Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ilayaraja's 'How To Name It':Perils Of Music Sans Philosophy

As school children we all learn Newton's laws of motion. Towards the end of the schooling we learn the higher concepts of quantum physics including the famous Heisenberg's 'uncertainty principle. Little do we, both American and Indian school children, realize that what we think of as just math and science is much more than that. Biographer James Gleick in 'Isaac Newton' explains how Newton was inspired his reading of Aristotle. Newton had hundreds of volumes in personal including Francis Bacon's 'Novum Organum' and Aristotle's 'Nichomachean Ethics'. Germany was the cradle of modern physics and the shadow of Immanuel Kant was long and deep. Einstein had read Kant as a school boy. Paul Dirac read John Stuart Mill in school. We learn the mathematical principles of the probability theories and little do we realize that Laplace was a philosopher of the first rate. Leibniz was more a philosopher than a mathematician. Likewise Henri Poincare.

It is a mistaken notion, particularly amongst Indians, that philosophy is some abstruse time wasting avocation with no relation to the immediate. That is largely true of Indian philosophy which was more concerned about ethics and could not help being more a theology than philosophy. When quantum physics upended the Newtonian deterministic model of universe chaos ruled the roost. While I learned the physics of those theories my curriculum did not prepare me for pondering on the significance of those theories. When quantum physics said that the observer impacts what is observed it opened a can of philosophical worms. If the observer impacts what is observed then the observations are 'tainted' and that means its not 'objective'. If objectivity dies then so does a lot. If truth becomes subjective then everything becomes relative. And all that is just scraping the surface. The point being there is nothing in our lives without philosophy.

Indians enjoy music in 3 levels. One, and this is the large majority, as film music. Two, as an esoteric activity where losing one's self in a kind of trance. Three, as a background noise to our daily chores like driving. The last is common to other people. Indians are not accustomed to the idea that books can foment revolutions and create wars. "So you are the woman who started the war" said Lincoln when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of 'Uncle Tom's cabin'. Thomas Kuhn's 'Structure of scientific revolutions' caused a stir in America. European history is replete with authors instigating movements and revolutions. As much as literature was seen as ivory tower activity so also music is seen as only an activity to lull the senses or to tickle it momentarily. That music, as an art form, can be political and philosophical is something many Indians fail to realize or appreciate.

Why do I expect a Tamil film musician or a Carnatic musician to study literature and philosophy? Is it unfair? Is it some sort of snobbery. No and No. 

Lets take a contemporary example from Tamil Nadu. One can talk about Jeyamohan's collection of stories 'Aram' (அறம்) like one speaks of a sequence of events with no deeper pondering. One can narrate the story of a boy dependent on his relatives for food (சோற்றுக் கணக்கு) as "a boy went to live with his relatives...". 'Justice' has become a central theme, a philosophical prism, for Jeyamohan in his thoughts and writings. If a teacher or reviewer talks of those stories drawing on Indian philosophy, psychology, Ayn Rand, Aristotle and Plato the discussion is elevated. Can we reduce 'Anna Karenina' to an extra-marital affair? We expect and relish philosophy in fiction. Can we reduce 'Pather Panchali' to just a sorry tale of poverty? We explore with joy the multi layered meanings. Yet, when it comes to music we are glad to stop with talk of technology, the notes, the raga, the gamakam (inflection), harmony and other details.

Pianist Rafal Blechacz, replying to a question on what is his personal process of learning a new piece, said "it’s also very important for me to study other things and subjects. It can’t always be just music. A few years ago, I began studying philosophy, especially that of aesthetics. I very much concentrate on the books about interpretation, about freedom in the arts, etc. For example, there’s a very interesting Polish philosopher, Roman Ingarden, a student of the famous German philosopher, Edmund Husserl. Ingarden wrote a small book about the identity of a musical work, which includes many thoughts on interpretation, etc. I’m currently writing a small book on logic and the metaphysics of music, and I use many examples from Bach, and a lot of Chopin, of course".

Legendary Venezuelan musician and conductor Gustavo Dudamel was asked by a reporter on books he is currently reading. Dudamel said he was reading "short stories by the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar". At Dudamel's office, the reporter spots books by Aristotle, Nietzche, books on history and more. Why does Dudamel have to read history? Time magazine declared Dudamel as one of the world's 100 most influential people and wrote that while performing Shostakovich's symphony No.10 he tries to make the violins sound more biting and caustic because the symphony portrays the dark days of Stalinist terror. Dudamel had read the history of the purges and Shostakovich's own dread of being hauled of to a gulag. Note, Dudamel is a Venezuelan reading up on Russian history in order to perform a symphony. He also reads Greek and German philosophers in addition to an Argentine short story book.

America's most famous school for music and dance, Juilliard, lays a heavy stress of liberal arts for a student of any discipline. A dance student has to take 18 credits in liberal arts. The liberal arts curriculum includes a study of civil rights struggle in America, European history, elective language courses in foreign languages, ethics, history of Renaissance and more. If one peruses the library catalogue of Madras Music Academy its not surprising to see that almost all books that talk about music beyond raaga, gamakam etc is by westerners.

The American education system, like its European counterpart, lays a heavy stress on liberal arts curriculum, called 'core curriculum', for all disciplines. Whether one chooses to be a doctor or a civil engineer or a sociologist the college curriculum includes studying classics and history. One is not thought of as a graduate unless one has had a peek into the classics. This has been proven to widen a student's ability to think outside the box. It stimulates a fresh approach to a beaten down problem, it helps create new paradigms and new perspectives. When a musician, composer or virtuoso, reflects on Aristotle's poetics it is impossible not to gain a new vision towards what he creates.

If a Polish pianist can learn from Greek philospohy why not T.M.Krishna? It is the inability to learn from beyond the borders and beyond the realm of music that keeps carnatic musicians in a parochial paradigm. The little that T.M.Krishna speaks about ideas on archiving etc are mere nibbling at the edges. Its pathetic that these middling ideas are presented to an audience under the title 'leadership'. 

