Ilaiyaraaja’s Folk Music, And A Brief Roadmap Of Its Predecessors, Film Companion

June 2 came and went. And with the day, Ilaiyaraaja’s birthday, a hundred tribute pieces came and went into the Internet’s memory. If someone from 50 years hence read what’s been written about the maestro, they’d think that, before him, there was no Indian film music worth a discussion. Shankar-Jaikishan never made songs with a symphonic sound. Salil Chaudhuri never got inspired by Western classical music, and he never made those fiendishly complex tunes that rose and dipped with all the “predictability” of a drunk weaving his way through a crowded street. RD Burman never employed scale changes in his melodies. And coming to Tamil film music, nobody basically did anything. Every song was set in a pure classical raga, until this great man came and broke those shackles. I’m not talking about blogs and discussion forums. That’s animated chatter, even if it’s often very informed chatter. That’s people talking about art in an adda. I’m talking about the more serious journalistic pieces.

My point is that Ilaiyaraaja is a self-made genius who doesn’t need the negation of everyone who came before him. As someone born in the 1970s, you don’t need to convince me that he’s a staggering talent that comes along once in the bluest of moons. But like all staggering talents — and like Ilaiyaraaja himself has often said — he built on what came before. And then, he broke those rules and made them his own, with that dazzling array of signature touches we came to recognise as Ilaiyaraaja-esque. My point is that art doesn’t come out of a vacuum, like a god. With the latter, there’s this word used: suyambu, self-created, something that’s not man-made but rose of its own accord. There’s no suyambu in art. Every rule breaker — whether a novelist or a filmmaker or a painter — owes a debt to the people who came before them and made their own rules, and those people broke the rules made by the people who came before them, and on and on.

Ilaiyaraaja’s Folk Music, And A Brief Roadmap Of Its Predecessors

But because we are a country that likes to deify people, we love the suyambu concept in art: hence a lot of the writing, today, about Ilaiyaraaja. Ilaiyaraaja’s music is too vast to be discussed and theorised about in an article, so I’m just going to talk about this one contention that the music that came before him was mostly Carnatic-ised. We hear this over and over, and it’s simply not true. Take a random film from the 1950s: say, Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum, whose music was composed by KV Mahadevan. There’s a “hero ragging the heroine” number that goes Nenachadhu onnu, nadanthadhu onnu that’s as folksy as they come. Do me a favour. Don’t watch the video below; first, just listen to the song. And then, see the situation as a visual. You’d think it was set in a field, in a village, far away from any area that could be considered Carnatic-ised.

Now, take another number from the same film: the title song. You could argue — rightly, so — that it sounds less authentically “folk” than a similar festival-themed Ilaiyaraaja composition, like Amman koyil kezhakkale. Because at least to my urban ears, Ilaiyaraaja’s glorious composition sounds far more authentically “rural” than KV Mahadevan’s. But for 1958, imagine hearing colloquial Tamil instead of the pure Tamil usually used for songs. Imagine hearing “thai porandhaa” instead of “thai pirandhaal.” (Amusing meta fact: SS Rajendran, here, opens the song as a karagattakaran, and there’s even one of Ilaiyaraaja’s favourite instruments, the shehnai, which is not exactly “rural”. People were mixing it up even back then.) Or going back to that earlier number, imagine  hearing “Nenachadhu onnu” instead of “Ninaithadhu onnu”.

I wasn’t there and we are a terrible nation when it comes to cultural record-keeping — but I’m fairly sure some rules were broken. Go back to the 1940s, to Nallathambi, and you have NS Krishnan/TA Madhuram singing Vignanatha valakka poren di. It’s not exactly a folk song but the easy-breezy way in which it’s rendered is far from  Carnatic-ised. I can’t think of a 1930 example right now, but I might find one if I dug deep enough.

