25 years since the “Roja” blossomed!!!

It was in the year 1992, exactly 25 years ago. I was in Cochin learning the ropes in my 1st job. Weekends were usually time for catching up on films of all hue. And that particular weekend was reserved for what eventually turned out to be a landmark film in Indian cinema in many ways than one. The film Roja was helmed by Maniratnam who had by then become a sort of a cult in Tamil cinema with back to back hits. The film had many firsts to its credit. For the 1st time, a Mani’s film was not about a Robin hoodish character (like in Pagal Nilavu, Nayagan, and Thalapathi) or not of relationships in uber cool urban setting (like in Mouna Ragam, Agni Natchatiram, Idayathai Thirudathey, and Anjali).  In this he explored a new template that of setting up a relationship story with a conflict as backdrop and one that he would often deploy in his career later with mixed success (Bombay, Iruvar, Dil Se, Kannathil Muthamittal,…).  And more importantly for the 1st time a Maniratnam film did not have Ilayaraja as the music director. One with whom he had partnered since his 1st film and delivered some eternal music. Instead he introduced a rookie, young talent to the world called A.R. Rahman who was till then doing jingles for ads. Leo coffee apart from providing the caffeine quotient to South Indians also has the distinction of providing 2 heartthrobs to Indian Cinema – Rahman and Arvind Swamy!!!

Leaving the theatre after the film Roja, I was disappointed with the film. I thought that the film was good but not great. And Mani whose films are deeply rooted in realism, in this had an overdose of melodrama particularly in the end. But then in the theatre at the climax when Arvind Swamy is let off by his captors and gets to unite with his wife, there was a standing ovation. So I guess it all worked for Mani and the film.

So is this post a review of the film Roja 25 years late as the title may suggest? I guess not. But of the genius called Rahman which the film bequeathed to us. Being an ardent and unapologetic fan of Ilayaraja, I guess the first reason for not liking the film Roja was probably that Raja was not doing the music. But in the film as the 1st song – Chinna China Aasai, played out, the music and the visuals were just breathtaking. It was clear that we were entering into a new era of sounds in Tamil music.  SPB, Chithra and other many new comers who were singing in the film were all sounding differently. The songs started growing on you and so did the film. By the time, the Hindi version of Roja got released and became a “super-dubber” hit, Mani was excused and I came out of denial to accept that he has indeed made another great film!

Post Roja, Rahman continued to belt hit songs one after another and he was soon becoming a rage. Whether it was feet tapping numbers like Chikku bukku rayile, Petta Rap,.. or melodies like Narumugaiye, Ennavale,.. or folk numbers like Poraale Ponnu thayee soon Rahman’s music was all over the place.  And in South India where the benchmark for a musician is always how “sound” his/her basics are in classical music (read as Carnatic), Rahman’s deployment of Carnatic ragas in some of his compositions was deft and subtle.  In the song Kanna Moochi yenada for the film Kandukonden, Kandukonden, Rahman’s blending of ragas Natta Kurinji and Sahana is exceptional. Also in the song Narumugaiye in Iruvar the classical Nattai raga gets a Rahman touch. And in the song – Vidukathaiyaa intha Vaazhkai from the film Muthu, a situation (watch here) which is melancholic Rahman aptly uses Ahir Bhairavi – a raga suited to convey such emotions (Remember Viswanathan-Ramamurthy’s Ullathil Nalla Ullam,… in Karnan??). Enough to get into the good books of even the purists of Mylapore, I say!!  While doing all this, he was also in the forefront of turning “Super-Singers” to Stars and breaking the hegemony of established stalwarts. Soon capping new comers would become a mandatory trait for all music composers!

But still for the ears – which were so used to the melody and rhythm of Ilayaraja for probably 20 years since childhood, the new sounds of Rahman were still offbeat.  It was only much later that we came to know that in the film Punnagai Mannan which was touted to be the 1st to use computerized music, while Ilayaraja wrote the score, it was a young kid in his late teens named A. R. Rahman who actually handled the music sequencer for the theme music (listen here).

The fact was, in the initial period Rahman’s songs were sounding similar to his own earlier compositions and ended up being predictable. So, for many of us Raja fans, it was either Raja or Rahman and cannot be both.