Ilayaraja rode to fame on a wave of new Tamil cinema that was spearheaded by K.Balachander, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, Mahendran and others. Those directors presented Raja with interesting 'situations' to compose music for. Bharathiraja took Tamil movies from the stifling sets to the dusty roads of villages. Scoring music for a movie set in a village similar to where he spent his childhood Raja, himself new on the scene, provided refreshing scores. In less than ten years Raja became titular, arrogant and insufferable. Almost all the top directors left him. Only directors like his own brother and Raj Kiran were left. Raja's music became jaded. While at the top Raja released his first, and an industry first probably, non-filmi music album that was purely about music. The album titled 'How to name it' to signify the fusion of east and west was a roaring success. I've listened to it and lost myself in my teens when I did not know better. Today I consider it a work of singular mediocrity.

Raja, who took the Trinity college music exams, was schooled in Western Classical unlike his predecessors. Raja's acumen as a student is unassailable. For a boy, from an impoverished family in a remote village in India, to learn and apply Bach's fugue techniques is just brilliant. The titles track 'how to name it', 'I met Bach in my house' show touches of brilliance in technique and flashes of imagination.  The track 'Chamber welcomes Thiagaraja' is passable. 'Study for violin' has a piano and violin in a counterpoint or fugue like question-answer structure for a mere minute and half. The rest is pure drivel with the tracks 'Don't compare' and 'Do Anything' taking the prize for mediocrity. Those tracks show a man who remains imprisoned within Tamil film music format and unable to reach beyond.

The album exposes the shallowness of Raja's music. This is not a man who can dream of a grand theme. He had not educated himself for that. Even the idea of a fusion music is not original. Ravi Shankar was the grand daddy of fusion music. Raja's fame rests on how he brought freshness to Tamil film music by the skillful, some would say 'genius', melding of Western Classical with Carnatic. Most of those songs however have wonderful music for just the prelude and interlude with the tabla holding up the melody for the most part when verses are sung.

Raja has no intellectual ability to conceptualize what is art. Before his worshippers bare their fangs at me, note that I am not deriding his ability to create music. When a good director gives him a challenging situation like Balachander asking for a music without descending notes (avarohanam) Raja rises to the occasion. Left on his own he flounders for ideas. Without a conceptual unifying theme that progress to present an idea the music falls flat as a composition. 'How to name it' reflects the confusion of the artist. Art can portray confusion. A music or poetry or painting can reflect the chaos in the world. That is an artist's conception of how he sees the world. But the art form itself cannot be a jumble of ideas. Even if one conceded that what is Raja confused about? Is it some existential dilemma of 'to be or not to be'? No.

Sir Neville Mariner was approached by Milos Forman to compose music for his grandiose fictional story of Mozart based on Peter Shaeffer's play 'Amadeus'. Sir Mariner insisted that the film's music be only from Mozart and Salieri and that the music will not be mutilated. He insisted that the film be scripted around the music. Only Ilayaraja, consumed with his own arrogance and egotism, could make Tamil Nadu's greatest modern poet Bharathi sing the lyrics of a third rate film lyricist in the biopic 'Bharathi'. Raja, no Mariner himself, did not have any idea of art or music as art that can be used to tell the story of one of India's greatest poet. It should be noted that Raja's fans often credit him with shoring up a sloppy movie with his music and that he often gave better music than what the directors were even capable of imagining. Raja's fans gush that he often instructs directors on the placement of songs etc. With that in mind I'd not hesitate to say that only a person like Raja can malign Bharathi because he had no philosophy in him. Devotion to exotic nihilist sadhus like Ramana Maharishi is not philosophy. In a way I'd say that worshipping Ramana Maharishi affected Raja's worldview in addition to the otherworldly nature of Carnatic music.

Just as broader Indian education system needs to be reformed so should music education in India be reformed. We should stop asking "why should a Carnatic musician read Shakespeare or Aristotle". Nothing but good can come from reading those. I'd add that India, the land of Upanishads and Dhammapada, lost its vigor for philosophy and that is one of the reasons for the rootless and rudderless nature of its intellectual trends. As we produce technicians in Engineering colleges so also we are producing technicians in music.


Juilliard's liberal arts curriculum :'

'The Great American University' by Jonathan Cole (Former Provost of Columbia University).


Pradeep said...

Love this post and violently agree with the central point being made.
However you say this - "That is largely true of Indian philosophy which was more concerned about ethics and could not help being more a theology than philosophy" and also seem to suggest towards the end that we should draw inspiration from Dghammapada and the Upanishads. Can you pls. explain the seeming contradiction?

Athenaeum said...

Pradeep. No contradiction. Indian philosophy was not just about otherworldliness. That is a majority but not all of it was like that. Also even within an otherworldly format there was quite a bit that was really astounding. Buddhist Dhammapada is way beyond just attaining heaven. Its heavy on ethics. I picked the two streams of Indian philosophy that are most admired by many, including westerners.

Pradeep said...

Another case in point validating your argument is the song 'janani janani'.
Given the first few lines are from Sowndarya lahiri (Adi Shankara's eulogy to Goddess Shakti - which is really a meditation on the glory of nature itself), I am assuming the song was inspired by that work.

Pradeep said...

One more thought:

I have boiled down at least 4 things that are critical for good music:

Two are internal factors:

a) Knowledge of music
b) An inherent musical sense/aesthetics - essentially the intangibles

And then there are two external factors:

c) An interesting/inspiring subject matter
d) the composer's knowledge/immersion in that subject matter.

Ilayaraja certainly had the first two. As you pointed out the bharathirajas and balachanders of the world provided him some interesting/inspiring subject matters. As long as these were close to home, i think he immersed himself in it and brought out the subject matter nicely. 'mandram vandha' song is a good example. However the subject matters tossed out to him in the context of commercial tamil cinema were still mundane compared to the things that the some of the other composers you mention were inspired by.

