Raja-Naatai v/s Rahman-Naatai

Listening to an amateur singer deliver a really good rendition of Narumugaye set off this train of thought in my mind.

Narumugaye is based off Naatai raagam and rendered by Unnikrishnan and Bombay Jayashree.

As Unnikrishnan had already done on Ennavale (or on the Raja-composed Maharajanodu), he does not adjust his singing style for film music and sings as you would expect in a Carnatic recital.

But in this song, there is another layer to this. The melody itself is composed in a Carnatic manner (pokku, you could call it in Tamil). It’s not just that the melody has a lot of gamakam. Aesthetically too, it is expected to be rendered in a Carnatic style.

In 1997, I consumed Rahman and Raja soundtracks as they came along and only fleetingly paid attention to contemporary Hindi film music, finding most of it mediocre. By 97, I had already heard my dad’s OP Nayyar-Asha compilation a million times. In 97, I was all ears for Minsara Kanavu/Kadhal Desam. I didn’t particularly notice the soundtrack of Iruvar.

I can see why in hindsight.

I guess I have never liked the idea of transferring Carnatic style vocals to film music where the situation didn’t specifically demand it. That is, I obviously don’t have a problem with this approach being used in Sindhu Bhairavi or the parody of Sundari Neeyum/Madathile. Rahman’s own Minsara Kanna for that matter.

In Rahman’s early years, he too tended to not to do this. You don’t get this in the very Carnatic based tune of Malargaley. The singing is still filmi, in a good way. But in songs like the above one from Iruvar and others in the years to come, this strain became more and more dominant. At least until Bollywood became a priority in the noughties and it seemed to influence Rahman to return to a more minimalist direction in melody.

As a contrast, let’s take an iconic Ilayaraja Naatai.

The song is rocking with Hendrix-like riffs and fusion violin that evokes Jean Luc Ponty/Mahavishnu Orchestra. But the melody itself is very Carnatic (while SPB’s rendition is not). Just try singing it in a Carnatic pokku and you’ll see.

Raja understood that myriad possibilities lay in marrying the rich melodic traditions of India with Western harmony writing.

I am sure Rahman understood it too. But Rahman had to succeed Raja and therefore had no choice but to tread new ground that Raja hadn’t. Sometimes that new ground simply meant returning to old ways. One of those being returning to age-old bifurcations between Carnatic and film. Where a Carnatic based song is meant to be sung in a particular way.

4 Responses to “Raja-Naatai v/s Rahman-Naatai”

  1. anonymousviolin20 Says:

    I wasn’t sure where to leave this, so I put it in the first Rahman related post:

    There’s a podcast on YouTube/Spotify hosted by a guy named Chander R about A. R. Rahman. Every episode he invites a new guest, and they share their experiences with Rahman (and just life in general).

    Some of the tidbits are actually pretty interesting. For example, Shankar Mahadevan talked about how he recorded Enna Solla Pogirai, Varaha Nadhikarai, and Thaniye (Rhythm), all back to back on the same night. He’s also got a lot of high profile guests (Hariharan, Sujatha, Unnikrishnan, Amit Trivedi, etc).

    I think you might enjoy this podcast.

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks! Most definitely am interested.

      You have got me thinking. I should write some Rahman posts too. As well as maybe about old Hindi. When it comes to film music, my blog is too specialized towards Raja. This would be OK if I was an absolute diehard of the level of Raga Suresh or Ravi Natarajan, but I am not. So why not ‘diversify’? Maybe it’s time. 🙂

      • anonymousviolin20 Says:

        I’m all for more Rahman posts. I haven’t listened to the yesteryear Hindi stalwarts (except for a bit of R. D. Burman) so I’d also be happy to learn about them too.

        Have you ever considered compiling your music writings into a book or something? I haven’t really seen anyone who writes quite like you about it.

      • Madan Says:

        You are the second person who has suggested that to me. I think I will give it a serious shot. I can’t really write like an academic/historical perspective book so I might structure it like a ‘growing up with music’ first person perspective which will also be more enjoyable to read.

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