By 2000 I had moved back to Mumbai and with that got to follow more Hindi music. Soon after, in 2001, the epic Hindi film – Lagaan had released. And Lagaan had Rahman as the music composer.  Apart from the various facets of the film which makes Lagaan a milestone film – the music score of Rahman was out of the world. Just in the first few minutes into the film as the song Ghanan Ghanan Ghanan starts playing out, one could make out that this was a hitherto not seen/heard Rahman. From then on, I became an unapologetic fan of Rahman. It was no longer Raja or Rahman but Raja and Rahman.

With his success in films like Roja, Dil Se, Lagaan Rahman became the 1st music composer from the South to leave an imprint in Bollywood. Directors from Bollywood didn’t mind making the trips to Chennai and burn the midnight oil (almost all his recording happens in the night – we are told) to get their music score done by Rahman.  And Rahman who keeps saying that he wants to continuously keep stretching his own limits –often walked this talk. His later movies particularly in Hindi like Jodha Akbar, Dilli 16, Rockstar,… explored new aspects of Sufi music till then not touched by earlier composers and brought Sufi music to the centre stage of Bollywood. And again for a person from the South of the Vindhyas to compose some wonderful Punjabi folk numbers in films like Rang De Basanti, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Rockstar,,.. is something extraordinary.  Just as we keep thinking that Rahman is past his prime he surprises us with some outstanding music. In the film Tamashaa for example. Or even in the otherwise forgettable film Kochadaiyaan (the shifting of Octave as the song progresses in Meduvaagathaan,… – is nuanced music at its best)

Talking of Rahman and not mentioning of his Oscar would seem to be unjust. But then personally for me, The Slumdog Millionaire (TSM) was not Rahman’s best effort. Yes, it got him the Oscar and we should be proud of that. But beyond that, I think his own work in some of the Indian films far outweigh TSM or his other Hollywood efforts.

Comparisons of the music of Raja and Rahman are odious and unfair but unavoidable. To me Raja is an outstanding music composer. And Rahman an outstanding music Engineer. A true Engineer lives and dies by “Efficiency” as defined as “Output/Input” in his/her work.  So Rahman uses voices, scores, instruments, sounds and technology (Inputs) to optimize the eventual music output. Ilayaraja is a composer first who depends on the tune/score largely and then the right arrangement and less of technology. His music horse sense is what he brings to the table than the machines. Hence he is unparalleled in terms of understanding the musical needs of a situation. That’s why Raja’s songs always lift the situations in the films and he is way ahead of the rest as for as background score is concerned.  This debate can go on and on.

For a Raja-Rahman fan like me, what about a film that too by Maniratnam with music by Ilayaraja and Rahman – where Raja composes the tunes for the songs, writes the background score while Rahman does the arrangement, records the music, mixes it and we get to hear the magic!!! Well wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate 40 years of (Anna) Kili’s chirping and 25 years of the Roja blossoming???

Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,…!

Today was just another Sunday morning. As I turned on the ignition of my car for a Sunday morning drive, Ilayaraja’s (Raja) hits started playing. On top of the playlist was Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,… from the hit film Apoorva Sagotharargal.  There are 2 versions of this song – one sung by Kamal Haasan himself which eventually featured in the film and the other sung by S.P. Balasubramanyam (SPB) which just got retained in the music album. Its’ very rare that a song sung by SPB and composed by Raja gets consigned to just the album. As I was enjoying the interlude in that song which has some awesome feet tapping music, the CD started playing truant and was jumping few tracks and eventually it stopped. My Sunday morning tryst with Raja-SPB duo got aborted midway. At that point in time, I had no premonition of what was to follow later.

Reaching home, soon I could see SPB’s Facebook post going viral where he claimed that he has been served legal notice by Raja’s attorney for singing Raja’s compositions without prior permission in his recent World tour stage shows. And that in the rest of the shows, he may not be singing Raja’s songs. Difficult to believe, the first reaction was of course “Why would Raja take such an extreme step against SPB who was a close friend, associate and a fellow traveller in his music journey?” In a spat involving these 2 namely Raja and SPB for people like me who have grown up with the music of the 70’s and 80’s it is difficult to take a stand. On the one hand you have Raja, a genius and whose music transcends all superlatives. And on the other hand you have a singer who even today can give an Arijit Singh a run for his money with his mellifluous voice and versatile singing. While a lean and fit Raja is known to have a bloated ego, the physically fuller SPB comes across as a man of humility and feather lite ego. Even in this FB post he didn’t have one word of disrespect for Raja and admitted his own ignorance of legalities. He won the hearts and the sympathies of the fandom.