When i compare ARR with IR, the albums that came to mind were Mangal Pandey (I didn't get the feeling ARR immersed himself enough in the 1800's indian history and no wonder the album was mediocre) and Couples retreat which again failed to gel with the subject matter.

On the other hand I feel that composers like Amit trivedi especially and Sneha khanwalkar have been lucky enough to get some novel subjects thrown at them and they seem to get the importance of immeersing themselves in matters alien to them before they embark on composing for those...Amit's trishna and lootera are good examples while Sneha's Gangs of Wasseypur was good. Not sure if you have seen Sneha's 'Soundtrippin' program on MTV but its a great study in how you let a mileu inspire you to produce some good music.

godavar said...

Discovered your blog today via your post about the "loss" of Gandhi and Nehru to the nation, and then came to this article. I agree with your thesis, but I believe it is a wider problem with our education as a whole. We are only paying lip service to art at any point. Total immersion is only spoken about as the pursuit of savants, not the task of ordinary men and women.
Also, I would love to hear your view of the monk's chant from Ship of Theseus.

Madan said...

You have said "Only Ilayaraja, consumed with his own arrogance and egotism, could make Tamil Nadu's greatest modern poet Bharathi sing the lyrics of a third rate film lyricist in the biopic 'Bharathi'"

Could you please enlighten me as to who wrote the lyrics for Nirpathuve Nadapathuve?

Also, "Even the idea of a fusion music is not original. Ravi Shankar was the grand daddy of fusion music" - I have not grown up on Ravi Shankar's music so could you please point out examples where Panditji used Western concepts like counterpoint, fugue and key modulation within an Indian context?

Lastly, "Most of those songs however have wonderful music for just the prelude and interlude with the tabla holding up the melody for the most part when verses are sung" - Do you mean to say that most Ilayaraja compositions do not have chord progressions developing along with or even independent of vocal melody?

Karthi said...

"When a good director gives him a challenging situation like Balachander asking for a music without descending notes (avarohanam) Raja rises to the occasion. Left on his own he flounders for ideas."

Do you have any references which suggest that it was Balachander's idea to compose a song using only ascending notes? Because from interviews and articles I have read elsewhere, it would appear that it was Ilayaraja's idea to experiment as such.

Karthi said...

Also, I think Nirpathuve nadapathuve and Ninnai charanadaindhen were written by Bharathi right?

Other songs were also not so bad. Decent lyrics.

Athenaeum said...

Madan and Karthi: Thanks for visiting my blog. I've come to know that you all deeply worship Raja. I've no comments to add to your discussion. This blog would not have been to your liking.

I am well aware that in Bharathi movie that all songs, barring two, are by Bharathi. My point was about using a Pulamai Pithan to write a song for a pivotal scene that portrays the time when Subramanian becomes Bharathi. (ok I know that the 'title' Bharathi was something he earned in his childhood). Yes Pulamai Pithan and Mu Metha are third rate compared to Bharathi.

I did see some discussion on who made the suggestion to use 'avarohanam' in Sindhu Bhairavi. Even if I were to concede your point, I've no issues, I am still correct in the main. The point was that Raja antagonized very creative directors like KB, Mani Rathnam, even Bharathiraaja due to his arrogance. For a film musician good directors are important. Having antagonized them all that Raja had was Raj Kiran and Ramarajan. Those directors gave good challenging situations to Raja and even helped with good filming. KB was stunned by the quality of what raja gave for Punnagai Mannan song "enna sat ham intha neram". Then KB challenged himself to visualize the song. Bharathiraja had a symbiotic relationship with I.Raja. I think I've made my point.

The reference to Ravi Shankar was only limited to the fact that it was Shankar who popularized 'fusion' music as we know it today.

A final note. Thanks for understanding that I might have been busy with other stuff than publishing comments. The moderation is there to simply avoid spam and indecent comments.

Karthi said...

I appreciate your patient reply, Athenaeum. First some clarifications - I don't worship Raja. As a matter of fact I like MSV and KVM more and like Beethoven in western classical, but that is not germane to this discussion. What I can't deny though is Raja's genius. At the same time, I feel there are aspects of his composing which can be critiqued just like there are harsh criticisms of certain aspects or works of Mozart or Brahms.

I was hoping when I started reading your post that you would talk about those, particularly as you bring interesting examples from western philosophy and science. In that sense it is disappointing to see the cliched 'arrogance' argument which is impossible to substantiate or prove. For that matter, many western classical composers were also insufferably arrogant and mercurial, including Beethoven. So your thesis based upon the 'arrogance' hypothesis and proving that this somehow was his undoing is, I am sorry to say, weak.

Another thing, even though I am not really 'into' the millenial Raja, he has been giving excellent scores every now and then including Hey Ram and Nee thane enthan ponvasantham last year which I enjoyed immensely much to my own surprise.

Finally, I completely disagree that Ilayaraja shared a symbiotic relationship with Bharathiraja who is a worst director and got good songs from him only because he happened to be his friend since much earlier. Even Mani Ratnam and Balachander are highly overrated and never did any real justice to song picturization. Only Balu Mahendra was good in that and Mahendran to some extent.

Anyway, maybe we should agree to disagree? Interesting blog and different perspectives nonetheless!

Madan said...

My point was about using a Pulamai Pithan to write a song for a pivotal scene that portrays the time when Subramanian becomes Bharathi - Right but the point is a person unacquainted with Bharathiyar's work might justifiably assume, on reading your blog, that Nirpathuve or Nallathor were not written by him but by a third rate lyricist. So you have not really addressed that aspect of my question. The premise of your post is interesting (and to a limited extent, I empathise with it) but these factual mistakes detract from the quality of the article.

