Musical Philosophy of Raja – Part 4 : Rhythm is emotion

Raja with Nemeth

(Raja with the Hungarian Jazz drummer, Ferenc Nemeth, who played drums for NEPV)

‘Sruthi Mata, Layam Pitha’ is the saying. Sruthi being the mother and layam being the father. In Indian film music, as in music of many parts of the world, rhythm plays an important part. At the same time, in our film music, rhythm has mainly been used mostly to keep the interest intact. Rhythm is probably the easiest way to capture a layman’s attention and various rhythmic patterns get used to ensure the listener is immediately hooked to the tune. Some music directors also experiment with the thalam, using different rhythmic cycles in their songs. Yet, I would say not many have really explored the possibility of rhythm being part of the emotion. Raja explored this the most. His philosophy seems to be that in certain cases, rhythm carries as much emotion as the melody does. The rhythm instruments are used to convey as much emotion as the strings, wood and brass instruments.

Let me first start with the way Raja uses rhythm to convey passion. Ofcourse there have lot of songs of passion in Indian film music. ‘roop tera mastana’, ‘masaka masaka cheekatilo’ and so on. When it concerns passion, Raja ensures there is no steady rhythm. This is to reflect the turmoil in the heart. Passion makes people lose their equanimity and this is reflected in the rhythm. Additionally Raja also chooses an asynchronous ‘nadai’ for these songs, like the kanda nadai, where the beat is broken not into a steady rhythm of 4 syllables but as 2+3 syllables.

Here are a few examples. The first one, ‘ponmeni urugudhey’ from ‘Moonram Pirai’

Not only the rhythm very unsteady, you have the rhythm being shared by two different instruments, adding to the unsteadiness. The whole rhythm pattern is like the heart beat of the woman who is singing.

You can hear a similar pattern in a later day song. ‘vennilavu kodhipadhenna’ from ‘Chinna Mapillai’

The tune pe se flows smoothly but the rhythm is like the palpitations of a passionate heart, totally unexpected and unsteady.

You can go on giving more such examples for this. the famous one everyone would talk about would be ‘om namaha’ from ‘Geetanjali’ (Telugu)

Compared to other songs, this was probably a more obvious one but Raja give such a wonderful tune along with outstanding orchestration that the song doesn’t become gimmicky but becomes a classic.

At the same time, observe how Raja induces a sense of fun/comedy is this faux passion song. ‘sivarathiri’ from ‘Michael Madana Kamarajan’.

The tune per se, conveys passion but the rhythm here doesn’t become unsteady. Rather the way it is played, you know that something funny is going on. A lot of the fun aspect of this song comes from the rhythm.

Next we will look at how Raja deals with unrequited passion. ‘azhagu malar aada’ from ‘Vaidhehi Kaathirundal’

While the choice of ragam and Janaki’s superb singing give you the pathos needed for the situation, it is Raja’s choice of the kanda nadai which enables to complete the emotion. The sadness of the tune is married to the passion of the rhythm and that ensures the emotion of the situation is perfectly conveyed to us.

At the other end of the spectrum, here is Raja using rhythm to convey tender love. ‘kalvane kalvane’ from ‘Megha’

In this song the rhythm talks to us almost in a whisper, as if it is the ‘kalvan’ (thief) mentioned in the song. Along with the other instruments, rhythm also conveys the delicate nature of early love.

Not only love, Raja generates a sense of anticipation and suspense using rhythm. ‘yarugaagi aata’ from ‘Barjari Bete’

Once again, not the ‘unsteadiness’ in the beat, generating the required tension in this song. The whole asynch between the tune and beat is what makes this song.

Raja is a master at conveying more than one emotion in a song. Here is a situation where two friends are separated due to a misunderstanding. The song needs to convey both the sadness and anger simultaneously. Raja does this brilliantly by employing a strong rhythm. This ensure we feel the intensity of the situation perfectly. The anger in the rhythm and the sadness in the tune.

Raja is a master of conveying more than one emotion in a song, a point I made in my earlier posts of this series. I had already written about this aspect earlier.You can check my post here, Parallel Processing of Raja

Raja not only uses rhythm to enhance emotions but also to balance emotions. In this ‘Virumandi’ song, ‘madavilakke’, the tune is highly charged and emotional. In order to ensure the overall effect is not too sloppy, Raja has a very strong rhythm which counterbalances the tune. And is also in keeping with the character of the hero.

Virumandi is a rhythmic delight. We can write one post for each song. There is so much in rhythm in this movie.

Not only sadness, Raja doesn’t want to overpower you with melody. So he counters it with a strong rhythm. In ‘alli ilam poove’ from ‘Mangalum Nerunnu’. No one would think of using a harsh instrument for a lullaby. Except Raja that is.

The rhythm instruments include mridangam and a bit of chapu. Not the ideal sound to accompany a lullaby but it works wonderfully here to counterbalance the sweetness of the tune.

On the other hand, it is rhythm again that conveys an overflowing joy. ‘devaram’ from ‘Rasathantram’

You don’t even have to hear the tune. The starting rhythm itself tells you that whoever is singing is bubbling with joy. The rhythm throughout this song conveys so much joy.

When joy can be conveyed, can’t rhythms convey anger? Ofcourse they can. Here is the title song from the unreleased ‘Marudhanayam’.

Anger and sadness combine in this song and the rhythm adds so much emotion to the song.