To be fair, it was important to hear out Raja’s side before getting judgemental on his action. And soon in the course of the day we did get to see the same through Raja’s legal consultant who was probably behind shooting this legal notice. As expected he talked of violation of IP rights, royalty payments,…,… The issue of copyrights and Intellectual property rights (IP) on music compositions have of late become a bone of contention between music composers, Lyricists and film producers. The fact of the matter is till about the first decade of this millennium, lyricist and music composers were blissfully unaware of their Intellectual copy rights with a result they were never paid royalty by producers for their creations. Only recently, with the exposure to Hollywood,.. the composers and lyricists became aware of their IP rights. A.R. Rahman now owns the IP for all the music he creates.

Looking up on the issue of Indian Copyright Act, I understood that in 2012 the amendments made to the act set right the historical anomaly of being not beneficial to the creators. Famed Hindi lyricist Javed Akhtar was instrumental in getting the amendments passed. Historically, Indian film producers just paid a one-time fee to song writers, composers and singers. And denied them revenues from other sources like cover versions, ringtones, digital downloads,.. which have become increasingly lucrative.

The amended bill now makes song writers and composers as owners of the copyright which cannot be assigned to the producers as per earlier version. More importantly, as a recurring source of revenue, it is now mandatory for broadcasters – Radio, TV and Digital to pay a royalty to the copyright owners each time the song is played.

It seems that it is now part of the standard operating procedure for singers to take formal permission from the music composers before performing their songs on stage. And as part of this process, the acceptance to pay the applicable royalty. So it comes as a surprise that event producers of SPB’s recent concerts missed this point of not informing or taking Raja’s permission for singing his songs. So from a purely legal standpoint, it is clear that Raja has not hit a wrong note on this matter. But then SPB is not just another singer. He has been a constant companion to Raja all through, with the duo churning out some thousands of hits. It is today hypothetical to argue if the duo’s songs were hits because of Raja’s music or SPB’s singing.  For a fan the Raja-SPB combination was magical and together they have given some evergreen, everlasting music which will continue to live forever in his/her heart.

From Raja’s side could it have been handled differently? Certainly one would feel so. Instead of a legal notice, a friendly call to remind the SPB camp of the IP issue would probably have settled the issue under wraps. Unless otherwise we are not privy to some larger conflict of interests between the two themselves or their minders. In which case after Vairamuthu and Bharathiraja SPB could be the latest to land on the other side of Raja’s symphony.

‘Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…. Wronga ponathilla,.. ‘goes the song.  The genius lyricist Vaali wrote this line probably keeping Ilayaraja in mind on his music. But on this issue, it appears Raja has hit a wrong note! He probably should lay his hand on the phone to call SPB and undo this wrong bit, unless Raja chose to use syncopation!!!

Being an ardent of fan of both Raja and SPB, to me what has happened is sad and disappointing. In terms of taking sides on this spat, the head wants to go with Raja and the heart with SPB. But then the ears are always with the duo!!!  Let the Andhi Mazhai continue to pour!!!

Ilayaraja 1000!!!

Boxing a tribute for a man who just completed a journey of 1000 films as a music composer in my usual limit of 1000 words is going to be tough. Even tougher is going to be the task of choosing from his expansive body of work for driving home a point. So it is with much trepidation, I sit to pen this tribute to the Maestro Ilayaraja, – as per me the best “all around” Indian composer of film music of our times on his 1000th film as a music director. The film Thaarai Thappattai (names of folk percussion instruments) and its maker Bala are indeed lucky to be a part of this milestone.

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For those in their 40’s and 50’s and who grew up in the south of Vindhyas and Tamil Nadu in particular, Ilayaraja (Raja from now on) would have been a fellow traveller in life with his music. Tamil Film music has 2 eras – one before Raja and the other after. For the very discerning and ever critical ears in South India inspite of Raja making waves early, I would say he was on “probation” probably till his 100th film – Moodu Pani.  That was a good 5 years since he made his debut in Annakili. Till then, there was a feeling that though he was good, he was repetitive and can’t see beyond Tharai Thappattai – folk style I mean. But ever since this landmark of 100 films I must say there was no looking back. And as we stepped into the 80’s Raja with his music was like “Narasimha Avatar” – Omnipresent. Thoonilum Irunthar, Thurumbilum Irunthar!!!