I am indifferent to your opinions on IR as a person and if you think he is arrogant and egoistic or humble and modest, I couldn't care less either which way because I haven't met him and do not know yet if you have. But if you had restricted yourself to statements that are well justified and complete, the essence of your article would not be lost whereas it reads now as if you have got a little carried away with your opinions on IR and allowed that aspect to distract from the premise (which is far wider than just IR's personality). IR's work in fusion goes much deeper in exploring Western-Indian synthesis and utilizing Western techniques like counterpoint than Ravi Shankar, to the best of my knowledge. To say therefore that 'even fusion is not an original idea' is as if to suggest Beethoven wasted his time writing symphonies, since the format dates back to Haydn. That is just one example. In an elaborate article arguing for the application of Western philosophy in Indian art, the lack of a Western rigour in framing the arguments is disappointing.

PS: Sorry if this turns out to be a double post but I couldn't figure out whether or not I passed the verification!

Athenaeum said...


The blog was not written to trash Raja or to debunk him in totality. Ilayaraja has earned his place in the pantheon of Tamil film musicians like KVM, MSV and ARR. The series on music was written with Raja worshippers (may not be you) who claim the sky for him with little realization. The other day a person wrote Mozart and Ilayaraja. Now, not even Raja himself will claim that. In fact he would scold anyone who equated Raja with Mozart.Because he knows the truth.

Second, the objective was to show how composing music is not just about talent and knowledge of fugues and counterpoints. I am a big fan of the Western (especially American) style of education. In US for undergrad there is a very heavy emphasis on liberal education. Even if one does a Doc course or an Engg course the curriculum will have a heavy liberal arts component. Check out the Juilliard college curriculum link I gave. Here music colleges dont teach just how to play an instrument or the principles of composing. Education involves an understanding of history and philosophy. Thats why I cited Dudamel, a Venezuelan, who is reading argentine literature.

That kind of reading expands the mind. Beethoven, a German, read Shakespeare in an age when there was no wikipedia or See my other blogs in that series and you will get an idea of where I am coming from. You may still disagree. Thats your liberty.

It is in that context that I wrote this blog to say that Raja (and many Indian musicians including Ravi Shankar) dont have a broader idea of music as an art form to be a channel for ideas, an art form to influence and change a society etc. It is in that context I said that Raja lacks 'philosophy'.

Now coming to the songs in the movie 'Bharathi' my comparison is clearly with the movie 'Amadeus'. In the latter movie the composer insisted to the director that only Mozart and Salieri pieces should be used for all music. My grudge in 'Bharathi' movie was not even about the 'mayil pola' song. Its more about 'Etihlum ingu' which comes at a pivotal moment. Many Raja lovers, including you, exult that Raja has influenced directors to change scenes or situations to provide better music. So where was that Raja when he was scoring music for one of India's greatest poet.

Remember Raja is a man of principles. He refused to score music for 'Periyar' saying he will not score music for a movie about an atheist even if the producer gives him several crores. In Raja's mind, like every Indian musician, music is a religious art. Its not a higher art form with relation to everyday society. That is because his intellectual horizons are very limited.

Thanks for giving me an opportunity to explain and re-iterate.

Madan said...

I have already said that I am indifferent to opinions about IR. Everybody is free to have opinions, be they pleasant or unpleasant. I also said that the premise of your post is interesting, so that, I should assume, suggests that I am aware of what it is about. I have simply urged for more rigour in framing your arguments and I stand by that criticism. You may dislike that criticism but that is not my concern. The three statements I questioned you about are factually inaccurate and/or incomplete. To reprise:

1)Ilayaraja did not use Bharathiyar's poems for all the songs of the film but it is not as if he did not use them at all (which is not coming out in said statement of yours). You could have specified the songs for which you intended the criticism for the sake of completeness.

2)Ilayaraja's fusion is more comprehensive and pervasive than Ravi Shankar's work. I asked the question to give you an opportunity to rebut and direct me to specific works of Panditji but you have not done so thus far. Therefore, I fail to see what is the relevance of Ravi Shankar being the grand daddy of fusion. That does not preclude others from composing fusion music or diminish their significance. I respect your specific criticisms of How To Name It even if I do not agree with most of them. But this statement re Ravi Shankar does not sound logically convincing. Furthermore, fusion in a general sense and not restricted to Indo-Western goes back at least to Dvorak. And it could be argued that from the days of Mozart and Beethoven, classical composers have sought to integrate the folk music they were exposes to with the norms of Western classical music.

3) Several of Ilayaraja's 'classics' are chord based songs without tabla. To name only a few: Mandram Vandha, Oru Poongavanam, Neethane Enthan Ponvasantham, Raja Raja Cholan Naan, Kannan Vandhu Padugindran. For the sake of brevity, I will cut short the list here. These are not exceptions from his work but landmark songs that could be used to highlight salient features of his style and approach. Whether or not they are also works of singular mediocrity is not highly relevant because the question is more descriptive: the songs do not rely on tabla as the chief percussion instrument and have chords accompanying and interacting with the vocal melody. Hence, your statement that most of his songs have only tabla holding up the vocal melody sounds dubious and is contradicted by the factual reality.

I should hope that relativity does not give us licence to ignore basic facts and logic because without these, it would be exceedingly difficult to construct arguments and base a discussion on the same. I request you to please consider this criticism in your future articles, regardless of whether or not they involve Ilayaraja. The ability to distinguish facts from personal impressions and opinions in presenting an argument will enhance the quality and readability of them.

Athenaeum said...


One more try. :-). If something was outright wrong and could be made better I'd not hesitate to change. About the Bharathiar song I'll revisit it to see if I can add clarity. As I said before I am still correct in the overall comparison with Amadeus.

About Ravi Shankar and fusion. Ravi Shankar is NOT a composer unlike Ilayaraja. Time and again I've said that Raja is a talented guy. Only thing is, in my opinion, he took Tamil film music to a different plane as much as MSV did before him and ARR did after him. Very often his admirers go gaga over his using some fugue and counterpoint techniques.Remember those techniques have been applied by Raja for just a minute or two in a song. Raja is a COMPOSER unlike Shankar. I was just trying to say that Raja did not invent 'fusion'. It had been in vogue for decades before him in the specific form of east-west combo.

