Academy Welcomes Ilaiyaraaja!

Nalinakanthi is one of the most mellifluous ragas in Carnatic music. In Carnatic music, there are only a few compositions in this raga, the most prominent one being Thyagaraja’s Manavyalakinchara… In film music though particularly in Tamil and Malayalam, this raga finds wider usage. Further, among avid followers of Tamil film music, Nalinakanthi has been immortalised by none other than Ilaiyaraaja with his use of this raga in the song Enthan nenjil neengaatha… in the film Kalaignan.  Composer Deva’s Manam virumbuthe… and Rahman’s Kandukonden Kandukonden… are the other songs in Tamil films that followed using Nalinakanthi phrases that became hits.

Of late, I notice that even those who probably haven’t learnt Carnatic music, have now started to refer to the usage of ragas in Tamil film songs. This includes me as well.  Watch this clip at 21.57 where a Raaja song is being discussed, for example and the interviewer pops the raga name casually.  I attribute this to the increasing discussion on Raaja’s use of Carnatic ragas in his songs in the media by experts.

It’s not that Raaja started using Carnatic music only of late. In fact, he has been using Carnatic ragas and references right from the 70’s. The song Chinnakannan Azhaikiraan… from the film Kavikuyil of 1977 tuned on Reetigowla raga by Raaja is a testimony to this.  Just like Nalinakanthi, the credit for making Reetigowla very popular in Tamil film music goes to Raaja. It was then taken forward by other music directors like Rahman, Vidyasagar, James Vasanthan and others later with some memorable songs.  But it is only in the last couple of years that Raaja’s effective use of Carnatic ragas in many of his compositions more directly or subtly has started coming out. I would attribute this to what I called in my earlier blog (read here) as the LCS (Lockdown-Connectivity-Social Media) Trinity!!!

Thanks to this trinity, we are now exposed to so many Carnatic exponents explaining eloquently on how Raaja has used different ragas in many of his songs. Foremost that comes to my mind is Subhasree Thanikachalam’s QFR (Quarantine From Reality), a YouTube based show that is immensely popular. Though I must say that this program is not just to do with Raaja’s songs, Subhasree talks about the nuances of many of Raaja’s hits including the usage of the ragas in his songs.  In fact, as a tribute for Raaja’s birthday few days ago, Subhasree along with her team of singers and musicians presented a medley of Raaja’s songs interspersed with the Carnatic raga phrases they were based on.

The other thing that comes to my mind next is Do you have a minute series? by the famed Veena Vidwan Rajhesh Vaidhya. In these 1 minute clips, he has been playing many Tamil film songs with the details of the raga mentioned as captions. Again, this series is not just limited to Raaja’s compositions, but a cursory look will tell you that it is Raaja’s songs that are often covered.

The crowning glory in my opinion for popularising phrases of different ragas and their usage by Raaja goes to Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Starting during the Covid induced lockdown in 2020, week after week every Saturday Sanjay, a self-avowed fan of Raaja, in his own inimitable style, releases a clip titled Short Notes where he sings a raga phrase and ends with a hint of a Raaja song in the same raga. Now, this has got its own fan base including yours truly. On Saturday evenings, I eagerly look forward to this clip which is posted on different social media platforms. Guessing the song is one part of the thrill. The other part is of course coming to know of Raaja’s repertoire in Carnatic music week after week. Not to forget the discussions this weekly fix triggers in WhatsApp groups. If this is not a commendable attempt in mainstreaming Carnatic music what else is?

Amidst all this, what the Carnatic duo of Ranjani-Gayatri managed recently is laudable. To coincide with Raaja’s 79th birthday, they did a concert at the hallowed Music Academy last week titled Raaja by RaGa. In a regular kutcheri format, they sang hand picked film songs of Raaja that are based on Carnatic ragas. In the sense, it was a kutcheri exclusively of compositions of Ilaiyaraaja, in a novel attempt to celebrate the genius of Raaja. I didn’t watch it unfortunately though I would have loved to. But I watched this video in which the host Priya Parthasarathy gives a nice recap of the whole concert and needless to say, there are quite a few goosebump moments.

The thing is, Raaja has been using along with other music forms, Carnatic music extensively in his compositions for a long time now. But all these years, as ordinary listeners, without experts explaining the same, we never realised or understood the extent of Raaja’s proficiency over this form.  Therefore, I think that attempts like the one by Sanjay or RaGa sisters do a great job in dispelling the long-standing notion that Carnatic music can be understood and appreciated only by a niche audience.

I think that the recent concert by Ranjani-Gayatri at the Academy where they did a full-fledged kutcheri with just compositions from films is a first.  The moot question is, following the huge response to this, will we see Carnatic musicians mixing up film songs based on Carnatic ragas in their concerts? I hope they do. I still remember the thunderous applause Sanjay Subramanyam received when he threw the Ilamai itho itho… phrase in between a Carnatic song on the New Year Day concert at Krishna Gana Sabha in 2020 or for that matter the huge appreciation when Sid Sriram sang Maruvaarthai… as a thukkada in a Carnatic concert in Mumbai recently.