Honest Disclosure. I am an unapologetic admirer of Raja’s work. A lot has been said and written about his modest upbringing, his travails as a struggler in Madras,..,… and how he became what he is today. So not going to dwell on those. This piece is entirely going to be on my connection with Raja and his work.

For me the tipping point was Raja’s music in Bharathiraja’s Nizhalgal.  In a middle class household with just a radio to define the entertainment quotient, my first brush with Raja was the Sunday afternoon programme in Trichy AIR called Neengal Kettavai where the top 10 songs of that time were played. I remember many weeks when the entire 10 songs were of Raja’s. Then gradually technology presented many options to be in touch with Raja.  From his initial style of churning rustic tunes and melodies, gradually his repertoire extended to Western Classical melodies, tunes laced with Carnatic scales and other contemporary stuff.

I started this intended hagiography like piece on Raja by saying that he is the best “All around” music composer of our times. His music was melodious at times, haunting at times, chirpy at times, romantic at times, melancholic at times. I am now at a loss of better adjectives. Enough to say that his music went beyond just great songs. Many aspects of his work prove this beyond doubt.

  • Like there is no other composer who can “Value add” to a song situation better than Raja. There are examples galore:
    • In this song from the film Nayagan, the situation is of a duet between the hero and the heroine in happy times. Generally speaking any plain vanilla melodious tune would have done the job. But Raja comes with this peach of a melody – Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham,..(listen here) which conveys the joyous mood between the lovers but with a subtle trepidation. The song moves you to no end and grows on you. Amazing stuff!
    • Another example is this song from Punnagai Mannan. The film opens with this situation I think. 2 Lovers try to spend “quality time” together in a forest kind setting before they call it “Quits” forever. The song is supposed to walk us through this rather traumatic situation. Raja lifts the song situation few notches above with this layered piece Enna satham inda neram,…(listen here)
    • Now look at the very many melodies he churned for plain vanilla duet situations which according to me are equally masterclass – Thendral vanthu ennai thodum,.. or for that matter Vaa Vaa Vaa Kanna Vaa for example.
  • Like Raja’s knack of weaving the story line in the songs. In a sense using the songs to convey a sense of foreboding.
    • If you listen to this song from Moondram PiraiKanne Kalaimane,…. A lullaby song which could have been just that. But Raja (combined with the words of another genius poet Kannadasan) weave a kind of pathos into the lullaby situation and prepare us for what would be coming.
  • Like using a song as a theme in the Background score. Raja is a trail blazer in this.
    • Best example being Then Paandi Seemaiyile,… in Nayagan
    • Another song is Poongaatru thirumbuma, from Mudhal Mariyaadhai.
      • As the film traverses from good times to sad times the mood of the theme song changes.
    • Like being spot on in the choice of singers to suit a particular actor/character/mood.
      • Though those days the choice was limited for singers unlike these days of “Super singers emerging from reality shows” – Raja was canny in his choice. So while he went mostly with SPB/Yesudas for Kamal, It was always SPB for Mohan. And as Rajinikanth transformed from being a villain to an anti – hero to a superstar – Raja also moved from Malaysia Vasudevan to SPB. And he sang himself for the rustic Ramarajan and the likes!
      • When the mood is of sensuousness his call was to Janaki for the female voice. In Idhayathai thirudathey while most of the songs are sung by Chitra the one song (Om Namaha,…) which is a very romantic sensuous number he went with Janaki. By the way this song is another testimony to Point 1 as above.
    • Like Raja being the best in business in India as far as Back ground score is concerned. Apart from his songs, his background score elevates the movie to a different level. I have seen this in many films. But the following examples sort of seal the point.
      • Film is Maniratnam’s Thalapathy. Rajinikanth, Mammooty, Nagesh, Kitty and Arvind Swamy are engaged in a heated argument in Arvind Swamy’s office. Watch this clip. And watch how Raja’s BGM at the end of the scene lifts the drama element of the scene. Best part is for most part of the scene there is no BGM but the timely intervention is what makes it brilliant. This is just pure brilliance.
      • In this very heart rending scene in Kamal’s Apoorva Sagotharargal – it is interesting to see how Raja value adds with his BGM.
      • The Background score in Bhagyaraj’s film – Vidiyum Varai Kaathiru is a case in point where the BGM keeps you on the edge of the seat.
      • Even in his latest outing Tharai Thappattai his BGM is haunting and at the same time outstanding. Watch this.
    • Like without making it obvious, using classical ragas in many of his songs with small tinkering in the scale.