You can understand the joy of Raja when he is asked to convey valor through rhythm. ‘aala madanga’ from ‘Pazhassiraja’

Even for standard love songs, Raja comes up with some superb rhythmic arrangements which adds to the emotion of the song. ‘poongkatru’ from ‘Vetri VIzha’. The rhythm of the song takes the joy to a different level.

Let me close with this simple rhythm which comes slowly and contributes its mite to this delicate sad song. ‘nal veenai nadham’ from ‘Bharathan’

The rhythm usage in Raja songs is a PhD thesis. In fact someone can do a thesis only on Raja’s strategy of using rhythms to enhance memory. For the effort Raja has put in the rhythm section, he deserves such a thesis.



Musical Philosophy of Raja – Part 3: One idea per song

Raja with guitar

I wrote about this aspect in detail when I wrote about MSV’s works in my other musical blog. It is worth repeating here because it makes a lot of sense. Here is what I wrote in my MSV’s article:

“Illayaraja, who entered Tamil film music through ‘Annakili’ represents the biggest discontinuity in Indian Film Music thought. This may be difficult for people to accept. R D Burman or Rahman may come to your mind whenever people talk about a discontinuity. So let me put forth my hypothesis on why I consider Raja as a discontinuity and a break from our Indian film music tradition,

We have already seen how both Hindi film music and South Indian film music both depended on Classical music of North and South respectively in their formative years. One of the important features of Indian Classical music is the centrality of the singer / instrumentalist. There have been some great accompaniment artist but even they are subservient to the main artist. This spills over into film music as well and for long the tune and the singer were of importance. The music director was basically a person who could set some wonderful tunes. They did not expect the music director to be well versed in orchestration. Orchestration was left to assistants. (Anil Biswas talks about one such talented assistant of his. It is also well known the Pugazhendi did most of the orchestration for K V Mahadevan). This meant that the major musical ideas resided in the tune and hence the singer of paramount importance. That is why we had singers who dominated their industry pushing even the music directors to shade. Lata dominated Hindi film industry, Gantasala dominated Telugu film industry and Jesudas was the king of Malayalam film song. Even when R D Burman arrived and the orchestration got a new fillip, the tune and rhythm were still the king. Kishore’s and Asha’s voices were central to R D Burman’s songs. I want to look at this phenomenon from a different angle and say that all the music directors gave their best musical ideas to the song (which ofcourse includes the rhythm of the song). The ideas embedded in the orchestration were limited. Secondly we can say that in true Indian music tradition, the orchestration was present to ‘support’ the tune and hence it was enmeshed with the tune.

Raja’s thought was different. His idea of a song was more akin the idea of symphony of western classical music. No, I am not suggesting that Raja’s songs are symphonies or some such. Just that Raja’s conception of a film song closely mirrored the ideas of western classical music. If you listen to a symphony you will notice that while there is a central melody, the symphony is not just the melody. There are multiple harmonic strains either running in parallel with the melody or supplementing the melody. None of the threads can be discarded without affecting the overall effect. In essence, in the symphony there was no central instrument. Everyone had a part to play: some more and some less, but it was just a part. No one was the pillar. Second, the symphony was viewed as an organic whole. In the sense that musical ideas were spread throughout the symphony unlike Indian music where the ideas were more in the tune. Raja thought of his song as an organic whole while many of us thought of it as tune and orchestration. In Raja’s songs the ideas were spread throughout of the song and the quality of ideas for the orchestration was in no way inferior to the quality of ideas embedded in the tune”

Let me expand on the thought a bit and explain in detail. In days before Raja came to screen, the preludes and interludes were cursory, not having many musical ideas in them. They were more used as a bridge between pallavi and charnam and vice versa. It also gave time for heros and heroines to run around trees. In most cases the same interludes were repeated or one of the interludes was a minor variation on the other one.

Let’s listen to one wonderful song from ‘Chitchor’, the evergreen hit, ‘gori tera gaon bada payara’.

You can hear the characteristics of what I spoke. Just think for a minute. Does the song lose much if it loses the orchestration?

Here is one more popular song, ‘gangai yamunai’ from ‘Imayam’.

Once again check the prominence of the tune and also think how much the song loses when it loses its orchestration. I have heard this when it was first released. It used to be played often on radio. Till date the tune is etched in my heart but I don’t remember the orchestration at all. It is the same with the Chitchor song as well

I chose these songs since they appeared in the year Raja made his appearance. Ofcourse the interludes have become slightly more elaborate than the earlier years but still they were not taken very seriously either by the music director or the listener. As I said that was because the tune was of prime importance.

Raja was well trained in WCM and his approach is closer to WCM wherein the complete song is a single idea. It is as if a single idea is built using multiple ideas, none of which seem to stand out in isolation. They all serve the cause of building that musical idea. So in Raja’s case talking about prelude, interlude and postlude would only display our ignorance. Raja thought more holistically. These were not separate parts. The song was a continuous whole.

Let us take a song from Raja’s initial years. I am deliberately picking a tune which many mistake to be a MSV tune. This is for the Sivaji movie, ‘Deepam’. ‘anthapurathil oru maharani’.

First check the prelude. Observe how it is built by multiple ideas and how some phrases are expanded. I would say there are atleast 4 distinct musical ideas in the prelude itself. And the prelude naturally flows into the pallavi. In the pallavi itself, there is a shift when Janaki sings, ‘samanthi pookal’. Yet it remains within the overall idea. The way the interlude picks up makes you feel they are just expanding on the pallavi and once again the way it flows into the charanam gives you the feeling of being entrapped in a single domain. The second interlude has very different ideas but it never goes away from the central idea. And once you have heard that flute in the interlude you definitely feel that if you remove the orchestration, a lot would be lost.