On the 3rd point. Raja has composed music for 5000+ songs. We can keep going at it all day long about how such and such song showcased such and such technique. Again my point was to stress that many of the 'awe inspiring' techniques like Fugue+counterpoint etc, as I said before, was only for a minute or two. That does not make him a Bach. I wrote that only to rebut his blind worshippers who, without any idea, claim that he is Bach's equal. (I am not saying you claim so). And, finally, it is not just me who feels that Raja's interludes, preludes etc will be elaborate but his charanams will be mostly with a background Tabla. That does not mean he has never used chords etc.

Above all this is only a blog on one topic. This is NOT a PhD dissertation. I write on so many other topics. Please check out my other blogs in June and May 2013 for my views on music in general. And then there are others. I've always looked at a blog as only something to tickle an interest and leave the reader with some food for thought. I think I've achieved that. Thanks.

Anand Mahadevan - Chennai GURU said...

Very interesting blog...IMHO Music has nothing do with philosophy. Its the most natural outpouring of soul. Its a simple reflection of a composers's mind.

Music has to happen. You can't think and compose.

Raja's best has been this last decade.. A clear evolution of a composer and continues to still amaze me. "Rama Rajayam" was a master piece. You can simply use that album for a doctoral thesis on music.

I am not a Raja fan but personal attack on an individual simply using contextual references is not a great idea. We do not know this man but God has chosen him to deliver purity. Its a reference to purity.

Unknown said...

One important point, Sir Neville Marriner did not compose any music for the movie Amadeus. He supervised the Mozart selections for the movie. He did insist that they be full pieces. He is not a composer. So, it is unfair to compare him to Ilayaraja. A good comparison would be a composer like Leonard Bernstein who had a great combination of symphonic, ballet, theater choral and chamber music. Of course, Ilayaraja is no Bernstein.

Unknown said...

Prakash Arunachalam.
Yes.LOL!! Elmer Bernstein was not even considered near to Ilayaraja even though Ilayaraja did not compose for Hollywood movies. Bernstein is some where far away at 20 in all time greats list. Taste of Cinema. If Ilayaraja has composed for Hollywood movies, he will be No 1.

I understand some of things about Indian culture about thinking that what they know is the "Best in the world" and can not be changing the old ideas - not only the music. Even I believe, Always Believe, the generations today must be "More Smart & Intelligent than" 2000 year old authors, creators and their ideas. I also believe, everything need not to be recognized by west.
Regarding Ilayaraja, you are completely wrong. His music will be studied for the next centuries.
Only reason he did not get chance earlier in his age, he was from Untouchables caste. He does not talk about it, because it is worse than racism. And because of it, we missed another 1000 songs and another 400 movies of great BGM.

Anonymous said...

I do not think Raja sir needs any comparison or critic's opinion. His music is divine, brings happiness to the soul and calms the mind. His music is what nature is, just enjoy it.
Brilliance can have a touch of madness

Unknown said...

I could not resist wading into this topic, though it may be dated.

With my limited knowledge of music, it seems that maintaining essence of ragams (enough to satisfy the purists) while presenting it surrounded by western classical music is not easy. This is a unique style of Illayaraja. Just this is a big enough achievement for one person's lifetime, given both these forms are not easy to begin with.

Regarding intellectualising music, following his initial success, Illayaraja did go to places like Vienna (he has written about this) and tried to meet various people and not always successful in his attempts. In the original How To Name It, there were sleeve notes (with Rangaswamy Parthasarathy) where he explains the thought process behind the compositions. This is not available anymore for some reason. He also did an interview for a radio station in NY at that time which went unnoticed. The effort was there. We are all products of our environments and the exposure we get in our formative years.

I have seen Ravi Shankar live a few times including once in London with a full orchestra. It was not "fusion", more of him elaborating on a raga (while the orchestra waits) and then the orchestra playing and back and forth. This was not a cohesive unified output. But no one doubts his genius or his contributions based on this. His brother Ananda Shankar had released a "fusion album". To my novice ears, it sounded more like a band playing indian melodies or ragas with western instruments thrown in. That had its place. L. Subramaniam's attempts also sounded similar to Ravi Shankar's to my untrained ears.

The irony is all of these musicians are friends/admirers of each other while we dissect their work. Ravi Shankar, despite his stature, had kind words about Illayaraja (mentioned alongside a few other film composers).

But hope the writer of this blog continues his various critiques. We need to elevate the level the discussions in general and have a more expansive world view. But there is a famous scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall with a Columbia University professor. Guard against pretensions.

Anonymous said...

1. Ilayaraja's ability, just come out directly. What you did? For a simple work to criticize Raja, you pulled Newton and other physics (though sound is in physics, a school boy knows it). If you are very proud of saying something by mixing Newton and Raja, why not Raja mixes (fusion) western and k(c)arnatic? Just for a few pages of writing an article (thesis?), you are so arrogant and sarcastic to mention about Rajkiran as good director and gave good situation to Raja, then Raja SIR also must be toooooooo arrogant for his music. Nothing wrong with that.
2. If KB can make musician to get the right song, why he did not try that with Deva ro someone else?
3. You are totally biased in giving your opinion because of your probably, Brahmin background.
4. Many people learned or get to know many things in music because of Ilayaraja.
5. You mentioned that "I am a big fan of the Western (especially American) style of education. In US for undergrad there is a very heavy emphasis on liberal education. Even if one does a Doc course or an Engg course the curriculum will have a heavy liberal arts component. Check out the Juilliard college curriculum link I gave. Here music colleges dont teach just how to play an instrument or the principles of composing. Education involves an understanding of history and philosophy. Thats why I cited Dudamel, a Venezuelan, who is reading argentine literature."
Here you need to understand that each credit you earned is basically money or fees. I know a few people who say that the colleges and universities are run by banks. Keep in mind that it is almost financial assistance companies run the courses so that you have to (l)earn a lot of credits, and fees based on the credit hours you know that. If you think that you studied so many different areas or curriculum and you are happy for that, stay happy, but you paid a lot, probably you have plenty Machi.

