?

When he returns from Alcoholics Anonymous and Allys asks him why he didn’t show her a bunch of lyrics he had written for a romantic song, he says he was waiting for “you to be you again”.  And though there is no vocal acknowledgment of this on her part, she does start to work on one of his songs at his home out in the woods.

For those who only know Lady Gaga from the tranche of very successful dance music albums she made in the mid/late noughties, her heartfelt rendering of material leaning more to country or a more old school variety of pop and her fabulous dynamic range would be a pleasant surprise.  It shouldn’t be.  She had a natural talent for music, learnt piano from the age of four and even studied music at NYU.

Indeed, she chose to explore her voice in the context of more conventional music starting with her jazz album with Tony Bennett.

 

In Lady Gaga’s case, there’s nothing to suggest there was a bossy manager supervising and imposing her transformation from soulful singer-songwriter to manufactured pop idol.  She was just canny enough to know where the music industry was headed to.  But it’s doubtful that she would have landed a recording contract with a major label for an album with piano and old school sensibilities (i.e. the artist Allys comes across as before she turns pop star).  On similar lines, Fiona Apple delivered a multi platinum album with 1996’s Tidal before moving more and more into the singer-songwriter niche.   However, Apple was already making fairly singer-songwriter oriented stuff even on her first album.  It would appear that with the passage of time, the gap between songwriting and the requirements of chartbuster pop only grows ever wider.

But what’s wrong with making some money, right?  And if supposedly inane dance music is what the public wants, why not give them their heart’s desires?  Nothing wrong indeed.  But Cooper offers an alternative proposition right at the end (SPOILER ALERT).  I won’t explain under what circumstances but Maine commits suicide and his elder brother Bob arrives to condole Allys (who got married to Jack along the way but you worked that out already).  Bob tells her he heard a boy performing one of Jack Maine’s songs and was initially angry, thinking what did these people know about the real Maine anyway.  And then, he told himself that if a kid was singing Maine’s song, then maybe it had all been worth it after all.

That is the proverbial last laugh that the artist earns over the commercial star.  The legendary guitarist Alan Holdsworth died penniless and didn’t have a single hit album in his long career but friends and fans (numbering in the thousands) crowdfunded his funeral because they cherished his musical legacy.  J S Bach’s greatness was only fully appreciated a century later when Mendelssohn revived his work.   An alternative tune that Madan Mohan wrote for the song Dil Dhoondtha Hain for his last film Mausam found its way into the soundtrack of Veer Zara years later and became a hit under the name of Tere Liye!

In his parting shot, Cooper seems to be telling us that the soul that the artist has invested in his/her creation never truly dies, kinda like the Hindu concept of an atma that has a life beyond the body of one’s current birth.  Or maybe this is all just the biased reading of one who does appreciate musicians who prize soul above all.

In thus concluding the film, Cooper creates a new beginning, beyond death, for Jack Maine.  Though the film doesn’t depict anything like this, when Allys performs Maine’s last and unrecorded composition at this grand concert hall (couldn’t tell which one) as a tribute, the song probably goes viral on the internet and earns Maine a bonafide hit.  At last, in death, a star is born!

Ilayaraja’s electrifying experiments with guitar

October 3, 2018

The resurrection of this blog which began tentatively earlier has now gathered steam.  On receiving requests from a few people on other blogs and forums like Quora, I have resolved to write regularly…on music and, at least to begin with, on Ilayaraja in keeping with public demand.  This is not even a New Year Resolution so God knows how this will fare.  But here goes…

Detractors say that Ilayaraja is only good at utilising guitar.  Tamil-la sollanumna, avannuku guitar dhan da nanna varadhu.  Another variation of this is violin-tabla man but I won’t go there today. Obviously, I do not agree that Ilayaraja ONLY handles guitar but if I move the only a bit to the left, I get a more appealing sentence! 😀  No, as a fan of Hackett, Holdsworth, Uli Jon Roth among others, I am not going to go quite that far.  But Ilayaraja’s use of guitar truly is singular, that much may be safely said.  You guessed it…this post will list a few examples with a focus on electric guitar.  Electric guitar because the way that instrument was handled in Indian film music prior to Raja was pretty limited and often cliche.  I would argue it often still is cliche.  Its unplugged sibling fared better but Raja saved the electric guitar from desi rock stereotyping and fashioned many innovative and creative ways to use it.

I will start with a song I was listening to (for the nth time) today and which supplied the inspiration for this post.  Mannil Indha Kadhal from Keladi Kanmani (1990).  Yes, the ‘breathless’ song.  It’s most famous for SPB singing without space for breath in the charanam (antara for those not familiar with the pallavi/charanam nomenclature).  It also has an electric guitar riff accompanying SPB throughout the pallavi.  The beat is provided throughout the song by tabla with no drums/congo etc.