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OK, No more – Mani!!!

My first reaction after watching Maniratnam’s latest outing OK Kanmani was “Man, Mani should now call it a day”!!! Okay_Kanmani_film_poster

After feeling disappointed the last few times over (Guru, Raavan, Kadal), it was with much trepidation that I ventured to watch what was Mani’s 21st film without even bothering to look at reviews. Ofcourse the teasers and trailers communicated loudly that Mani was in his familiar territory. Youth, Urban, Romance, Rebel,…,… Like somebody said there was virtually a sympathy wave this time around for Mani and more than himself, his fans wanted this movie to work. And there are enough reasons for this kind of sympathy and empathy.

After all, in Tamil cinema which is usually driven by the “Star Mania” (Puratchi thalaivar of yore to Thala of today not to forget the Nadigar Thilagam, Super Star, Ulaga Nayagan, Ilaya Thalapathy in between) – there has been little scope for a Director to make his mark and make people throng the theatres just for his direction. Maniratnam did that. Again and again for a long time. Up until recently. Not that he was the 1st to do so. From Bhim Singh to Sridhar to Balachandar to Bharathiraja and briefly Bhakiaraj all of them did exactly that. But what made Maniratnam stand apart from others was he removed “Drama” from Tamil films and that was a welcome change. Rooted in “casualism”, his movies shunned lengthy dialogues, over the top acting/overacting, emotional hathyachaars,… in short what I call as “Drama”. And brought in an overdose of cool quotient –female leads with a rebellious streak, Staccato dialogues, matter of fact acting and ofcourse with a lot of emphasis on the technique (Cinematography, Storytelling style, Background score, Music, Sound engineering, Song picturisation,…) And appealed to the Nextgen. Having said that, he was careful not to tread the path of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan (the ace Malayalam Film maker whose movies were rooted in realism – so rooted that they failed to break into the mainstream mould and remained favourites of film festival hoppers). Mani was smart to remain mainstream while pursuing an alternate film making path for himself.

It was about 3 decades ago when we were in our 2nd year Engineering that Mani’s 4th film (Mani was just another upstart director then and not the Mani Sir) Mauna Ragam silently got released. Those were days when we use to watch almost every film to hit the theatres for want of alternate source of entertainment. When we came out of the single screen theatre after watching Mauna Ragam, our usual group which usually get into slicing and dicing any movie on our return to the hostel for few hours, this time was silent. Silenced and stunned by an all new freshness hitherto unseen in Tamil movies. So much so we hit the theatre to watch the movie the second time soon. And then the analysis of the film followed for few days over. The lines Revathi (main female lead) speaks to her mom after marriage just before the 1st night were the kind unheard of in Tamil cinema before. Karthik’s characterisation in a cameo role made boys wonder why they are not like him. And I came across a MBA HR Manager (Mohan – the male lead) for the 1st time in a Tamil film 🙂 🙂

After Mouna Ragam, when Nayagan hit the screens, Maniratnam had arrived and there was no looking back since. I can devote an entire post on Nayagan which I will keep it for another pertinent occasion. For now I will just leave it with – “In Tamil cinema there was an era before Nayagan and one post that”!

In an interview when somebody asked him as to what was the secret behind his films’ connect with the audience – Mani said that all his films are about relationships which people relate to. And generally not from out of the world.  But when I look at his body of work, there are 2 types. One set of films just about relationships (Mauna Ragam, Agni Natchathiram, Idayathai Thirudathe, Anjali, Alai Payuthey and lately OK Kanmani) and the second set is about relationships but in a political/current affairs/worldly backdrop – Nayagan (Bombay Tamils), Roja (Kashmir issue), Bombay (Post Ayodhya riots), Dil Se (NE turmoil), Kannathil Muthamittal (Srilankan strife), Aayutha Ezhuthu  (Student politics), Raavan (Maoist problem),…  He has appealed to us and made a success of both the genres by and large. But what comes naturally to him I guess is when he talks to us in an Agni Natchithiram or an Alai Payuthey lingo.

