Friday, June 11, 2004

Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja - As close as it gets

My friend Hari and I recently had a once in many lifetimes opportunity to get as close as it can get with none other than Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja - yup I am talking about the music director from South India - no typos. This event has strongly reaffirmed by belief in karma. I think such a thing could have been made possible only due to the punyam accumulated from several prior jenmas. And of course you cannot leave out the thavam done in this jenma i.e. the endless hours spent listening to His compositions. Divine interventions apart, the person actually responsible for this experience of ours is Dr. Sankar Kumar, the US coordinator for the Thiruvasakam in Symphony project. Kodaana Kodi Nanrigal Doctor !!

It all started in the first week of May. Dr. SK called me and said that IR was actually going to be in Cary in a couple of weeks. He said he would need my help for the next couple of weeks in organizing the event and I jumped at it. On the day of the event he asked us if I would be interested in accompanying IR for the rest of his trip in the US and the rest is history as they say.

All my friends have asked me to narrate my experiences with IR, and my standard answer has been - "words cannot describe it" - partly because it is true and partly because I am not particularly good at articulating my feelings as words. Anyway I thought I should at least write up some interesting incidents that happened on the trip for the benefit of all the music fans around the world. So here it is. The anecdotes are in no particular order i.e. they are random in time. What he said in the public events is available as a separate blog post so I have not covered these in this blog.

Standard disclaimers apply. I request people not to excessively analyse this post. Just enjoy them for whatever they are worth.

The characters

IR - Aarum Athu Aazham Illai....Athu Serum Kadalum Aazham Illai...Aazhamunna Ayya Antha Raaja Manasuthaanyaa. Very simple yet complex character.
Dr. Sankar Kumar - coordinator of TiS in the USA. I salute his dedication and perseverance. Most people would have given up on this project long back.
Ananth Govindan - It is still surprising that Ananth has not yet sold New Jersey in the black market. I was just amazed at the way he handled IR and people in general.
Vijay & Hari - The usual suspects who actually had no business being in the picture. All they did was shamelessly thulp lots of good food.

Movies and music related

Ilayaraaja in Italy - The Maestro performed in His first ever stage concert in Italy this May - in the Angelica music festival. Apparently one of the organizers of this festival (Mr. Massimo) had listened to (just) one of his songs several years ago and was instantly impressed. He even spent two weeks in Chennai watching the Maestro at work and had been trying to convince Raaja to perform at this music festival for the past 5 years now. Raaja finally agreed to do it this year. The concert mostly comprised of his songs (Azhagu Malar Aada, Janani Janani, Sangathil Paadatha Kavithai were the few he named), orchestrated in a different fashion though. One of the pieces was a (song) medley which captured the essence of all the different kinds of musical expressions from India. The highlight of the concert was however a composition in which he used only 3 notes !!! Before the concert there was a customary address to the audience followed by a question and answer session. Raaja actually wanted to avoid this since there was a possibility that some of the questions might upset his mood, and as a consequence affect the concert. But since it was the custom of the festival he agreed to address the audience, but not field any questions. One interesting remark IR had made during his address was that, in Indian Classical music no note is orphaned (in the sense that we embellish them with gamakams), when compared with Western Classical. The Italian translator added in jest that this statement had nothing to do with the recent political happenings in India. He concluded his address with a mention about his composition in three notes and did a vocal demo right then, leaving the audience speechless. At this point he actually agreed to answer questions, but there were none since the audience were in a spell by then!

IR's new albums - Though we had loads of his CDs in store we didn't listen to any of his old albums on the road trips. We had a chance to listen to a couple of his new ones though. The first was a devotional album on Ramanar to be released during the 125th birth anniversary celebration to happen in September I think. There were around 10 songs. One of them was sung by Unni and one (a Sanskrit krithi) by either Sudha Raghnathan or Bombay Jayashree (I think, I could be wrong here). The Sanskrit krithi was written and composed in 5 minutes. One of the songs was "Yen Ooru Sivapuram" which he also sang in the NY event.