Vaasi engira Sivakumar said...

I just read your blog...sorry sir...Why Royal philharmonic orchestra called him? Read john Scott conductor to name it or nothing but wind listenerlistene properly? 1000 movies with 6000 hit songs...recent listen tough Tamil of thiruvasagam paarruvaya in thaarai Thappatai...sorry sir

karthick said...

Listen rajas SWAPNAM...and experience the tranquility through his music.

Anonymous said...

Good article. Raja is ok music director not exceptional. He has composed some good pieces but overall quality has been mediocre.MSV is a better music composer, clean prelude and interlude in his songs, Raja is very messy in interlude. No one is denying his talents and his contribution to tamil cinema but I dont think he elevated tamil music to worldwide acceptance like MSV and ARR. Music must reach across cultures and language, Raja has not done this.

Ramachander said...

So next time I teach my students about Critical reasoning and Reading Comprehension, I will be able to give this essay: Ad Hominem all over. I will be glad if the author can explain his/ her point of view with substantial examples? Can we have this for two tracks? Shall leave the choice to you.

Calling Bhagavan Ramana a nihilist is fine. I have no problem at all. But, do you want to again, explain further? Quoting instances when composer read history, dancers mastered polity, doesn't help. Instead, what will help is telling where a particular track fell short of anything that's less than excellence?

We are listening. Go ahead! :)

Ramachander said...

FYI: Sir Neville Marriner supervised the Mozart selections for the movie. He did insist that they be full pieces. That said, he has no composed for the same.

babaman said...

a man's creative expression is an abstraction of a sum total of all his inner experiences, influences, turmoils, elations, disappointments and defeats. that is why many artists start of brilliantly only to burn out later. those who sustain are the ones who discard the trappings of having made it out of the struggle period. being prolific with no time to pause explore learn and absorb has its price.

internationally there are acclaimed artist professionals.. like photographers whose work over the decades continue to blow minds.. these guys work very sparingly.. spending most of the time immersing in the world soaking up experiences learning new things..and then come back once a year to take their craft to a new level.. but if your life is just relegated to dealing with managing your new found status and its corollaries then you find it hard to express something you don't feel.. in music you can fake the genre.. not the soul. every successful musician goes through this.. after all we are all mere mortals.

for ilaiyaraaja to get out of that godforsaken dusty hamlet and straddle the worlds of bach and carnatic music while maintaining the commercial acumen to hold up a mediocre industry itself was his biggest success.

his ego must have been a misinterpretation of having to suffer idiots. i guess he would have gained immensely if he had detached himself from the industry on a personal level and sought friends, sounding boards and mentors from far outside the game.

his brilliance in his early days is undeniable. the way he writes music..the way he gives each instrumentation a space of its own.. if you break down the arrangements you can easily see how much thought has gone into it..

its in the later years when it became a 9 to 5 office for him that he changed.. and then it was time for another generation.. whose thoughts of changing status quo appealed to a then globalised audience..

do one thing.. next lazy weekend.. have a glass of beer .. as the golden yellow sunshine floats into your room.. put on a pair of headphones and let yen vaanile from johnny play.. by the second interlude tell me if your eyes are not moist.. and how you want the old raaja back

Anonymous said...

Free world.
Music can be expressed in any way one / composer wants. Putting boundaries, dictating terms and comparing to other individuals is what listeners do. If everyone was like Bach and Mozart there will be no RAP ( CRAP) and other forms. Iliayaraja has only expressed his emotions through music. To like and not like is our own discretion. If "How to name it" dosen't sound good now or musically different so be it. All the rules and regulations for music is pure garbage for average listener. Just like a good scenery, movie, food etc evoke emotions music will evoke some emotion in all of us. Being critical of the any work does not make us a better individual.

Ravi said...

"Ilayaraja rode to fame on a wave of new Tamil cinema that was spearheaded by K.Balachander, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, Mahendran and others."

Wrong! I noticed how you slipped in K.Balanchander in that list rather smoothly. Ilayaraja's ride to fame was through Mahendran, Balu Mahendra, Barathiraja, Rudrayya, SP Muthuramalingam and others and Balachander does not even feature in any of his rise to fame!

Balanchander came too late in the game when he had no more options and then too, Ilayaraja scores again with a classic.

Ravi said...

"The album exposes the shallowness of Raja's music. This is not a man who can dream of a grand theme. He had not educated himself for that. Even the idea of a fusion music is not original. Ravi Shankar was the grand daddy of fusion music. Raja's fame rests on how he brought freshness to Tamil film music by the skillful, some would say 'genius', melding of Western Classical with Carnatic. Most of those songs however have wonderful music for just the prelude and interlude with the tabla holding up the melody for the most part when verses are sung."

Ilayaraja is the true god of Fusion music if you can call it that. Ravi Shanker and others played what you called two track music. There was this numb Piano or Mridangam playing on side while Ravi Shankar played his sitar on the other. No syncopation between the two, no handshakes not even the same scale most time and this was just jarring noise more than anything. And please stop calling Ravi Shankar a musician. He was an eminent sitar instrumentalist!

govardhan said...

Bad. on philosophy and music.

Some of the funnily wrong things that flowed with such fluidity I saw were

1) regardign philosophy :but I don't wanna speak on ur ideas on philosophy or the factual errors u committed in that field .. after all philosophy is for u . U can have it as u want.
It's not in public domain although u have written about it demanding to be shoved down any graduate. It's still personal for anyone .