Frankly when I saw Roja way back in 1992, I was a tad disappointed. First of all I couldn’t accept that Mani can do a film and make a good one at that without Ilayaraja and P.C.Sreeram. And then a Mani film with a serious issue like Kashmir strife as a template was something unimaginable and not expected. But gradually the film grew on you. (So did Rahman’s music). And when the dubbed version of Roja got a wide appreciation in Hindi, I guess Mani’s ambitions took wings. Then after he started writing Tamil films but for a national audience.  So a sense of indulgence started creeping in as it does for most creators who initially create work without any burden of expectations and then have to, to live upto their own reputation.

Even at that stage I thought he was still making brilliant films. I for one still couldn’t understand why a Dil Se flopped (perhaps for the contrived climax I later concluded). But with Alaipayuthey in 2000, he went back to his original style- a film about relationships without any forced backdrop. And just for the Tamil audience. And about Urban youth. And with P.C.Sriram. And just when we were relieved, Mani Sir went back to his second type with a series of films like Kannathil Muthamittal, Aayutha Ezhuthu, Guru and Raavan. I liked KM and AE but only in parts. I forced myself into liking Guru though not fully convinced. I gave Raavan and Kadal a miss after not so charitable reviews. But quite obviously they were disappointing and couldn’t help questioning Mani’s sync with the times.

And then OK Kanmani happened. The urban coolness is back. Staccato lines are back. The rebellious streak is back. And P.C.Sreeram is back. The relief in us is back. Mani is back 🙂 🙂 🙂

And that’s precisely why I feel that he should now call it a day. After all it’s better to sign off on a high and not after he is forced to, post a string of flops trying to explore relationships with Nepal earthquake some ISIS territory as backdrops 😦 😦

It’s not my contention that Mani should stop experimenting and keep making Agni Natchithiram/Alaipayuthey/OK Kanmani type films for ever. I am sure he has still within him for a few more movies and good ones in that. Just that anxiety as an admirer of Mani’s craft that his upcoming movies mustn’t fail and he mustn’t fall from that high pedestal he is positioned himself in.

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Postscript: No, as an afterthought, maybe he should do one more film. With Ilayaraja and Rahman to do the Music honours in a co-operative effort. That will be path breaking and be in sync with Mani’s credentials😜 😜

“Notes” from the “Season”!!!

For long as I remember Chennai or for the romantics – Madras had 2 seasons – Summer (for almost 340 days) and the “Music Season” for a month straddling December and January.  But since the 90’s, “Season” has come to mean the Music Season and is quietly giving Chennai its place under the Sun due to its uniqueness and unparalleled virtues in the entire globe.  The last time I was in Madras during the Season was I think in the late 80’s before the evolution happened. So when I got an opportunity this time over to be in Madras last week, though just for a couple of days, I was excited and was keen to record for myself the notes emanating from the streets, sabhas, well practically from all over!

I don’t think there is any other geography in the world where there is such a confluence of artists and their music as in Madras during the Season. Such is the carpet bombing of concerts of artists of varying hue that one is spoilt for choice.  Since I was there only for 2 days I didn’t face that problem and had to pick up from what was available on the calendar. Which is made simple these days with the many “Season apps” on your smart phones where you can search by date, time and the artist. So there I was on the 1st day of the New Year at the Music Academy at 9.00 am for the 1st programme of 2015 (surprisingly Free Entry) – A Flute recital by Shashank another child prodigy of our times.

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While I leave it to the musically erudite to write about the nuances of the Gambira Vani ragam and Evari Mata Kriti,..,… he played that day, let me stick to the interesting things happening around the Season itself.

