Santhosh Narayanan uses minimal sounds to create a specific soundscape for Mari Selvaraj’s second film Karnan. In ‘Kandaa Vara Sollunga’ you only hear two voices, the rhythm, and an ever-present synth in the background. You feel you’re in a vast space where hushed whispers would echo like the coughing of giants, where you hear the singer’s voice and the striking of the beat as clearly as you hear the echoes. It almost begins like a devotional song, but it’s actually an SOS call to Karnan.
Kidakkuzhi Mariyammal’s expansive voice calls out “Kandaa vara sollunga, karnan-a kaiyoda kooti vaarunga (ask him to come if you see him, bring Karnan along with you).”
It intensifies a plea to merely invite Karnan with an even more urgent one to bring him along straightaway. But it’s not a call of hope. It, after all, begins with an ‘if’.
The music mirrors this ambiguity by setting up a permanent dissonance in the background. Mariyammal, too, never lands the last note of her lines; she leaves it balancing on a rope bridge between adjacent notes. She moves on to the next line, as you continue to hear the trailing echo of that uncertain note.
You can imagine that her voice would travel miles through the air in search of Karnan. The ‘Kandaa Vara Sollunga’ refrain is also repeated by growling male voices (credited to Santhosh Narayanan) that sound like the cry is now rumbling through the earth. This basic pattern—a female voice followed by male voices that sing the refrain—is repeated (with variations) throughout the song. Mari Selvaraj, the lyricist, makes use of this repetition to gradually reveal Karnan and his relationship to the singer.
First, we hear of Karnan’s birth. We then hear the refrain ‘Kandaa vara sollunga (ask him to come if you see him).’ You think, maybe, this is a relative or a friend (who else might know of someone’s birth?) who simply wants to meet Karnan again. By the time the pattern is repeated the fourth time (each time with different lyrics, of course) and you hear ‘Kandaa Vara Sollunga’ for the final time, your view of both Karnan and the singer are changed.
This is not the mythological Karnan. He didn’t have a divine birth. He is the only hope, because of his valour, of those who have been abandoned even by the gods. Music and lyrics together don’t just introduce the hero by giving us information about him. They hint at specific images, too.
The final time ‘Kandaa vara sollunga’ is repeated the rhythm sounds like it was produced by exciting a herd of bulls to run over a field of drums. It doesn’t sound like the lighter strike of horses’ hooves, but like the heavier thud of bulls. The song doesn’t convey just musical ideas, but also gives us a sense of the world in which the music exists.
‘Pandarathi Puranam’ is an oppari song: it begins as an elegy and chokes (literally) into a lament. You’re starved for harmony; there’s just Deva’s voice and a beat. When harmony finally comes, it intensifies the pathos because we hear that the woman of the song has died due to cholera. At this point all the artistry of the song apparently breaks down. The percussion has stopped playing.
The regular pattern of the lyrics (by Yugabharathi) is broken in just that one line that talks about cholera (just the word ‘cholera’ in context, sounds so unmusical). The song soldiers on, again.
The songs in Karnan are also accessible, and ‘Thattaan Thattaan’ is especially so. Sung by Dhanush, it sounds like a romantic song. But lyrics by Yugabharathi talk also about generational injustices and also a call for victory. Like the rhythms in ‘Kandaa Vara Sollunga’ the words in ‘Thattaan Thattaan’ are grounded in rural Tamil milieu and avoid abstractions even when when they take a flight of fancy: sokkappanai melae ninnu adhichaa soora kaaththaattom.
Those lines are virtually untranslatable unless you’ve witnessed the raging fire that is a ‘sokkappanai’ and sprinted away from it for your life as it bellowed heat. If you have, then you’d get it when someone very specifically compared his beloved to the “stormwind over a sokkappanai.’