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Monday, December 26, 2005


Ilayaraja the Maestro

excerpts from an article in which Chennai - based Jazz and carnatic Guitarist Prasanna talks about the genius of his favourite music director .. none other than the Raaja himself ..

“Have you written invertible counterpoint up a tenth?” Raaja (I am taking the liberty to call him affectionately as “Raaja” since he is after all, a “Raaja” in what he does!) has asked me this question a few times– a question I don’t encounter much, at least in India. In an age where most musicians (of course only in India!) spend their time reading the latest software manuals rather than reading books on harmony, counterpoint, orchestration or Carnatic ragas or whatever, Raaja is and has always been an anachronism. I have had several intellectually stimulating musical conversations with Raaja on principles of counterpoint, Bach, Tyagaraja, jazz harmony and much more. (Raaja has often asked me about jazz and I remember how excited Raaja was when I played him great jazz like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’). Raaja’s vast knowledge extends far beyond music. For instance, I have seen him quote passages from “Tirukkural” effortlessly in casual conversation.
In every field of activity, there are a chosen few that transcend their idiom. Let’s face it! Film music is not classical music. By itself, film music as a medium does not have the spiritual depth or artistic dimensions of say, a Tyagaraja pancharatna kriti or a Bach “Musical Offering”. It’s a medium of popular entertainment just the same way pop music is in the west. That DOES NOT however mean that it CANNOT be artistic. (I think readers will get this ‘distinction’ that I am making), it’s just that its scope and purpose is a little different. Raaja has transcended the idiom and brought elements of ‘higher art’ into it while still maintaining the ‘immediate appeal’ that characterizes (and should characterize) a mass medium like film music. It is doubtful if any musician in the world dealing with a popular musical medium (like pop, rock, film music etc) has ever brought in such an immense and breathtaking array of musical vocabulary and has internalized and reflected it in so personal a way. (What can we call Raaja’s music? – Tamil folk melodies meets Carnatic music meets Hindustani music meets 70’s disco music meets Bach meets electronic music meets ……….) What is amazing is that finally it bears a patent/trademark of homegrown Raaja. (It is not Bach, it is not Earth, Wind and Fire, it is not Carnatic music, it is Ilayaraaja.) In my personal opinion, Steely Dan and the later albums of Sting come closest to standing rock solid on musical and artistic sophistication, while still being couched in a ‘commercial’ medium.
I grew up with Raaja’s music and I can clearly see how I can revisit his old songs and find such technical virtuosity in his writing – his unmatched use of chormaticism in ‘Indianish’ melodies, his extensive use of intricate counterpoint, his vast knowledge of Carnatic music, the ‘correctness’ of every chord in his songs and above all the speed with which he composes clearly show that the man is secure, knows exactly what he wants and delivers. Raaja has raised the standards of us, South Indian listeners so much, that there are many of us who never bothered to listen to Hindi songs for e.g.. (we never needed to, right?). He has raised the standards of musicianship to such a high level among studio musicians in Chennai (I realized the huge gulf, when I worked with string players in Bombay for e.g.) that many times I wonder how the musicians even played some of the parts that are there in his music.
I have never heard a guitar even remotely out of tune in Raaja’s songs for example (believe me, that’s very rare in general). I have to make a special mention of Raaja’s use of the electric bass guitar. I have never heard such meticulous written bass parts (its clearly written carefully), as it is in Raaja’s - song after song after song. Mention also to some brilliant acoustic drum work (a lost and ancient art in India) on Raaja’s songs.
I would like to end this article with what Raaja himself told me once (about the limitations of being in the film medium) “Enakku innum niraya ideas irukku. Ithule ellam panna mudiyathu. Ithu Mint Streetille okkanthu Jabam panra mathiri!” (translated as “I have lot more ideas. I may not be able to do all of them in this. It’s like sitting in the middle of Mint Street and meditating”). I am sure we’ll agree that he has meditated exceptionally well on Mint street!


- guitar Prasanna ( www.guitarprasanna.com )

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