The Season is unique in many ways. One shouldn’t be surprised if

  • you get to see a packed house at 9.00 am on the New Year day that too for a typical old world Classical music programme!!!
  • in what has become a sponsor driven entertainment industry, you see a clean stage as I saw that day at the Academy without any ugly sponsor branding elements
  • outside the concert hall, you see somebody talking loudly (no surprises here 😉 ) on the mobile phone about the gradations in the rendition of O Ranga Sayi in Kamboji raga by so and so artist which he just heard
  • you see an elderly wishing well – (Nanna Varuve) to a young lad may be all of 10 who would have just finished his concert ofcourse in the morning slot
  • you catch many young things taking notes assiduously while the concert is going on and discussing among themselves in what beat the song was played or such technical stuff in between the programme yes mostly in Yankee accent 😄
  • the mama sitting ahead of you rudely turns around and scoffs at you, “We have come to hear his music and not yours” 😒.  This is when you slightly got carried away by the performance and started humming along in your lesser mortal voice!
  • you see elderly men during the concerts displaying emotions as if they achieved multiple orgasms 😃 😃
  • mobile phones don’t ring at all during a 2 hour concert or you don’t get to see people talking on the phone during the programme like we are used to in movie halls!!!
  • the person sitting next to you appears to be in deep slumber but wakes up at the right times to clap his hands to express his appreciation 😃
  • you repeatedly hear words like Baley Baley and Besh BeshTamil words which have otherwise disappeared from everyday lingo
  • you heard that folks attend concerts not just for the taste of music but also for that of the food served at the Sabha canteens. So don’t be surprised also if you see ads in newspapers prominently displaying the name of the caterers alongside the day’s programme during the Season. Caterers like Pattappa (Padmanabhan at the Academy) and “Mountbatten Mani” (what a name 🙂 ) have become brands in their own right.
  • you observe the sabha canteen food getting discussed and also reviewed in the magazines doing the Season beat. “The Canteen Kaapi was better than the Kaapi (ragam) rendered by the singer” was a popular line of late music critic and sharp wit Suppudu. Today don’t be amused if you hear – “innikku kacherila rasamey illa” (No rasam in today’s concert). It could very well be about the canteen menu rather than the concert 😃 😃
  • you mistook a concert hall to be a godown of silk saree clad mannequins 😃. For, in these days of Televised concerts (Marghazhi Maha Utsavam in Jaya TV, Chennaiyil Thiruvaiyaru in Vijay TV,…) mainly sponsored by Silk Saree vendors is it a crime if you want to look good on camera and where the programme is beamed across continents???
  • the media completely misses the mass “Gharwapsi” which happens every year in Chennai during the Season!  I’m talking of the visiting NRIs, PIOs, Pravasis and what have you who religiously come back to their roots in Chennai to revel in the Season’s proceedings. In the process also fill up all the hotels, service apartments,.. in and around the music catchment area!
  • you happen to catch bureaucrats, police officers,.. who are otherwise stiff necked wearing a relaxed look in Veshtis occupying front rows in sabhas and catching up with the latest in music!
  • the hardcore Carnatic music notes which hitherto heard only within the hallowed walls of sabhas like the Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha,.. are now heard even in slums that too during the Season. Yes, in an attempt to take the Carnatic music outside the ring of a certain elite – few musicians like T.M.Krishna, Unnikrishnan,.. have for the 1st time come together to stage concerts in and around areas where fisherfolk live. Read more about this novel effort – Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Festival here.

Carnatic music has not transcended class barriers” has been a refrain of many including musicians like T.M.Krishna. I don’t think this was result of some grand Design or for that matter by Default. It could be due to plain exposure or lack of it. In that sense the global awareness of the Season thanks to the NRIs on the one side and taking the “Season to seashore” as in Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Festival on the other side could help in transcending all barriers I feel or so one hopes. In fact this was the dream of one of India’s finest filmmakers K.Balachander (KB) who in one of his many hit films – Sindhu Bhairavi weaved this thought of taking Carnatic music to the masses. KB who passed away few weeks ago must be a happy man to see his dream taking actual shape.

On that note,”Season’s Greetings” and until the next Season, have an awesome year 🎵🎵

111204-Sunday Mag-Chennai Music season Toon Credit:Keshav

Mandolin loses its “Middle C” 😢

It’s about 10 days now since music lost one of its great ambassadors – Uppalapu Shrinivas and we, a musical genius. In these times of 24*7 news churning, the sudden, untimely demise of Shrinivas has already moved out of the headlines. In the last one week, “Modi” has submerged the sounds of the “ManDOlIn”. That the King of Mandolin is not around anymore has still not sunk in me which explains this rather late obit piece – a very basic attempt to keep his memory alive by an ordinary remote rasika.