The other album was for a Hindi movie called "Divorce". The songs are really cool and hip - very different from the recent IR ones. IR actually wrote the starting lines of the pallavi for one of the songs, even with his minimal knowledge of Hindi. The lyricist had written a song, which IR felt was too poetic to reflect the thoughts of a small kid. The situation is a kid singing about how he feels like an orphan though he had his parents. And so he sang the pallavi - "Ma hai Ma hai...Papa hai Papa hai..." At this point he asked the director (Ramanan) what the Hindi word for "aanulum" was? And he continued "phir bi etc etc." After the recording of one of the songs Uttam Singh and the singer Alka Yagnik were apparently discussing whether there was anybody in Bollywood to do justice to the picturization of the song.

IR on Virumaandi - "Enna padam ithu. Verum vettu kuthu thaan." Seems IR refused to do the movie at first, on hearing the story, saying there was no scope for music in this movie full of violence. He agreed after Kamal said he would reduce the vettu and kuthus. Reduce panna version ippadinaa, wonder what the uncut version would have looked like?

IR as the editor - IR is usually the first person to see the movie as a whole, while he does the BGMs. He usually advises the director on unnecessary scenes he should remove. Typically new directors listen to him for a few movies and then after they are established do not heed his advice. In Kadhal Kavithai he advised the director Agathiyan to remove a particular scene, which he refused to do citing some reasons. Finally that scene ended up getting chopped by the theatre folks.

IR on how the final mix messes up his BGMs - The BGM levels are decided in the final mix done with the voice track, BGM track and special effects track. In Siraichaalai the mixing was not done properly and the BGM ended up being at a lower level than it should be. According to IR if the had done the mixing right, the moviegoers experience would have been totally differnent and would have even changed the fate of the movie. In Devadhai there is apparently one scene where an army of comes to this fortress to only find that it is completely deserted and empty. IR had as usual used a grand BGM which was followed by stunning silence to convey the emptyness. The special effects guy did not realise this and put some "kaa kaa" sound at this instant, screwing up the whole thing.

IR on Mano vs SPB - "Sir neenge Mano've SPB'ku replacementaa use panneengalaa sir? SPB irukumbodhu ethukku sir Mano use pannanum?" - Laughs "Yaar paadina yenna. Namma tune carry pannidum songe." Laughs "Balu appo romba busyaa irunthaan, athaan."

IR on Janaki - [paraphrasing] "Yenakku Suseela amma romba pidikum, aana Janaki vandhu oru music director oda requirement ellam correctavum, romba quickavum purinchipaange. Ithu ellam naan GKV'ku assistantaa irukkum bodhu naan gavinnupaen."

IR on him playing the Guitar for his songs - He has never played the guitar for any of his songs - including "Ilaya Nila". If there are difficult phrases he will do a demo for the guitarist. For "Ilaya Nila" apparently the the guitarist, who was much senior to him in the industry, was able to reproduce only 10% of what he had shown him. Another song he mentioned where the violinists found it really difficult was "Oru Naal Unnodu Oru Naal" from Uravadum Nenjam, which incidentally is the first song sung by SPB for him.

IR on the ease with which SPB sings - For the movie Kathal Oviyam, IR had requested SPB to come and sing the song "Sangeetha Jaathi Mullai". SPB first refused saying he was very busy that day and had other stuff to do, and finally agreed on the condition that it will be done by 10AM. The recording finally was over at 3pm the same day. The phrase which caused the delay was "Kuyile Kuyile Untha Ragam Nenjil Indru Aadum." If you remember the song - at "Aadum" the tune reaches a crescendo (ri Ri) and then descends (to sa). Originally the descending portion was to be sung as sndpmgrs (avarohanam), but apparently SPB couldn't sing it. IR remaked "Ennapa SNDPMGRS paada mudiyaliyaa." IR had to simplified the tune twice before SPB was able to sing it correctly and the third version is what we hear today.

IR on picturisation of his songs - We had earlier remarked that we saw a lot of kuppai films just for his songs and BGMs. IR says - "Ungalakkey ippadinaa yenna pathi yosichu paarunga." Are there any directors who do a decent job of picturisation? "Bharathiraja nalla picturise pannuvan. Vamsy (Telugu) nalla pannuvaan."