Let me take another wonderful melody to highlight this aspect. ‘mounamelanoyi’ from ‘Sagara Sangamam’

Once you have heard the strumming and humming of the prelude, is their any way you can hear the song in your own mind without that humming or the strumming? The strumming and the humming of the prelude setup the mood for the whole song and every instrument or voice that plays has only one job, to maintain the mood. Be it the flute, be it the bass guitar, the keyboard, SPB or Janaki or the tune. Everything is an extension of that prelude. This song probably gives you a very clear idea of what I meant that Raja composes the song holistically and not as tune, interlude and prelude. If you didn’t think of all these simultaneously and try to stitch disparate ideas together, you will not get such an organic sound or mood.

Let us look at a song of more recent vintage. ‘satru munbu’ from ‘Nee Dhane En Pon Vasanatham’

This is an outstanding example of a single thought and mood being executed. The tune is just one part of the grand scheme. The harmonies and countermelodies add so much to the tune that you just cannot hear the tune in your own mind without those harmonies. This is a sort of pinnacle of what Raja does: the tight grip on the mood, the amazing orchestration which creates the mood and the tune which maintains that mood.

The first one was a love song, the second one a tragic love breakup song. For Raja it doesn’t matter which song it is. He uses the same philosophy in all his songs. Every note in my song has value. It is not to just extend time. It is to extend ideas. Here he is with this amazing tune and orchestration for ‘poovar senni mannan’, the Tiruvasagam verse. The mood is in great contrast to the other. Here Manikavasagar urges people to move towards the feet of the Lord. It is time to shed off the mortal coils and ascend the path towards Paramasiva.

The first sound of the drum creates a feeling of dread. This is the final journey of human life. Once that is established, everything else falls into place. Every drum beat, every flute piece, every trumpet, every violin plays the same idea in different tune.

You can pick up your favorite Raja songs and analyze them and you will realize that whatever I said here holds from them as well.

This is one of the reason why in Raja’s reign, while we had some legendary singers, they were never able to dominate the industry. That was because Raja dominated the industry and in his songs, voice was just one more instrument.

I say this explicitly because till the time Raja came on to screen it was either the singer dictating the industry or an actor dictating the industry. Here I mean music industry. In Bollywood it was Lata who dominated for a long time. She fought with lot of music directors: Anil Biswas, S D Burman, O P Nayyar, C Ramachandra to name a few. She also had her tiff with people like Raj Kapoor. Yet, none of this affected her popularity. Later R D Burman became a name to reckon with but Kishore too was an important factor during those says as he was seen as the voice of the superstar Rajesh Khanna. In South, the Telugu film music industry was dominated by Gantasala. It was never a Rajeshwar Rao song or a Pendyala song. It was always a Gantasala song. It was the same with K J Yesudas in Malayalam. It was Yesudas song first and foremost. Then only it was a Baburaj song or Devarajan master song and so on. In Tamil film industry, even though MSV was the undisputed king amongst music directors, songs were generally seen as Sivaji songs or MGR songs. After Raja came in, it became Illayaraja songs. It didn’t matter who sang them or in which language, the song was an Illayaraja song. This was due to two reasons; One, Raja put his stamp on every song he composed. Second, his song was not just the tune (by extension, not just the voice).


Musical Philosophy of Raja-Part 2 : Believe in the listener


One of the most discussed subject for any artist is whether he/she should create for the sake of creation or should they create understanding what their audience needs. I don’t think a conclusion has been reached on this yet and will probably never be reached. There are some who create because they believe in their creation and then there are those who create keeping their audience in mind. Raja, in my opinion, was slightly different. He created what he wanted but he was very sure his audience would like it.

Sometimes when you are discussing a topic with a friend or explaining a concept to a student, you get sudden illumination. The same happened to me when I was discussing about Raja’s music with my friend, Arul Selvan. Expanding on some aspect of Raja’s music (I forgot what it was), I suddenly made a statement. “Raja believes in us more than we believe in ourselves, musically”. I was startled by my own discovery. Later I read an interview which Raja gave to Prem-Ramesh. In that he says, “How can I give you music which is not already inside you?”.  That has been his main philosophy, the music you give will resonate with the listener. So believe in the listener.

In order to understand why this is a major shift in perception as far as film music is concerned, you need to understand how Tamil films and film music in particular, approached their audience. There is an interview of S P Muthuraman, the Tamil film director. He was once working as an assistant to Devar, whose films involved lot of animals. (Devar films were known for their devotional films and animal based films). The movie in which S P Muthuraman had a scene wherein an elephant does ‘abishekam’ to a Siva Lingam. One person observing this on the screen says, “Aha. The elephant is doing abishekam”. S P Muthuraman asked Devar, “Will the audience not know that the elephant is doing an abishekam?”. Devar replied, “You are an educated person. Those seeing our films come from all strata of the society. We cannot take it that they will understand. We need to be explicit”. That was an era when Tamil film makers had to explain everything, and I mean, every.single.thing, to the audience.