I don’t have to crank my memory hard to recall the first time I heard Shrinivas live. It was around the year 78-79 in Trichy. He was may be all of 10 years and had come to play as part of the Kumbabishekam celebrations of the majestic Rock fort temple there. In that one week long festival there were music, dance and drama programmes every evening. Giving him august company were veterans like Thiruvizha Jayashankar (Nadaswaram) and the late Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan (Violin). I had just read about this young kid who was making waves in the Carnatic circuit in Madras and wherever he went. I am not sure but may be that was his first major concert in Trichy. The memories I have is of a boy clad in spotless white Kurta and Pyjama with a paal vadiyum mugam (extremely innocent face) taking the stage with an instrument resembling an electric guitar which later I was told was a mandolin. Till then I never had seen a mandolin or for that matter a western instrument being used to play classical Carnatic music. Little did I realize then that it was just the beginning of many a ground breaking things this lad was going to accomplish. His dad was there right behind him helping him with the sruti (sur) and also with the much needed energy boosters from a thermos flask.  Every now and then as his little fingers swayed with effortless ease on the strings, he used to see his dad’s face as if seeking for some kind of approval or encouragement.  Which his dad provided with an appreciating smile.  On the other side the crowd started gathering in huge numbers and with every kriti/ piece he played, accorded the approval and appreciation with raucous applause. After every piece he used to do a big Namaste to the crowd, constantly reminding us of his humble upbringing. The ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye’ piece of Bharathiyar which he played at the end of the programme still resonates in my ears.  That day it signalled to me the arrival of a ‘Chinnanchiru’ genius on the music scene whom I started following very closely though from a distance.

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After that, I listened to him live in few more programmes and saw him grow taller rapidly, in musical stature that is. Accolades followed. Appreciation from fellow but senior musicians like Dr.Balamuralikrishna, Dr.T.K. Murthy (he famously removed his ring and put it on Shrinivas’s finger in the midst of a programme in which he was accompanying Shrinivas on the mridangam),… ensued.  As I moved out of Trichy for higher educational pursuits, opportunities to witness his concerts became rare. And there came the audio cassette albums and CD labels to the rescue to be in touch with his musical notes.  From “Mandolin Solo” to “Shrinivas Vs Shrinivas” to “Mandoin Trio” and his “fusion experiments” my cupboard craved for more and more space to store his releases.  By now Shrinivas to Mandolin became akin to Xerox in photocopiers. Mandolin = Shrinivas and vice versa.

The last I saw him live was in Mumbai couple of years ago and that too in a rare programme with Shankar Mahadevan, Vikku Vinayagaram and Sivamani.  He still looked the next door lad. But the way he played the mandolin was as if the instrument was a lifelong slave of him. He kept smiling at his co-artists but this time without any need to seek their approval. On the other hand it was Shankar who was falling at Shrinivas’ feet (in jest though) trying to match his artistry with the fingers with his own vocal chords.  From a higher octave to lower octave, music was just flowing. In Mumbai I keep ruing the fact that most of the classical concerts happen in week days making it difficult to make it.  But this programme happened on a weekend and today I am glad that I got to attend this one.

In one of his interviews very early as a kid a shy Shrinivas said that Bahudari was his favourite ragam.  I am not sure if it remained his most favourite till that fatal lever failure consumed his life.  In that most famous piece in Bahudari“Brova Barama Raghurama”Thyagaraja asks Lord Rama“Will protecting this frail Thyagaraja prove an intolerable burden on you and tax you???” I’m wondering if as fans we should have asked this to the Almighty many times over about Shrinivas. May be he would have been with us today.

As a prodigy in the strictest definition of that term, Shrinivas was never late in arriving at the musical scene. But in life, it is numbing to realize that he became “late” so early in life leaving an empty space in the hearts of his well-wishers. If I say that with his untimely demise, Mandolin has lost its “Middle C” and Carnatic music its “Adhara Shadja” it may be termed as gross exaggeration. But the feeling is one of that. Prayers for his soul to Rest In Peace. And his music to continue reverberating.

Listen to Shrinivas’s “Entharo Mahanubavulu”here.