Now, let’s take a pre-Ilaiyaraaja folk song that is indeed Carnatic-ised: the gorgeous Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy composition, Thazhayaam poo mudichu, from Bagappirivinai. There’s a thanaane opening from a man chasing birds away, and the percussion that follows sounds wonderfully “rural”, too. But when TMS sings “ponnamma”, there’s a lovely gamakam, an embellishment of the last syllable. Not “authentic”? But then, fast-forward to Senthoorapoove, one of Ilaiyaraaja’s most iconic “village songs”, and you find huge passages of un-village like music, huge stretches of Western classical sound. Neither composer is being “realistic” about what a village song is. They are using their skills to colour a situation on screen and take us into the situation and the character. A note about the picturisation of the Bagappirivinai song: it’s entirely in the rural outdoors, long before Bharathiraja entered the picture.

Again, this is not to take away from what Bharathiraja did. 16 Vayathinile is set entirely in the outdoors: it’s not just a song or two. There’s not a whiff of a studio set, which we get in the indoor scenes of Bagappirivinai. But when you see articles saying Bharathiraja was the first ever Tamil filmmaker to shoot outdoor scenes in a village… well… Bringing up Bharathiraja  is no accident, for he was hugely instrumental in liberating the music scene, too. Had he not decided to make such an authentically rooted “village movie”, Ilaiyaraaja’s sound may have been different, or he may have had to wait a little longer to unleash that particular sound of his we heard in Sevvanthi poo mudicha chinnakka. Who knows! 

Which brings to another pet peeve in all these Ilaiyaraaja articles: they rarely acknowledge the times, the milieu, the contribution of the director in shaping (or demanding) a particular song. Everything is Ilaiyaraaja. Sometimes, even the lyrics are attributed to Ilaiyaraaja. And that’s a problematic stance to take. One of the most amazing things about the Internet is that it has democratised writing. Today, it’s not just the few that are employed by publications — everyone can put forth their opinions, be published. And that has added immense value to the breadth of voices talking about a movie, a social phenomenon, a piece of music, everything. But in the process, we shouldn’t forget journalistic rigour. Pet theories cannot become “fact”. Hearsay cannot replace research and fact-checks. Passion cannot become arguments. “IMO” cannot become history.

Part of the blame must be shouldered by editors as well, many of whom are unaware of the topic under discussion, and just do basic spelling/grammar checks and let the pieces go. But the architecture of the piece is what’s important. Like with a building, the foundation has to be laid, and the theory has to be built brick by diligently laid brick — otherwise, the whole thing will collapse. I am not asking you to like MSV’s marvellously rowdy Ada ennadi raakkamma, which came a few years before Machana paatheegala. (This is a matter of chronology rather than a comparison of talents.) We all have the artistes we like, the composers that are “home” to us, and even if you say “I think Ilaiyaraaja is the greatest ever” or “I only listen to Ilaiyaraaja”, I cannot argue with you. These are personal choices.

And there are many unarguable “facts” about this great composer: like his dizzying speed, like the sheer number of songs he churned out, like the number of all-hit albums he dished out so frequently, like the mind-boggling sophistication of his interludes. But if you care about the art, if you care about music, you have to respect and acknowledge the others who laid the runway so Ilaiyaraaja could take off. As a closing note, I’d even say we shouldn’t forget those who made great “village songs” after Ilaiyaraaja’s entry to Tamil film music — like Shankar-Ganesh’s rousing Nadaya maathu from Kanni Paruvathile

None of this matters if you’re a casual music listener. But if you’re going to become a culture writer, you have to be aware that, for the first time in the history of our nation, we are all contributing to some sort of live cultural record-keeping. With books becoming increasingly harder to find, the Internet will become the one-stop reference point (if it hasn’t already). So it’s absolutely necessary to listen to (or watch, or read) what else is out there, at least once in a while. Now that there’s YouTube, there’s no excuse. Like I said earlier, I am not disputing Ilaiyaraaja’s genius. I’m just saying that this genius doesn’t need to be propped up by the negation of everyone who came before him. Favourites are inevitable, but facts are facts.

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