It was the same in music industry as well. M S Vishwanathan is well known to have sung his tunes to tea-boys and if they frowned on a tune, he would replace it with another one. And would do so till the tea-boy approved. S D Burman is supposed to have told Jaidev that he must stop giving complex tunes if he wanted to become more popular. I have heard people say that Raj Kapoor had the knack of knowing which tune would be a hit with rickshawallas and choosing the tune accordingly. In other words, in those days, the chai wallas and the rickshawallas represented the unwashed masses. People with not enough sophistication to understand complex music. People to whom you gave music in the most simplified form. I would postulate that Raja’s greatest contribution to society is that the fact that he made people realize that there are no unwashed masses as far as music was concerned. If you knew what you were delivering and if you had the ability to deliver that perfectly, every individual will feel the effect of the song. They may know zilch about the technicalities but they will be impacted by what the technicalities set out to do. This extraordinary belief in the listeners ability to perceive complex systems is what makes Raja stand out. For in it, it also contained an extraordinary self belief that he can deliver music that would go and strike a chord deep inside the heart of the listener and would reside there.

Art, of course, had lot of personalities who have innovated and expanded its boundaries. You can give examples from painting, sculpture, music and so on. So it can be argued that Raja was not unique in this case. In one way, that would be correct. Tyagaraja in Carnatic music, Picasso in painting and so on can be shown as examples of innovators. If you look at it from another point of view, Raja’s challenge was unique. Tyagaraja, for example, composed for people who understood Carnatic music, Picasso also had a learned audience. In cases of some other artists, it took time for their art to be appreciated, like the Impressionists. Raja on the hand had to please everyone. And I mean everyone. And he didn’t have the luxury of time. If the songs of a movie were not a hit, you didn’t to compose for another movie. There have been other music directors like Sajjad Hussain, Salil Choudhary and Jaidev who had composed complex music and had reached the masses, but to a limited extent. They never became the ‘hit’ composers. The complexity they brought in was quite forward looking for those days but Raja took this to an altogether different level.

Raja’s philosophy seems to have been, if a tune/orchestration that I think of, creates a certain feeling inside me, it will create the same feeling inside the listener. It doesn’t matter if the listener is a PhD in Physics or a humble rickshawallah. This was the greatest insight Raja must have got during his tryst with composing and that belief made music more democratic. This belief enabled Raja to use every technique he knew in order to produce the intended emotion with a precision and depth, which was unheard of earlier. As I stated in Part I of this series, Raja’s aim was to create a certain emotion. And in doing so use all the tools in his toolkit. This was possible because he believed that whatever be the technique, if he got the emotion right, it would impact the listener. This is what has revolutionalized music learning in South India. Now you can hear so many people talking about WCM techniques, ragas of carnatic music and so on. This was the side effect of the belief Raja had in his listeners.

I will try and give you a few examples of this.

When no one knew about counterpoints, Raja came up with this counterpoint melody and it was in the early stages of his career. This is a very well loved song even today. You would love it even if you didn’t know what counterpoint but the song’s effect on would diminish if there was no counterpoint in the song.

Vivadhi ragas are not encouraged much in Carnatic music, expect by a few artists. Instead of getting all technical and explaining what Vivadhi raga is, let me just say that these ragas contain some portions which are dissonant, which means some note combination in these ragas sound harsh to our ears. Chalanatai is one such ragam. It has two pairs of dissonant notes. Given this, most music directors would shy away from this raga. One, the raga is dissonant. Two, carnatic music does not have too many compositions in this. (It’s janya ragam, Naatai, has many compositions though). This is an unheard of melody even to people trained in carnatic music. Given these aspects, it is no surprise that we didn’t have any film composition in this raga. Last thing any music director wants to do is to set a tune to an unknown melody, especially if you want to give a superhit song.

Raja, not being just any music director, goes ahead and sets a song in this raga. This demonstrates the two aspects I spoke about: Raja’s belief in himself and his belief in us. That enables the creation of a super hit ‘pani vizhum malar vanam’ from ‘Ninaivellam Nithya’. Almost every small town troupe in distant corners of Tamil Nadu wants to play this song. The reach of this song is phenomenal. It would not have happened if Raja had believed in the ‘chaiwallah’ being musically ignorant.

I will give you another example of a vivadhi raga being used effectively. Similar to Chalanattai, Kanakangi is a raga which had two pair of dissonant notes. Raja uses various techniques to ensure this dissonance is not felt by us. We only feel exactly what the protagonist feels here. ‘mogam ennum theeyil’ from ‘Sindhu Bhairavi’

It is not just about carnatic music. In everything he did, Raja never held back. Before his time, the preludes and interludes were treated in a very cursory manner. In most cases the same interlude would repeat between the charanams. The implicit bias was towards the tune. The logic being that the tune affected the listener the most, why complicate it with more music in the interlude. Instead let there be just a quick bridge connecting the stanzas. This can be repeated again as the listener would be aware of the music and it would be easy to relate to. Raja changed this. His interludes became more elaborate, they became more complex than the main tune and he had different interludes between the stanzas, so much so, that fans fight as to which interlude is better in a particular song. I need to point out once again that this was possible because Raja believed in all of us and our ability to grasp his musical ideas. And all of us did.

Here is a song from his early years, ‘en vanile’ from ‘Johny’.

Let us assume that Raja had created mainly the tune and had not concentrated much on the interludes. Maybe he just gave a simple interlude. I would postulate even then the song would have been a hit. The interludes take it to a different level and they stay put in our consciousness.  Every note that Raja uses, the bass, the counterpoint melodies in the interludes, the rhythm. Each of them enables the song to anchor deeply in our ears and then we cannot hear the song without the interludes, even when we are singing to ourselves. Our ears slowly starts to hear all the layers, the piano, the violin, the flute, the bass guitar.

