Ilayaraja’s electrifying experiments with guitar

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!

UPDATE:  I cover the way Ilayaraja uses guitar and how it distinguishes from the other great composers of our film music in my book Raga 2 Rock.  You can get it here.

4 Responses to “Ilayaraja’s electrifying experiments with guitar”

  1. Madan Says:

    “Nice one. I’ve also observed that Raja has studiously avoided guitar usage, both riffs and solos, that sound typically classic rockish. maybe precisely because they have become too shop-worn and stereotypical. In fact I do not recall having heard any blues-sounding riffs from Raja either. Again maybe he just thought blues music already peaked with the great masters like Chuck Berry and there simply isn’t all that much left to do with the scale. Even in his baroque influences, note he never directly tries to mimic a Bach composition. Rather he is always looking for ways to reimagine musical forms and ideas in different contexts.” – Absolutely. Particularly in that ‘vintage’ phase, he was all about reimagining ideas. He came up with a whole plethora of unique approaches to guitar in particular. In a sense, I do find his contemporary use of very proper sounding guitar with the Hungarian musicians a little bland. I don’t blame him for it. The market itself has moved to wannabe-ism and the self confidence in Indian art is gone so he can’t be too much out of an outlier.

  2. TambiDude Says:

    Check this.

  3. Madan Says:

    Nice! Checked, and it was indeed Ajay Atul. Beautiful track in Raja style but not by Raja.

  4. Raja the riffmaster | Pictured life Says:

    […] indeed because of how well he handles guitar. Not just using it in unexpected ways, which I covered here, but just doing the bread and butter stuff of writing amazing riffs amazingly well. To the point […]

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