 

What’s the big deal, you ask?  Go on, rack your brains and try to recall songs of R D Burman (or the music directors who preceded him) or of Raja’s predecessor M S Vishwanathan and let me know how many songs you can think of which have ELECTRIC guitar riffs with tabla. It sounds very ubiquitous and normal and Raja has a habit of making very unusual things sound normal because he fits them seamlessly into the music.  Electric guitar riffs and tabla was not then a very normal combination at all, at least not in a sort of introspective, gentle solo like Mannil Indha Kadhal.

And the reason for that is previous music directors could not re-imagine a suitable context for the electric guitar outside its stereotyped rock settings.  This meant that even when they used electric guitar in an introspective or plaintive melodic solo, the beat would be provided by congo/drums to make it Western enough for the guitar to fit in.  Kya Hua Tera Wada for instance.  Main Kahin Kavi Na Ban Jaoon gets as far as having some very stylish electric guitar passages in the interludes.  But the riffs again are acoustic to go with the tabla.  Raja shattered this dogma in his trademark nonchalant manner, as if it was the mos natural thing to do. More importantly, though, the riff itself is interesting.  It combines in a call-response pattern with the vocal melody rather than playing all along the melody, which is how riffs are normally used. The Mannil Indha Kadhal riffs interject to emphasise the syncopated beat, something Raja is fond of doing.  There’s no riff for ‘Mannil Indha’ and then it comes just as SPB sings ‘Kadhalantri’ and repeating once each along with ‘Yaarum Vazhtal’ and ‘Koodumo’.  This is the same pattern that is used for the next line in the pallavi.

Oh dear, that got way longer than I expected it to.  And that’s just the one song.  Moving quickly now, the experimentation is about to get way more radical…and yet very innocuous and unobtrusive.  Can you imagine electric guitar as a staple instrument of Tamil Nadu’s rural landscape?  You don’t have to because Raja has done that too on Chinnamani Kuyile from Amman Koil Kizhakaale (1986).

There are riffs here too (again, so unusual and yet so natural-sounding!) but you won’t notice them so much because your attention will be drawn to the electric guitar lead responding to SPB with imitations of birdsong.  Electric guitar is used in terrific call-response patterns with rustic instruments, namely the shehnai and the Indian flute in both interludes.  And in roughly four and half minutes, the instrument that film music composers once regarded as highly Western is fully appropriated into the Tamil rural soundscape as if that’s where it always belonged.

Ah, if only Raja hadn’t been so concerned with seamless integration and done more in the face fusion like stuff, you say.  But he did that too!  Take the guitar lead in the prelude of Pottu Vacha Malligai Mottu (before tabla kicks in) from Manvasanai (1983).  The melody and manner of playing both evoke Carnatic music but it’s electric guitar alright.   You protest that it sounds like keyboard.  I thought so too…until I saw the guitarist play it in Raja’s 2005 live show.

You know what’s crazy?  In spite of all this frenetic innovation going on in Raja’s music (of which I have discussed barely a sliver of a sliver here), director R Balki summed up Raja with the sentence, “He has given us the simplest of melodies which everybody can hum”.  I was like, that’s all?  Really? Award for blandest description of Ilayaraja, what say?

And then, I said to myself, hey, Balki has a point.  Because Raja is the king of hooks.  He can just hook you in with a catchy melody or an infectious groove.  So even if hypothetically he didn’t do anything innovative at all, he would still get you with the most delicious of grooves like @ 2:14 in Rojapoo Aadi Vanthathu (where S Janaki is singing Thodu Thodu Thodammal)

Listen carefully, and there’s an electric guitar playing along and that’s one badass groove.  Simple but supercalafragalistinfectious.

And there you have it.  Raja could use electric guitar in a Carnatic-like manner, could integrate it with rural music, could use riffs to accompany Indian melody set to tabla beats.  AND he could also come up with a good ol’ fashioned groove that wouldn’t be out of place in a 70s funk compilation.  And much else, which I can’t possibly cover in the space of one post.

Ok, one last example of something unusual, demonstrating the sheer range he had/has when it comes to electric guitar. In Kannan Vandhu Paaduginran from Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987), the guitar simply plays baroque in the prelude, paving the way for saxophone.  This baroque like progression returns when S Janaki picks up the vocals.  The setting is a stage performance with Radhika trying her best to appear raunchy.  AND there are no riffs.  Even in the charanam, there are short melodic interjections of guitar (again call-response) rather than riffs.  Where you’d most expect to hear riffs, Raja deftly avoids them! And manages to evoke a jazzy flavour without a note of jazz in sight anywhere in the song.