Connected to this philosophy of believing in the listener is one more characteristic of Raja, his work ethic. When I say he believes in us, it automatically means that he will not dilute anything but put in his best effort in every song. This is not easy. As someone who has been teaching for a living the past half a decade, I can tell you the temptation to give ‘just enough’ is very high. It could be because you believe the audience will not ‘get it’, or you could be tired or you may not be ‘in mood’ and so on. So sometimes you end up giving less than your best. That never happens with Raja. His work ethic is such that he cannot give us anything but the very best.

Let us now see how Raja’s music, with all the effort he puts, impacts the people. I am going to give an example before closing this post.

From Tiruvasagam, here is Raja singing ‘umbarkatkarase’ from his album, ‘Tiruvsagam’

You can hear how Raja uses WCM to enhance the tune. The words of Manikavasagar have their own beauty but when Raja supports them with his music, it opens a new dimension and takes us into the heart of Manikavasagar himself. Every note harmoniously supporting the main idea such that it will never leave us for a long long time.

Now listen to how this has affected the actor Mayilsamy. As he himself says, he is musically illiterate but see how wonderfully Raja’s tune has seeped into him. His voice can easily be classified as bad as can his singing. Yet, with all those handicaps, he brings out the emotion inherent in the song. Though he sings only the tune without the orchestration, I postulate that the tune would have not seeped so deeply into him had it not been for the music. We ourselves may not realize it but Raja knows. This singing of Mayilsamy is a clear demonstration of how Raja’s dedication ensures that his music reaches every corner of each person’s heart.

I can keep on going about this aspect but I am sure Mayilsamy has convinced you. One of the major reasons why so many people in so many states love Raja is not just because his music touches their heart, it is also because he is one of the few who believes in them deeply.

Will meet in the next post, hopefully soon.


Musical Philosophy of Raja – Part 1 : It is emotional


I have tried to take up a very onerous task: trying to understand the musical philosophy of Raja. This is an attempt to understand the workings of a genius mind, which I know is impossible. So this obviously this will not fully capture (or even pretend to capture) the mind of Raja but rather expose our own perception and weak understanding of Raja’s music.

This series will not be technical in nature, for my understanding of various genres of music is very limited. I am neither a performer nor a student of music. For technical analysis of Raja’s music, the best places are:

1. Youtube channel of Violin Vicky, where he demonstrates lot of Raja pieces and tell you the intricacies associated with that piece.

2. If you know Tamil, then head to Bala’s (@bchidam) blog  Bala analyzes Raja’s music from a Western Classical Music template as well as for an Indian music perspective. An extremely ambitious project. If you seriously interested in music, I would suggest you follow this blog.

Also since this is about musical philosophy, you will find lot of written words here. So if you are only looking for song links and song recos, this is a wrong place. I want you to read, ruminate and respond. That’s the idea of this series.

Having got the disclaimers out of the way, let me go and give you my first assertion. This is my understanding of Raja’s philosophy. The assertion is, “The primary aim of music must be to evoke emotions”. In this regard, I would like to bifurcate music into one that is purely interested in the possibilities of sound and one which is interested in conveying the emotional content inherent in music.

Let me explain this in detail. Let us take the concept of raga. Raga as such is nothing but experimenting with the possibilities of sound in a structured fashion. According to me, the main concern of all classical music: Western, Carnatic and Hindustani, is the same. Explore the possibilities of sound. Western classical music tries to explore the possibilities of sound in terms of harmonies and Indian classical music explores it in terms of melodies and micro tones. The aim though remains the same. To extrapolate, when a musician is singing Kalyani, he/she is exploring the sound with certain restriction and giving ‘shape’ to it. He/She is not aiming for a certain emotion. A raga alapana need not worry about conveying a particular emotion. It is about conveying a ‘color’ of the raga.

You can argue that an artist can make alapanais emotional. You can further argue that some ragas have certain emotions inherent in them, like Subhapanthuvarali being sad and Aarabhi being happy and so on. While it is true for a small set of ragas, the general concept is to establish a ‘color’ for the raga which is not ’emotional’ in the standard sense of the word. For example, in case of grand raga like Todi or Kambhoji, you cannot really establish a particular emotion in its development. Yes, you can develop Todi in such a way that you bring out a certain emotion out of it, but if you want to show the fully scope of Todi, you cannot afford to focus any one particular emotion.

If ragas and scales are not emotional in themselves, then how is some music so emotional. This comes about in multiple ways. In Carnatic music, depending on the raga, you may only show one aspect of the raga to get a particular emotion. Added to this are the words and the way words are intoned. The same goes for Hindustani music. In Western Classical Music (WCM) it is more about how harmonies are used and how various instruments are sound, which gives you the required emotion. Because of its polyphonic nature, WCM is much more suited to evoke a large range of emotions, which Raja effectively leverages.

Not just the concept of ragas and scales, there are music composers who have compositions which are experimental in nature and they explore the possibilities of harmonies, fusion and so on. These pieces may not evoke any strong emotions but give you an idea on what directions music can take. (The music itself may not evoke emotions but these experiments do evoke strong emotions in form of protests)

According to me, Raja sees music through the emotional prism. For him, music has to serve the emotional need. He has never advocated experiment for the sake of experiment. All his experiments have an emotional bias. Raja has only three ‘independent albums’, of which only two are really independent: ‘How to Name It’ and ‘Nothing but Wind’.  You can argue that even these evoke lot of emotions in you and you don’t hear them as mere academic exercise in fusion.

So once Raja approaches music from an emotional point of view, every form of music becomes part of his tool kit. Whether it be Indian classical, WCM, folk, older Indian film music, jazz or rock. He doesn’t care for the genres. He just uses them to get the exact emotion he is looking for. His experimentation with genres is probably not an experiment at all from his point of view. He is just using the genres to get the right effect.