2) Music: ur statement that
ilayaraja's total counterpoints are for short duration like minutes unlike Bach bach is at higher level than ilayaraja...

The errors :

a) u have assumed ilayaraja's total counterpoint duration from all his songs to be minutes.(I have read ur other article where u have added the duration in seconds given by a ilayaraja fan who didn't probably know anything on music) - Pitiable false news.

U went by some ilayaraja fan saying he used counterpoint here or there

U can read wiki (u need not know music , and its ok indeed better if u get the gist rather than details) and listen to any playlist of ilayaraja u have.

To give an overall idea :

Counterpoint is just two or more series of variying or same sound frequencies which sound nice on hearing them separately AND while being played together .-
Two tunes sounding good separately and together .

It's difficult to create a Western music based song without counterpoint and make it sound nice for repeated hearing. -BETTER ADD COUNTERPOINTS AND KEEP THE LISTENER ENGAGED FOR LONG IS THE IDEA.

There are so many such songs by ilayaraja. Bass track will be a separate tune .
( But it need not be tune , it can be a long repetitive bass rhythm pattern also .)


counterpoint is so common :D and is a inevitable thing that happens when u write a song and try improving it.

Do u think Rahman songs don't have them?? It comes often .
Do u think Msv songs didn't have it?
It came.

Only if u r in a tight schedule u don't bother about being nice in counterpoints , u avoid to deliberate on it.(exception ilayaraja)

To be put in a simpler one liner

----Counterpoint is not an "awe inspiring" stuff.----

To point out some errors in ur other article about music and Bach and ilayaraja ...

//USA sent Bach's 'fugue' to moon to show our excellence to aliens etc etc etc..

'Fugue' is not name of a compostition

It's name for any music written for certain muscical instrument

There are simply too many fugues .

Ur ideas on 'awesomeness' , 'level In music' are too much based on knowledge gained through reviews about music .

It's not real .. things are 'awe inspiring' and at 'high level' only because the writings u red were written in orgasmic mode fantasizing things & that mood has spread from the writings to you and the terminologies like counterpoints or reviews about bach u red while u were in that mood sounded too superb to be false.

I listened to one of Bach's music just before
(Nomenclature is not in terms of fugue etc)
It goes like bwv564 etc

I listened to bwv 565 in harp by a girl YouTube

Sounded nice.

It's not 'awe' .. awe feel can come even with a series of three notes in a proper instrument that produces the feel..

Lets take Batman bgm. Sa.. Ga2
Two notes to produce whatever that feel is , but it's because of the instrument, not because of tune alone.

Ur admiration for Beethoven and Mozart is also stemming from conditioning .

Good Counterpoint engages u well. That's all.
Counterpoint perse produces awe feel only in reviews. Neither it's a difficult job. To be continued..

govardhan said...

Continuation of the previous comment..

Deliberate or fake ( if it can be called as one) counterpoints can be made .

- write an arpeggio kind of set of notes belonging to the chord of the area in accordance with rhythm and rules of Counterpoint .


it will follow the definition of Counterpoint but a true Counterpoint can always be identified as a composed tune rather mediocre chord arpeggio kind of build unless that chord notes try turned out to be a good tune perse from tweaking by the composer.

Kannan said...

IR music is for people who want to enjoy every element of music. The analysis of his songs & BGMs should be and deserves to be done for every atom of EACH of his works. It is NOT for half-baked seemingly-knowledgeable-sounding pathetic dudes who want to write him off and disgrace him using fancy vocabulary. There is SO MUCH meaning in each and every song - let alone the BGMs. The interludes or preludes tell the gist of the song or sometimes the entire movie. The BGMs reveal the emotions - even if the actors fail to do justice or the director's work is anywhere between average and highly sloppy. That is the MAGIC of his music. He lets his MUSIC SPEAK LOUDER than anything else. It is the empty vessels that make the most noise.

Kavi Venkatesan said...

Raja is beyond all! If you say I'm a worshiper of Raja, so be it.
He is beyond criticism, beyond comparison, beyond time......beyond all. Many utilize him to score their point. You too did! That's it

satyu said...

The great creators don't care about the philosophical underpinnings of implications of their work. They just create. The world can then interpret it in whatever philosophical framework they want. I doubt If Bach, Mozart or Chopin were great fans of philosophy. How about Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff? Did the Beatles take philosophy classes? Yet the music all the people wrote made other"philosophically educated" musicians look mediocre.
And what relation do philosophical interests of interpreters like Rafal Blechacz and Gustavo Dudamel have to do with creators like Ilayaraja? Interpreters have essentially different jobs than creators. Creators with too much "philosophy" can end up becoming ideologues whose music has no inspiration. Philosophy is just an additional flavour that music can have, but it is not a determinant of what is great music. Great music is merely that which talks about what it means to be human.

Chandrasekar R said...

You are right. Apt reply.

kavikathir said...

I think u have some serious IQ disorder.

kavikathir said...


Crustacean said...

You had a good premise, started quite well, and then go on to tie yourself into knots.

Comments that follow seem to question both your understanding of music and philosophy too!

No, I wouldn't be picky about that curriculum bit :)

Nice attempt though...


Kindly add to the other objections one of mine too!

Of Bharathi being a world class poet!

Bharathi was a mediocre poet, even by Tamil standards, but for the invigoration implicit in his subject matter.

Though I am not an expert, I see little in Bharathi's poetry that can be elevated to world class.

Meaning that which can be translated all over the world and which's form or concept can create a silirppu!

Or that head nod of shared understanding of human understanding that comes when we meet universal themes wrapped in local language.

Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone - Omar Khayyam
Love is one soul inhabiting two bodies - Aristotle
The sweetest songs are those of saddest thought - Keats?
And much of Shakespeare....

From such elevated citadels, Bharathi looks overblown.

I tend to think of Bharathi in terms Bharadwaj Rangan used for AR Rahman, the right man in the right place at the right time. That his life was kind of storied may form a patina around him, but that does not deny the fact that much of his writing, read his short stories for instance, were eminently plebeian.

