Thursday, 21 March 2013

Sultan of Strings

A minor article about a major subject that requires (and deserves) a book-length treatise, takes a look at the violin in Ilayaraja’s music...

Baradwaj Rangan

For someone so steeped in the idiom of Western classical music, it’s no surprise that Ilayaraja’s songs feature so much of the violin, most notably in the symphonic cascades of string music – either in the preludes and interludes of songs, or in the background tracks underscoring scenes. What’s remarkable, though, is how differently, how unusually the instrument has been put to use. Take Endrendrum Aanandhame from Kadal Meengal, and erase from your mind the visions of Suman in a butterfly bow-tie. Fashion, unlike music, don’t transcend their time. The song, though, is a beauty – and one you don’t expect to have much use for a violin. Yes, a violin , a solitary instrument. What might it be doing in a composition designed for a disco-club kind of scenario? The synthesizer we can see a place for, just as we recognise, in this universe, the legitimacy of drums and distorted guitar effects. But a violin?

But it’s there, and it announces itself midway through the prelude by striking a long, sustained note and then several shorter microtone-like bursts. By the latter half of the prelude it has completely taken over, almost essaying phrases from a raga, and the other instruments have receded to the background, doing what the violin usually does in a Carnatic concert. It’s such a burst of unusual colour that the song is thrust into an entirely different dimension – not just disco, but something beyond, something that no one, those days, knew enough about to categorise as “fusion”. That label is often slapped on arrangements that simply fuse an instrument from the East with one (or many) from the West, but this is the fusing of two universes, Carnatic music outlining the contours of a disco number. And not in a gimmicky way, but in a manner that’s so organic that it seems to rise from the red earth of this musical landscape.

The prelude ends, and so does the sound of the violin. We don’t hear it till the first interlude, echoing a passage played by the synth, except that it ends on a lower note. That, in itself, is sharp relief, for the sound of a violin, strident and soft all at once, is so distinctive that it’s impossible to listen to anything else – at least, any other instrument – while it’s being played. And if there had been no more of the violin, the song, this interlude, would have still stood out as unique, different from all the other disco songs of the time. But, of course, that’s not all. After frilly flute passages, and a guitar that rises to a near-crescendo, the violin, ever the diva, elbows its way to the foreground again, grabbing our attention with four lines of melody that end on the note at which the singer takes off in order to render the first stanza.

In the first stanza, the violin is used to add a splash of colour to the line endings, as if playing tag with the singer. And then, silence – until it takes over the opening of the second interlude, with furiously bowed passages. It makes way for other instruments, and then returns to shadow the glorious conclusion. And all along, we realise, perhaps only after the song comes to an end, that a genre that’s known and celebrated for its exuberance has been tinged with an air of melancholy. The fusion isn’t just of genres and instruments, but of mood. Ilayaraja liked to do that. The justly famous Poonkathave, from Nizhalgal, comes to mind, another song that opens with the sad strains of a solo violin cresting above an upbeat bank of violins being played in unison. It’s a love song, a happy song, but again, in the second interlude, this solo violin makes its sorrow heard.

If I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of space describing a single song, with a cursory nod to another, it’s because of two reasons. The first is academic. As the poem tells us, little drops of water make up the mighty ocean, and it is through the specific that we approach the general. Singular instances of violin use in individual songs add up to a grand, overarching statement about Ilayaraja’s use of the violin.
But this reason, though true, is also something of a copout. Because, more importantly, a writer is handicapped when given a word count to write about this subject, which can fill a book, several books, given Ilayaraja’s output and the number of genres in which he’s put the violin to use. Put differently, it’s impossible, with this constraint, to arrive at that grand, overarching statement, and all we can do is analyse and appreciate the singular instances.

Like the four ascending violin lines that hand over the baton to the flute in  the prelude of Sendhoorapoove, from 16 Vayadhinile. Or the solo violin that sets up Pothi Vacha Malligai Mottu from Mann Vaasanai, another instance of a joyful duet being etched with a semblance of sadness. Or the great numbers of violins, in the prelude of Sundari from Thalapathy, that, instead of outlining a tune, appear to vibrate at an atomic level, functioning as the atmosphere from which the flute draws its breath. Or the violin concerto in Raajapaarvai, half Carnatic, half Western, and fully magical, the moment of transition between genres one of the most electric among all film music. Or the entirely violin-free opening of Unnai Nenachen, the terribly downbeat song from Aboorva Sagotharargal that a different music director would have festooned with solo-violin passages, right from the get-go. Sometimes, even the absence of an instrument can make a loud statement about its showcasing by the hands of a master.

The writer is a National Award-winning film critic and the author of Conversations With Mani Ratnam. He is currently the Deputy Editor of The Hindu

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