This is one reason why his ‘fusion’ doesn’t sound like fusion at all. He is not looking at various genres of music as different from each but rather he is looking at them as a part of larger toolkit of sound. (I will try and expand this thought in a later post in this series with examples. ) Ofcourse this requires an extraordinary understanding of music forms. Not only that, it requires a genius brains to look at commonalities beyond the apparent differences. Raja is one of the very few minds in world music (maybe even the only one) who can look deep into music as well look at it from far above.

Let us now look at all these with some examples.

I start with the emotion of joy. ‘ananda ragam’ from ‘Paneer Pushpangal’

Right from the prelude you can see how Raja generates joy. He uses both Western Classical Music, the violins playing the counter melody to the flute on one hand. On the other hand he uses Simhendramadhyamam ragam to convey the joy. Not to mention the shenai piece in between. Add to it the way rhythm is used, especially in the charanam. The gait represents the beating of the heart in joy. So a lot of techniques, genres go into giving us the intended emotion. Even if the person has no clue on where the song was used in the movie or does not understand Tamil, it will clear to the person that this is a song of joy. The music alone tells us this fact.

Now let us shift to the diametrically opposite emotion: a sense of despondency and anger. This is from the movie, ‘Merku Thodarchi Malai’, ‘andharathil thongudhamma’.

You will notice that in this song Raja doesn’t use the WCM much. Rather he uses the more modern drum machine and loops as well as the synthesizer. Ofcourse the tune captures the anger and helplessness perfectly. The synthesizer and loops are generally applied by most music directors to give ‘item numbers’ or ‘dance numbers’. Here Raja uses it to deepen the darkness inherent in the lyrics. Once again, play the way without the lyrics and you would know what emotion the song is trying to convey

Let us now take up a humorous song. ‘vel murugannuku’ from ‘Puyal Padum Paatu’

Here you hear Raja employing some rock and roll techniques initially to get the fun mood going. Another interesting point (which I want to write as a separate post later) is the usage of Mohanam for conveying fun. Mohanam is generally used for melodious songs. Raja uses it for a fun song. So here you see a combination of carnatic ragam with rock and roll to create a sense of fun. Once again, and sorry for repeating it, the song conveys the emotion without the lyrics.

You don’t always need to get multiple genres together to create an emotion. Sometimes you can create the required emotion in a minimalist way.  From the movie, ‘Achuvinte Amma’, ‘endhu paranjalum’

The single violin with the keyboard in the background creates the mood, which is sustained by the tabla and the flute which peeks in occasionally. This song shows how to create the required emotion with only a few instruments and yet make it look like a large orchestra was playing !!

Generally most songs you hear are pegged to a single emotion: joy, sadness, anger and so on. What if you need to convey multiple emotions in a song. Not like one stanza being happy and another being sad but the full song itself being a melange of emotions. Raja has done this in more than one occasion and nothing can convey this than the song from ‘Nee Dhane En Pon Vasantham’, ‘mudhal murai partha nyabagam’

A bit of explanation here. The song is not ‘sung’ by the heroine in the traditional sense of the word, as in the actor is not lip syncing. The plays in the background and more like you hearing the soul of the heroine. This song is a combination of self hatred, nostalgia and anger. The heroine is getting the feeling that she is losing her lover and that throws her heart into a turmoil. She blames herself for the impending loss and at the time recollects the wonderful time she had with him. This complexity of the heart about to break up with a loved one has to be conveyed and honestly they are myriad emotions in such a heart. Raja captures those emotions perfectly in this song.

To get the required emotion, Raja uses different techniques: WCM in case of the strings, jazz drumming, an aggressive bass and a filmi chorus. And suddenly a single violin to get that sadness. I honestly cannot find any song in Indian film music which conveys so many emotions and with such intensity. The counter melody that the strings play in the charanam when they accompany the voice adds an extraordinary depth to the song.

Finally, I will give you a type of song which has been in Indian film music for a long time now, the philosophical song. Raja once again uses all his musical prowess to convey the intended emotion.

From the unreleased movie, ‘Thandavakone’, the amazing ‘neeral udal kazhuvi’

Here Raja uses a sythesizer to convey the philosophical import of the song. It is an extremely different soundscape that Raja evokes. A friend mentioned that he has the CD on when he was driving from Chennai to Bangalore and it was night time. When this song came on, he heard a few lines and was so scared that he stopped playing the song. Another friend remarked, ‘hearing the music made me feel as if I was in the cremation ground’. A syntesizer, a few drum beats, a mandolin and Punnagavarali create this extraordinary mood.

Be it Carnatic music, WCM, Rock-nRoll, Jazz, Synthesizer or any other form, in the hands of Raja they become instruments to convey an emotion or multiple emotions.

Will end the first part here. And a final disclaimer. I don’t have any specified schedule to post these. I will do than whenever I get time and whenever I am in a mood to write. So kindly bear with me.

Recent Female Solos of Raja


No music director has given so many superb female solos like Raja has. Yes, there have been great combinations like Madanmohan – Lata and Baburaj – S Janaki which gave us some everlasting melodies but no one was able to provide the width and depth that Raja provides in the female solos. From the sensuous to the sublime (are they really different?) Raja has covered the whole gamut of human emotions via the female solos. If you collate only the female solos given by Raja, that itself would be enough to establish Raja as the greatest music director Indian Film Music has ever seen. Such has been the scope of female solos in his oeuvre.

