madhan karky

Madhan Karky is quite the antithesis of the image that comes to mind when one thinks of a Tamil lyricist. For one, he doesn’t always wear white. He doesn’t sport a beard either. You wouldn’t be the first person to mistake him for an IT professional, because Karky looks a lot like one of us. Even the way he describes his creative process is surprisingly relatable. He doesn’t credit his poetry to divine intervention. His methods don’t sound abstract either. The unassuming manner with which he explains his craft gives us the feeling that we can do it too.

But the challenges of his profession are not very easy to relate to. Working as a lyricist in Tamil cinema means that he’s thinking about love for about “70 percent of your career”. That’s a lot because there’s only so much one can draw from one’s own love story, feels Karky. “Because it’s not about me in love. It’s about the film’s characters. What can you draw from when you’re writing for a housefly or that robot that has just discovered feelings for a woman?”

The problem isn’t really the strange situations he has to write for. It is for those instances where the brief says nothing at all. He’s had to write dozens of songs where the request was just “love duet”. “Sometimes the director doesn’t even mention where he will place the song, if it’s for the hero or the heroine, or even if it’s a happy song or sad.”

But Karky has recently developed a system to make this communication as specific as possible. Taking inspiration from IT companies and their Software Requirement Specification Templates, Karky too has created a form with a list of questions he asks the director before he starts writing. “This includes questions like the language style — folk, contemporary or classical. Or something as specific as whom the song is for. There is no point writing lines with ‘ழ’ or ‘ண’ in it if Javed Ali is going to sing it.”

What’s even harder to write, Karky feels, is the generic “love-at-first-sight song”, of which he has written hundreds. “When the situation doesn’t present you with much, you need to look elsewhere for inspiration. I try to use a template for such songs then…like ‘Kadhal Cassata’, a song that compares love with different types of desserts. Or when I used the phrase ‘I love you’ from various languages to create ‘Aska Laska’.”

At times, even a character’s profession can open him up to a set of words he’s not used before. Like the expression Yaeno Kuviyamillaa Kuviyamillaa Oru Kaatchi Pizhaiwhich roughly translates to how the photographer hero’s images have gone ‘out of focus’ since he has fallen in love, or how he used ‘Nun Silai Seithidum Pon Silaiye Pencilai Seevidum Pen Silaiye’ (a golden statue creating a micro statue, a woman sharpening a pencil) to describe Samantha’s character, a micro artist, in Naan Ee.

He may even draw inspiration from the tune itself because his words are eventually meant to fit into it “99% of the time.” This means that the ‘meter’ of a word becomes almost as important as its meaning. Music directors usually give him tunes with placeholders which he needs to fill in later. And to make this easier, Karky created ‘Emoni’ a rhyme finder app he himself coded in Jawa. So when he was stuck looking for a ‘robotic term’ to fit into AR Rahman’s tune, it is the computer that gave him the word ‘Thaemanam’ (wear and tear).

Even otherwise, Karky says he loves the sound of words and what their rhythmic qualities contribute to the song. “Like, Nenju poru konjam iru, Thaavani visirigal veesugiren; Manmadha ambugal Thaitha idangalil, sandhanamaai enai poosugiren”. This works out well, because composers like AR Rahman and Harris Jayaraj have a special love for using words as instruments. “Rahman once asked me for a list of words that ‘sound’ pleasant. This got me thinking. Because how really does one measure the ‘pleasantness of a word’? ‘Sakkarai’ (sugar) for instance, tastes sweet but it sounds bitter. But ‘nila vembu’ tastes bitter but it sounds sweet.”

Karky returned to his computers and his team of researchers to solve the problem. They got together and realized that it is the articulation that made a word sound pleasant. “Or how one word flows from one person to another.” Using this reference, the team took up words and gave it a score on a pleasantness index. And what’s the most pleasant word in this index? “Aala. It’s the name of a bird.” He even used it in a song in the recent film Lakshmi.

We are extremely welcoming of computers and robots doing anything mechanical. But the same optimism must also be extended to the arts. When machines start writing, humankind will start thinking very differently

Similarly, it was a question that led him to another study. “Why do we compare the moon with a woman’s face?” Karky wanted the machine to learn how the human mind creates similes. Using Graph Theory Problems, his team fed the system with thousands of lyrics from Tamil songs from the 1950s until now with over 70,000 nouns. After a lot of work, the machine was able to find several connections between words. It was even capable of finding two nouns with similar properties but which had no link in between. The result…the system generated its own similes. Like, ‘rail pole neelamaana koonthal’ (tresses as long as the rails). Or ‘Thiruvizha Pole Santhosham Kodukkum Uravu’ (a relationship giving as much happiness as a festival). Or the slightly problematic, “Alaipole Adikkum Manaivi” (a wife that hits like the waves).

The scientific approach to lyric writing is intentional. Karky calls it lyric engineering and he is perhaps the only Indian lyricist to use so much technology in his creative process. Which is why he’s able to write as many as 200 songs a year. This is also why he feels we must be more open to artificial intelligence entering creative fields. “We are extremely welcoming of computers and robots doing anything mechanical. But the same optimism must also be extended to the arts. When machines start writing, humankind will start thinking very differently.”

In this process, the lyricist is working on writing a code which enables a computer to write an entire song by itself. So far, he has a system which can easily create rhymes and similes but it’s in bringing in a person’s knowledge that separates the human brain from a computer. “People usually think it’s the emotion that is the difference. But it also has to do with what a person knows. My efforts are to create a computer which simulates exactly how my brain functions. When I’m gone, the system will still be able to write as I do.”

Given that his idea is to create something for the long run, he says there’s a lot that needs to be done to keep the classical language move along with the times. From gender-fluid songs to lyrics which suit modern relationships, as he sees it, songs must reflect the age it represents. He recently coined the term ‘Ulaviravu’ when he needed a Tamil word to denote a ‘date night’. And for Gautham Menon’s upcoming Enai Noki Paayum Thota, Karky created a word to describe the feeling of déjà vu’ in Tamil. The word? “Meenigal Kanavu”.

But the problem, he says, is when we try too hard to translate every word into Tamil. “Like Facebook and Google. They should remain what they are. If Facebook was a Tamil company named Arumugam, would you like it if people called it SixFace?”

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