And with that, it will really have to be a night!

USA in Trump times

September 22, 2018

I resurrect a dead blog…to write again about a visit to the USA.  The last time (and my first time there) was in 2014, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term.  Much has changed since then, and particularly since, of course, 2016.  A measure of just how much had changed is that when my aunt invited me to come over, I asked, as discreetly as I could, if it was safe.  In that moment, I truly understood where travel advisories issued about safety in India came from. As one from an ethnicity that is in the minority in the US, I felt less certain in the wake of all that had been said and done through the course of a fractious and polarising election and its aftermath…even though I KNOW quite a few of my relatives and friends live there and have reported no reason to worry so far.

I needn’t have worried too much, though, because my itinerary took me to (mostly) blue country throughout (just like last time by the way) – Chicago where my aunt lives, Niagara and Washington DC.  Of these, Niagara county flipped for Trump after years of voting for Democrats, though.  Whilst we walked through Niagara on a very hot afternoon (only mango lassi from an Indian street vendor – 2/3 in Indian style – bailed us out) looking for a place to eat, somebody we asked for directions advised us not to go to a particular part of Niagara.  Was it because of crime issues or was it because it was Trump country?  We could only wonder.

It was in DC, though, that the full import of the Trump presidency hit home – through the overwhelming opposition/disdain towards it from residents and visitors.  Our guide for the free tour of Capitol indulged in many a sly dig at Trump’s expense.  Sample this:  while describing the amount of violence that ensued between Congressmen when Congress was in session in the 19th century, he said that most of us cannot imagine something like this today.  He went on to speculate, “But can that change in the future?”  And smiled naughtily as he shrugged.  While explaining the painting described as Apothesis of Washington that adorns the ceiling of the rotunda, he said that it was meant to depict democracy as something akin to religion in USA, adding that the right to vote is something we have to take very seriously.

A much less subtle message was rammed home on our last day in DC.  On the previous two days, the weather as well as our exhaustion from touring the sprawling Museum of American History had forced us to postpone our walk down to the White House (or about as close to it as security arrangements would let us get to it).  On the last day, my aunt had decided she wanted to spend a couple more hours at the American History Museum, having spent all of the previous day there already (and yes, it DOES deserve that much time, if not more) and we were headed to the Spy Museum.  With our Circulator Bus getting held up for too long at the Lincoln Memorial, we decided against getting down at the Monument bus stop to walk down to the Ellipse.  But the driver stopped the bus there and said you could walk 10 minutes to get a good view of White House from the front and offered anybody who wished to see it to get down here.  She repeated her appeal twice, thrice and none of the (mostly White and many possibly European visitors) passengers in the bus got down.  The genial and venerable African American lady burst out laughing saying, “Nobody wants to see the White House?”

Speaking of African Americans, there was heightened consciousness this time about what it meant to be an African American in the USA.  My cousin (aunt’s daughter) had me read Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me (which was brilliant and, indeed, felt like the ghost of James Baldwin had somehow gotten into Mr Coates). We were frequently invited, if not exhorted, to see the new Museum of African American History in DC.  Another item we could not tick off in our 3 1/2 day stay in that magnificent city, along with the American Indian Museum, the National Art Gallery, the Natural History Museum and so on.  And Circulator bus drivers as well as cabbies discussed the African American condition with us.

They asked me whether we in India were racist (not in as many words) and discriminated on colour (this, they did ask straight out).  Didn’t tell them the truth and instead told them what I personally believe in (which is non discrimination).  Should I have?  I don’t know.  Besides, they probably already knew and were just having fun putting us on the spot.

As in my previous visit, I found many who were incredibly eager to help.  From a co passenger on Lufthansa who offered me her headphones when the flight attendant forgot to hand the inflight headphone package to me only for me to report with embarrassment that I already had my own pair of headphones but was only trying to see if I could, like a typical Indian, get a freebie I was entitled to. To a volunteer at an information center just outside the Smithsonian metro station who generously gave us her HUGE umbrella to run across to a store across the road to buy ourselves umbrellas (it was POURING that evening at DC). To the Circulator Bus drivers who waived off the $1 ticket (no idea why) and ushered us in.

Squaring this country with the one that voted for Trump seems a confounding exercise.  Was it that from the outside I did not understand everything about Trump and what the people who voted him into power saw in him that we do not (just the way we voted for Modi, right?)?  Or was it that I should have gone to Trump country to find out?  Should I have?  Would it have been safe?


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