I will discuss some of the recent female solos that were given by Raja. All of them are very melodic. Many of them happen to be in Telugu and Malayalam. In recent movies that Raja has been involved in, the number of songs have been limited (maybe 2 songs in a movie) or no songs at all (like Onayum Aatukuttiyum, Kutrame Dhandanai). Even with the 2 song limitation or short song (to be played in the background) limitation, he has come up with some lovely melodies.

Let me start with this amazing melody in Bhavatharini’s voice. Even those who are not fans of Bhavatharini will like this melody. A touch of melancholy pervades this melody. The orchestration is top notch. ‘nannu neetho’ from ‘Gundello Godari’ will make your day. The WCM first interlude enhances the melancholy aspect and as with a lot of Raja orchestration, then are sudden shifts which surprise us and enhance the listening experience. The charanam too has his patented shifts and the way he joins back to pallavi is Rajaesuqe. I love the second interlude and the sense of calm it brings with it.

The next song has a philosophical tone. Nice words from Na.Muthukumar. The song is in montage and the small challenges of life. The tune and orchestration are such that they convey the overall picture and at the same times the tune digs deep into your heart affecting you deeply. Shreya does a great job with her melodious voice

‘kalaiyile malai vandhadhu’ is from ‘Chittiraiyil Nilachoru’ directed by R.Sundarrajan. Raja has always been partial to Sundarrajan and this film was no exception. This song is an experimental one with the main classical line being countered with synth beats and keyboard. There is also veena and nadaswaram which appear as guests. The interlude brilliantly marries classical music to pop sound. This is a very different Abheri. As usual, the bass does a fabulous job. Some may have wanted a more standard orchestration for this but if you know Raja’s way, this is very enjoyable.

We will now shift to Malayam and listen to a breezy song. I had written earlier about how Raja creates movement in his music. This song is about the breeze and here too Raja creates the movement of the breeze. There tune and orchestration are so constructed as to provide the required dynamism to the song. This is from the Malayalam film ‘Dafedar’ and sung by Alka Ajith, who became popular after having won the singing competition, ‘Super Singer’, on Vijay TV. Watch out for that lovely AnuPallavi. I have heard Malayalis call it ‘tundu pallavi’

I spoke about short songs being used a BGM. Here is one such song for ‘Amma Kanakku’. The tune and orch bring out the sensitivity of the situation. This is not a situation for experiementation. Raja keeps everything minimal and enhances the scenes.

We get back to Telugu again. From the movie, ‘Abbayitho Ammayi’. The start itself is terrific. The acoustic guitar strumming followed by the lead guitar which plays what sounds like a Middle Eastern sound. The bass does its superb job when accompanying the pallavi. The beat structure and the pallavi structure are unique. A song which could only have been constructed by Raja.  Or as we informally say, ‘Only Raja Possible’. Also notice how the orchestra interacts with the tune in the charanam.

He followed this up in Telugu with this superb beauty in the recent movie, ‘Kathalo Rajakumar’. ‘na kathalo yuvarani’. One more amazing melody against his name. This is trademark Raja of modern times. Merging the melody with newer sounds and being at peace with it.

Let us now move from these gay songs to a poignant one. ‘vaa vaa magale’ from ‘Enga Amma Rani’. Rajshri Pathak delivers the song. The prelude paints the mood of desperation and the tune latches to it to increase the sense of dread. Based on one of Raja’s favorite Raga, Mayamalavagowla, it is a master class on how to use a raga for your purpose. No one delivers this lecture better than Raja and that too when Mayamalavagowla is the example he is talking about

We will now move to a grand composition from ‘Rudrammadevi’,  ‘punnami poovai’. The orchestration is keeping in line with the magnum opus that Gunashekar tried to make. Observe the vocal harmony in the first interlude and the counterpoint of the vocal with the orchestration. Similarly in the charanam when the tune changes, observe the countermelody between the tune and the bass which plays. An outstanding construction which is grand and delicate at the same time.

If ‘punnami poovai’ was grand, then this Shreya Ghoshal song from the yet to be released Malayalam film ‘Clint’ is very intimate. Melody is the key for this song and Shreya’s voice aids in this aspect. There is a joy which spreads when you hear this song

All the attributes that I mentioned above for the ‘Clint’ song are present in this superb melody from ‘Sneha Veedu’, ‘avani thumbi’. Once more it is Shreya. I love this song to bits right from the starting prelude.

I will end with the superbly innovative ‘chengkadhir kaiyum veesi’ from ‘Snehaveedu’. This song is set in Misra Chapu thalam, which is a 7 beat cycle. Raja brilliantly keeps shifting the ‘eduppu’, starting point, in the charanams thus giving the song a bit of asymmetry which makes it interesting for the listener and a challenge for the singer. Also, observe the hand beats in the second interlude. This is one ‘Raja Only Possible’ song. Chitra, as usual, does a wonderful job. She is anyway known for that.

Hope you loved listening to these songs.



Rajavin Ramanamalai

Recently, ‘Rajavin Ramanamalai’ was released. This title could cause some confusion as a title named ‘Ramanamalai’ with Raja’s tunes had been released earlier. As it stands, we have two Ramanamalais. I am going to write my opinion on the second Ramanamalai.

This album has a total of 10 songs, 8 of which are tuned by Raja and 2 of them tuned by a person called KVS and orchestrated by Raja. Let’s have a look at the songs.