IR on Hollywood movies - [paraphrasing] "Indiana Jones padathule first five minutes paarunge. Namakku nalla theriyum kadhula poova sutharaanu, aana eppadi kannu edukaame pakkarom." He was cribbing at the state of movies in India.

IR on bad lyrics - "Kuppaiyaa kootanum. Aaraitchi panna koodathu. Lyrics nalla illainaa atha kekatheenge. Tune ondi kelunge." Ethu kuppainu kozhiya poruthathu."

IR on Pudhu Mappillaikku being inspired by Naan Paarthathiley - I think people know this story already so I won't repeat it here. The interesting portion was after narrating the story he sang five more tunes for Pudhu Mappilaiku, each for a different picturisation.

IR on choosing Ragas for his song - "Podara tune athuvaa ethavathu raagathile amayum. Yosichu podarthillai. Ippo padi kamichaen paarunge (for Pudhu Mappillaiku) athu maathirithaan."

IR on Aboorva Sagotharargal - "Kamalum, Singeethamum 35,000 feet shoot pannitu, poi Panchu Arunachalathukku kamichaange. Avaru 5,000 feet eduthu vechittu meethi ellam thirumba shoot panna sollitaaru. Illainna athuvum Virumaandi maathiri thaan vanthirukkum - vettum, kuthum."

General subjects

IR on pollution - "People irunthaale pollution thaan."

IR on Bharathiyar - [this was in jest] "Thani oruvanukku unavu illai endral intha jagathinai azhipom nu yen Bharathiyar paadinaru? Thani oruvanukku unavu illai endral avanukku saapaadu podunganu thaane ezhuthirukanum. Athukku ethukku jagathe azhikanum."

The latest English movie IR watched - Kill Bill @ Ananth's home. He was very impressed by the fights, found it very funny. He even bought the DVD to take home to India.

IR on Dr. Sankar Kumar's singing - "Doctor [puts a kumbudu]." (Actually Doctor never sang but just used to involuntarily hum bhajans while in the car)

IR on Ananth's driving -[Situation - The road was messed up and the ride was bumpy] IR - "Ananth, yenna speed'le poreenga?" Ananth - "60 thaan sir. Speed limit'le poraen." IR - "Speed limit 60'na neenge 50'le kooda polamle. Athavathu intha pallam ellam theriyaatha maathiri oru speedle otunge'nu solla varaen."

IR's future plans - He would like to get out of cinema. According to him the music he composes for movies is not pure. He has some ideas for releasing independent albums just for his fans, but we'll have to wait and see if this happens. In my opinion "Thiruvasakam in Symphony" has to be a success for this to happen. So we can look forward to getting the main course instead of the ooruga and appalam - "aana main course'le rice irunthaalum irukaalaam, illama kooda pogalam." As far as releasing BGMs goes - he is in general not interested in what he has already produced. Really old movies he doesn't have the BGM score but he does have the more recent ones like Lajja & Hey Ram.

Personal experiences

Most cherished moment for the entire group - Celebrating IR's wedding day with him. Ananth did the unimaginable - cake ellam arrange panni asathitaaru. We all sang "Wish you many more happy returns of the day" as it comes in the "Ennodu paadungal Nalvazhthu paadalgal" tune as Raaja cut the cake. I am sure Raaja was overwhelmed by the gesture, though he did not express his feelings outwardly.

My personal high - IR addressing me - "Perumal saapada arambinge." [Background - Since I usually have the Iyengar Sri churnam on my forehead I am referred to as perumal by some of my friends at Duke. And since I am shameless when it comes to eating food (not that I have any shame otherwise) I usually do the honors of eating first in all parties - so Perumalukku neivedhiyam madhiri. It was lunch time and so I was mentioning to IR about this and also how I am still at the level of realization where food is the ultimate truth.

Statement of the trip - Ananth says "Sir intha opportunity yaarukum kidaikaadhi sir. Mathavangala vidunga sir, I am actually feeling jealous of myself sir." I echo his sentiments.

Confession of the trip - "Sir ungalaala ennoda Ph.D. easyaa oru 12 months extend ayiduchu. Ellam unga paate ketta time pogarthey theriyaathu, apparum eppadi velai panrathu."

Consequence of the trip - I need to now find another purpose in life.

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