Chamber Welcomes Thyagaraja is one of the compositions from Raaja’s fusion album – How To Name It? of 1986. Raaja uses phrases of Kalyani Raga as a metaphor for Thyagaraja and notes from Bach in this fusion piece. This I guess was his way of paying a tribute to both Thyagaraja and Bach and trying to find equivalences in music forms. In the year 2017, the Academy in short for The Music Academy, Chennai welcomed Ilaiyaraaja to be the President for the Annual Conference and concerts during the “Season”.  It’s now time for the Academy to bestow the much-revered Sangeeta Kalanidhi title on Ilaiyaraaja in the coming year. Sangeeta Kalanidhi at 80 may be late but still is great!

Remembering SPB One Year On!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was published on the 26th June, 2021 – on the 1st death Anniversary of SPB.  It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/ennadi-meenakshi-malare-mounama-20-songs-spb-brought-life-his-voice-155731

It’s exactly one year since SP Balasubrahmanyam left us. Or did he? Is he not lingering still amongst us through the 40,000 plus songs he left behind?  In the case of creators and artists, milestones like the first death anniversary is an occasion not just to remember, but also to celebrate. Celebrate their legacy. On this first death anniversary of SPB, this piece aims to just do that — celebrate the legacy of the versatile singer by revisiting some of his songs.

I hope I know what I am getting into. To pick just a few songs from his vast discography, of which 50% could be classified as hits — if not super hits — is an arduous task.  Therefore, first up, my list is going to narrow down to just Tamil songs. Next, instead of making it as a list of super hits, I would like to look at some of his songs that had some uniqueness to them. This is, of course, purely a personal choice and therefore subject to my own biases and subjectivity.

The songs can be unique in many ways, as I have tried to explain. It could be also due to the way SPB rendered those compositions, where even imagining those songs in someone else’s voice would be unfathomable now. These songs are what they are because of the way SPB sang them.

So, here is the list of my top 20 ‘unique’ SPB songs, in chronological order. That many of them are predominantly solos is coincidental. Here it is:

  1. Pottu Vaitha Mugamo: This was at a time when the MGR-Sivaji duo was dominating the Tamil filmdom. Till then, we were used to the legendary TM Soundarrajan (TMS) doing playback singing for Sivaji. In fact, it is widely believed that TMS used to modulate his voice to suit Sivaji and MGR respectively, for whom he regularly sang. SPB was making his baby steps into the Tamil industry. Music Director MS Viswanathan (MSV) tosses this song to SPB — his first for Sivaji. The very youthful voice of SPB manages to suit Sivaji in this melodious duet and for listeners, this came as a different experience after being used to the usual steely voice of TMS for Sivaji.
  2. Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagam: SPB started singing for MGR quite early in his career. But this song from MGR’s Ulagam Sutrum Valiban — a musical and a blockbuster — remains etched in our hearts.  Among the ten odd songs in this film, while the other songs were mostly sung by TMS for MGR, Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagamwas sung by SPB.  A very soulful and soothing melody, SPB teases with his soft voice while matching the tempo of MSV’s famous rhythm arrangement. We have heard of the Tamil phrase paal vadiyum mugamto denote innocence. This was SPB’s paal vadiyum voice!
  3. Then Sindhudhe Vaanam: Though this song was composed by GK Venkatesh, this has an Ilaiyaraaja connection, with whom SPB would collaborate later to churn out thousands of hits and create history. Raaja, who was assisting Venkatesh in this period, has himself explained the uniqueness of this song. The melody is complex, with long phrases and octaves that alternate between the higher and lower. SPB along with S Janaki complement each other beautifully to give us this memorable song.
  4. Kadavul Amaithu Vaitha Medai: From the film Aval Oru Thodarkathai, this one is not just a song but a stage performance. Apart from the male singing voice, there are a lot of sounds of animals, birds and others that come in between. Amidst all this, SPB holds his own, conveying the sombre mood of the scene very well.
  5. Ennadi Meenakshi:The Raaja era dawns upon us and for SPB and indeed for us, it is a golden period in Tamil film music. This song is from the film Ilamai Oonjalaadugirathu. While there is the song Ore Naal Unnai Naan, a melodious number sung by SPB, I picked this song — Ennadi Meenakshi — to be part of this list, for a reason. SPB displays another dimension of his singing, hitherto not seen. Could SPB sing only soft romantic or smooth flowing numbers? He answers these questions with this song. He sings with a rough tonal quality for this song, in line with the angry mood of Kamal Haasan, for whom he sings this song. This would pave the way for many more songs in this genre for SPB later throughout his career.
  6. Engeyum Eppothum: This is a song which will get into any ‘SPB list’. Period. SPB is in his element here as his voice traverses seamlessly from one rhythm pattern to another and from one octave to another — Pallavi to Anupallavi to Charanam. It is as if the song is a journey around the whole musical universe. Just like the words in the song itself: “Kaalai Japaanil kaapi, maalai New Yorkil Caberet”!
  7. Naan Ennum Pozhuthu: An everlasting melody, which is easily mistakable for a Raaja composition. But this is composed by Salil Chowdhury for the film Azhiyaatha Kolangal, based on his own original Hindi version: Na Jiya Lage Na, sung by none other than Lata Mangeshkar. SPB’s Tamil rendition is as mellifluous as a hot knife piercing through butter and to me, fares better than the original.
  8. Vaa Machaan Vaa: How will a typical ‘Dappaan kuthu’ song sound in SPB’s voice? Listen to Vaa Machaan Vaa from Vandi Chakkaram. He does attempt a false voice for this song to show a more rough-and-tough performance. Kudos to the composer duo Shankar Ganesh for exploring SPB’s range at that time.
  9. Ithu Oru Pon Maalai Pozhuthu: This is another song which will be in any ‘SPB list’. It is very difficult to separate the composer Raaja, the singer SPB and the lyricist Vairamuthu from this song. I felt that the voice of SPB in this song had a more mature feel that had not been felt before. And amazingly, this timbre of SPB’s voice would sustain till his last breath.
  10. Sangeetha Jathimullai: By his own admission, SPB was not a classically trained singer. And this song would challenge even a seasoned and trained singer. But SPB breezes through the complex notes and Jathis in this song once again composed by Raaja. It’s a sure way of getting goosebumps, even today, when we see clips of SPB performing on shows.
  11. Entire album of Payanangal Mudivathillai: Welcome to the ‘Mic Mohan’ era in Tamil films. All the seven songs in this film are brilliant compositions by Raaja, but SPB takes them to another level. Each of the songs belong to a different genre. From Western classical style (Ilaiya Nila) to Carnatic ragas (Raga Deepam Yetrum Neram) to Folk style (Ye Aatha) to a typical melody duet (Saalai Oram Solai Ondru) to a pathos number (Vaigaraiyil Vaigai Karaiyil), SPB straddles all these genres in absolute ease.  In my personal opinion, with Shankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982, SPB stepped into the hall of fame of India’s top playback singers.
  12. Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella: What a melody! This number from Balachandar’s Agni Saatchiis a personal favourite. It’s a deeply haunting melody that invariably touches your heart. At no point in the song does SPB’s voice miss the soothing feel, which is the hallmark of this rendition.
  13. Sandanam Poosum Manjal: While SPB was all busy with his singing, did we miss a gifted composer residing in him? This song probably proves so. A beautiful song from the film Thudikkum Karangalfor which SPB himself composed the music, the song, somehow, is not talked about much.
  14. Ilanjolai Poothathaa: Raaja and ragas. Balu and bhavas (emotions). And if there is a song that epitomises these, it is Ilanjolai Poothathaa. A fine melody set in the Hindustani raga Madhuvanti, SPB lords over this composition with his easy, flowing style. A gem of a song from the Ilaiyaraaja-SPB duo.
  15. Mannil Intha Kadalandri: This song is impossible to ignore. Yes, SPB did accept that he didn’t hold his breath while singing the charanams of this song. Yet, will we believe it? SPB’s breathless singing in this song is part of folklore now.
  16. Vanthenda Paalkaran: When did the trend of energetic, high octane, foot-tapping solo opening songs, invariably sung by SPB for Rajinikanth in his movies, start? I guess it is with this song from Annamalai. Most of the opening songs that came after this one, up until the Superstar’s last film Darbar, have followed the Vanthenda Paalkarantemplate.
  17. En Kadhale: Can anyone else convey a love failure or disappointment in a song better than SPB?  This song from Duet is a testimony to this, so is the song Unna NinachuPaatu Padichen. SPB gets into a melancholic groove in this song and moves the listeners to tears when he finishes it. I can’t think of anyone else who would have brought a similar effect to this song.
  18. Malare Maunama: An evergreen and beautiful composition by Vidyasagar, SPB along with Janaki rendered a song that would become an all-time classic!
  19. Mun Paniya:This number from the film Nandha, that released in 2001, told us two things. That Yuvan Shankar Raja as a composer had arrived, and that SPB was not finished even in the new millennium.
  20. Meduvaagathan:This is a personal favourite, though the song didn’t get the attention it deserved. A peach of a melody from Rahman for the film Kochadaiyaan, it is as if SPB turned the clock on his voice by 30 years for this song.

Did I miss quite a few of SPB’s ‘unique’ songs? Probably. That’s the beauty of this exercise, though, isn’t it? At the end of it, you are only half satisfied! Nevertheless, putting this list together was a wonderful experience as I got a chance to revisit the epic work of SPB in Tamil. Is there a better way to celebrate our favourite Paadum Nila?

P.S: My friend Arunmozhi has put this list in a playlist for easy reference. Please check it out.

Thanks Arun!