To celebrate him for his themes may be alright, but to celebrate him for his poesy, seems overkill. Many other Tamil poets seem much better than him, both in the concepts they expressed, and the poesy they could wrap it in.

Oh, OK, some are excellent!

Crustacean said...

part II

Coming back to your original conceit, of philosophy and etcetera elevating artistic output, it is to some extent true.

While it is generally true that genius is more born than made, genius once born is also made, by inspiration, and elevated by elevated inputs.

I am personally of the opinion that good art catches you, and if it is good enough, it will hold you, and the world for long enough.

That stance makes me an enemy of art that critics hold good, the kind that critics say comes to you only on reflection, art that demands you travel to it.

On reflection, any art that needs reflection makes it badly executed art, it has failed in its ability to enrapture you.

Art is first for the senses and then the mind.

So unless it enraptures the senses it is not really art, it is masquerade posing as art. If there are layers they need to surface as you spend time with it, but if it fails in its first attempt to grab, it has failed.

That would look like an extreme stance, but failure to take that stance has saddled us with poor art that has to be marketed by critics and writers as good, you need interpreters to enjoy art, which by itself seems an oxymoron.

Take such an understanding to art, and most of what the world calls great art, and great artists do not really make the grade.

Take for instance Leonardo's work, yes the Da Vinchi.

Look at his pencil sketch of a work he never really completed, his largest commission, of horses and battle. Miss seeing these sketches, and you can easily miss the master that he could have been.

Once you see these sketches, much of his real work, the ones he executed seem so-so.

What to say then of other artists, many celebrated by critics?

Many of them really fail to make the grade, when they fail to enrapture first.

If you as artist can merely enrapture and then also elevate it from within, it just proves that there is more to you than just talent. This is where I find your contention right, elevated art usually comes from contact with elevated material and elevated thoughts.

Crustacean said...

Part iii

If that be said of art, what to say of poetry.

Most poetry will simply not make the grade.

Which is probably why some of the pithiest, most lyrical, universal and identifiable quotes have actually come from anonymous people

Not from poets, not from practitioners of the writing art, but from ordinary people moved, into poetry.

It is "that" poetry that moves us...


Coming to music, and to Tamil Music and to this generation, the first time you will notice is that such a art judgement stance makes me an instant enemy of Rahmaniacs.

The very idea that it grows on you after failing to grab you first is its greatest shortfall. Somehow I tend to think of almost all of Rahman's later work as having shortfalls, and being pretentious is the least of their faults.

As you rightly pointed out, composition is about a theme, that not only lays out structure, but also informs the interludes.

Composer, a tag that originated in the late middle ages was about elevated music making, about "architecting" music rather than merely "masoning" it, about a grand theme into which elevation and structure came together into a seamless albeit enrapturing fit.

From that point of view, Rahman's work reminds me of Dharavi.

Because of which, equating him to Mozart actually gives me the creeps, and I do think to him too. Given the chance I would even take off the tag of composer from which he seems lately burdened with, and call him a musician.

Judging Ilayaraja is a different thing altogether.

Crustacean said...

Part IV

For most of his career, he was more like a harried mother, more intent on having her children eat rather than cook up something fancy.

He seemed to thrive in such an environment too, which is where I find commonality with you, he cheapened his talent to meet that insistent demand, but I wonder if he really had any say in it, particularly in the most productive phase of his career.

But he was a composer alright, he could come up with themes startling, even in the midst of hurried work, but as you rightly pointed out, he was more than satisfied to wrap them up in mediocrity.

Perhaps 30 percent of his songs can be called thematically different or brilliant, the other are all so-so, but even that 30 percent comes to quite a big number.

I think he was let down by his lyricists too, to whom when he threw down contorted gauntlets that they failed to pick it up, including the later Vairamuthu.

Notice that when Vairamuthu got free of Ilayaraja, and started to write in his own style, even imposing them on ersatz composers, the composers struggled to find tunes to fit his unwieldy style of writing.

Perhaps this is why many of Rahman's most successful tunes with Vairamuthu's songs are all wails and lullabies, or plaintive cries, long soliloquies, there was really no other way to ascribe a tune to them.

It was not only Rahman who struggles, even the others do. Ilayaraja at one point must have gone through the same conundrum of word and tune competing to set pattern to the output and failing to find common ground.

Among the modern lyric writers, I like to think of Vairamuthu as a composer's graveyard or composer killer, and Rahman as his pre-eminent victim.

Not that Rahman's increasing foray into Islam based music, all of wailing, and crying, and long stretches of warbled wordery was any help. You did imply that Ilayaraja's foray into Carnatic and its associated mysticism had a deleterious effect on his music, the same as I ascribe to Rahman's music making ability.

But this seems a common theme all over the world, even for older Western composers, mysticism somehow seems to grab them somewhere by the collar and shake the music out of them.

Moving back to Ilayaraja, I did wonder, as much as others have done, as to what would have happened had Ilayaraja received Western music training when it mattered most, or had he been born in a Western nation.

There is no doubt that he would have been as prolific as now, much as best seller writers or hit makers are, but as to elevation into world class pieces, I still have my doubts.

I would quote from the scientific world, which has seen many geniuses, many of them much much better and more brilliant than Einstein, but Einstein in particular had a fascination for the big questions, for the ones that are really world class.

The only mundane thing he attempted was Brownian scattering, and even here he managed to kind of found the new science of quantum mechanics while confirming for the first time the truth of atoms.

So somewhere the aim seems to matter, and in this I am with you.

I am also doubtful if Ilayaraja could have really elevated himself, whether he would be able to chuck away the mundane, and elevate himself into the transcendental.

But as to his ability to come up with a theme, and have it sell itself on its own tunefulness, to his intended audience, I think he has no equal, either in his time or earlier.

If there be other lives, it must be for all of us to wish it for him.