Except for the Bombay Jayashree song, ‘arunagiri ramanan’, all songs start with a small speech of Raja, wherein he talks about Ramana Maharishi. I am including samples of some songs. You can buy the album here:

thirunalum‘ – Sung by Raja. This is a wonderful tune. Very simple and touching. I am not sure which raga this is based on. Is it Pahadi? If you know, let me know. The song has a lovely bass line. The orchestration in all songs in kept simple. The chorus adds to the beauty of the song and keeps up the bhajan mood of the song.

arunagiri ramanan’ : Sung by Bombay Jayashree and chorus. This is the simplest song of the album. It is meant for group singing with very little in the way of twists and turns in the tune. That is compensated by the interlude. The first interlude is a gem.

annamalai saralile’ : Sung by Sriram Parthsarathy. Based on Saranga Tharangini ragam. It sounds very close to Hamsanadam. I was told it was not so I am writing Saranga Tharangini. If it sounds like Hamsanadam to you, you are in the same boat as me. A gentle melody with some nice interludes. The soft touch is maintained throughout and Sriram does a nice job.

idayathai eduthukkondan‘: Sung by Sriram Parthasarathy. This song will appeal to you almost instantly for it is based on ReethiGowla. Once again some lovely interludes and a charming charanam.

yaar arivar‘: Tune composed by KVS and sung by Shankaran Namboodhri. A light classic tune. Shankaran Nambhoodri sings it well.

edhai adaya‘: Another KVS composed tune sung by Shankaran Namboodhri. Based on Gowla. Once again a classical sounding composition.

vedhamum vilakkadha unnai’ : Sung by Bombay Jayashree. A lovely tune based on Shanmukhapriya. It becomes better in the charanam. Jayashree’s singing adds lustre though sometimes there is a bit of confusion between la and La. The way the tune reaches high in the charanam and then effortlessly joins the pallavi is typical Raja.

arputham arputham‘: Sung by Raja. What a charming melody. So delicate and delicious. Based on Sudha Dhanyasi.

ennaiyum thaan ennum‘: Sung by Sriram Parthaarathy. It is difficult to select one song as best but if I need to, then I will choose this melody. A complex melody with a superb rhythm structure. Sriram once again does a nice song. A lovely amalgamation of folk and classical without being obvious.

eesan enru sollavo‘: Sung by Rajashri Pathak. The most aggressive tune of the lot. Based on Mayamalavagowla. One more variation to Mayamalavagowla. Raja comes up with so many variations in this raga that it is mind boggling. The volume of this song is very low on my CD. No idea why.

This album pack also has a DVD. In that you have the video of Raja singing two songs, Sriram Parthasarathy singing one song and Bombay Jayashree singing one song. You can buy the album for this video alone. In the video, there is a place where Bombay Jayashree finishes a line and then like a small kid asking if she has sung right, she smiles and looks up. Priceless. So are the parts where Raja is at the console and singing along with the singers.

Overall, a top class devotional album. Very simple and sweet. Gives a very peaceful feeling. Go buy it.

Despair of the dispossessed

naan kadavul

The most recent song from ‘Merku Thodarchi Malai’ had me thinking about some songs of Raja wherein Raja tunes to voices of the dispossessed. Some of these have a striking similarity in the way Raja approaches them.

In our film music, we generally hear sad songs sung by the dispossessed or we hear revolutionary songs of the people who are trampled underneath. In the case of some Raja songs, you hear the sadness of the person singing and also hear the anger inherent in the situation. The song, though sad, is supported by vigorous orchestration. They rhythm is a bit harsh for a sad song but that is what adds to the overall sadness of the situation.

Here is a song from ‘Koil Kalai’. ‘thaai undu thandhai undu’

Right from the beginning, the rhythm is strong. Very rarely will you hear such a rhythm played for a sad song but here it makes perfect sense. The strong rhythm also serves another purpose. It balances the song. In the sense that it ensures that the song doesn’t become maudlin. The extreme self-pity in the words, the grief inherent in the tune balanced by the drums, thus ensuring equilibrium. The strong drumming also ensures we understand the turmoil of the man singing the song.

Another song which shares similar characteristics with the Koil Kalai song is ‘kannil parvai’ from ‘Naan Kadavul’. The tune here is more melodic and is not as harsh as the previous one but this is also suffused with self-pity. Raja once again balances the sadness part with the vigorous drumming with seems initially at odds with the nature of the song but slowly you realise that the orchestration perfectly captures the turmoil of a blind beggar girl who has no possessions.

Some months back a song from ‘Marudhanayagam’ was released. It is a vigorous song, revolutionary in tone but if you hear the words they are suffused with sadness. It is the sadness of people who are victimised and have no hope of obtaining justice. All they know that it is their blood that will flow. Hidden in this sadness are the seeds of revolution. And the tune and orchestration imply the same.

That such sadness and injustice lead to revolt is spoken more explicitly in this song from  ‘Avatharam’. The song starts off as a sad one with the drumming foretelling a revolt. Slowly the song reaches a climax with the singer urging the hero to perform the ‘samharam’.

I spoke about the latest song from ‘Merku Thodarchi Malai’ in the beginning. This is another song in the same mould. The sadness of a displaced person. Once again, Raja uses excellent drumming to convey the internal turmoil. The tune also helps us in understand the helplessness of the singer. The song is a sad song but everything about the song is energetic. Raja shows us that sadness itself has many shades and how deep the despair of the dispossessed is. Listen to this very disturbing song.

In Indian film music, there have been many revolutionary songs and sad songs of the dispossessed but I have never heard music directors approach it the way Raja does. Raja’s combination of energy and sadness to represent the state of internal turmoil is unique in Indian film music.