Friday, May 24, 2019

Medley of Evergreen Hits - IndianRaga

Raga Behag has always been a personal favorite and I absolutely loved working on this with these fabulous musicians - check it out!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Lesser known Gruhabhedams: Rageshri

First of a series of videos on relatively lesser known gruhabhedams in classical/ film music.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Shades of Kalyani - IndianRaga

Here's another one for IndianRaga. I enjoyed doing this out-and-out classical piece focused on improvs, with these awesome co-musicians. I hope you like it!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Amba Neelambari - IndianRaga

This came out a while ago but I haven't had a chance to update this space. It was a wonderful experience learning and rendering this timeless krithi.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Sarasadala Nayana - IndianRaga

Here's yet another piece I worked on for IndianRaga. I learned this song when I was about 10 along with my sister, from Smt. Ranganayaki Sridharan - my guru at the time. One of the rarer compositions by Dikshitar in one of my favorite ragas, I'll always be grateful to Ranganayaki Mami for teaching me this. I learned the kriti in Tishra Triputa thalam. My co-singer here - Kamaladeepthi Vempati - had learned it in Chaturshra Jhampa though, and her reasoning that the first line fit the latter much better since then the second 'na' of "nayana" would land exactly on beat made sense to me and we went with that. Don't mind all the extra smiles and nodding :) Consider them unavoidable side effects of the medium.

If you like this do let me know, and pass it around to friends!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Bindumalini Thillana - IndianRaga

Here's my second production for IndianRaga - a resurrection of a piece I had posted for the first time on this blog, nearly ten years ago! (See here.) It's a thillana composed by yours truly, with lyrics by my mother Smt. Viji Bhakthavatsalam. The team that came together for this production has done a fabulous job and I'm so grateful to them for bringing my composition alive.

If you liked this, please share widely and spread the word!

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Kalyanarama - IndianRaga

Happy 12th, Octaves!

After resisting joining IndianRaga for the last 4-5 years that they have existed - due to being camera shy and thinking of myself as more a singer than a performer among other things - I finally took the plunge. While it was quite nice collaborating with other musicians, I ended up joining and/or leading 8-9 productions in all and it turned out to be an extraordinary amount of work for several months - not just creative, but also logistical and technical. But it's gratifying to see the final output and to be recognized for it. The first of my productions - a group Carnatic piece - was released a week ago:

If you like it, please do share it around and spread the word.

I'm very excited about some of my other productions to be released over the next six months or so. I'll update this space as and when they get released. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 02, 2018

Concert for Nada Vipanchi

I recently sang a concert for Nada Vipanchi in Raleigh, NC, thanks to my cousins Ashok and Godha. As always, I was extremely nervous before the concert. And as always there's a million flaws, but overall, I think it went fine. I particularly enjoyed singing a pallavi in Bahudari, for which I'd taken the first line from my mom's lyrics for the varnam I had composed eons ago.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Bahudari and Friends

Bahudari has been one of my first loves in Carnatic music for as long as I can remember. In fact the very first post in this blog was on Bahudari - I had posted a varnam I'd composed well over a decade ago now. (I've had the wisdom to restrain myself from composing anything in Carnatic over the years, but didn't know any better back then. As they say in Tamil, "aaruva kOLAru".)
Anyway - the raga and its ilk have always fascinated me, and here's a long-pending attempt at bringing together some of my favorite film songs in scales close to Bahudari, along with the piece de resistance: Thyagaraja's Brova bharama. I've concluded with a brief thillana-esque piece that I came up with, along with some improvs. This is probably the first time I've also really tried to do harmonies with some of the film song lines. The video was shot at one of the beaches in Malibu, CA.

Here goes -

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tulasi Bilva

Happy Eleventh, Octaves!
Here's a video I recorded last night.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Thyagaraja on my mind

Some 10 days ago I was practicing music with a friend - we were working on Bhakti Bhikshamiyyave in Shankarabharanam. After that I started humming Mayamalavagowla and before I knew it I caught myself singing Bhakti Bhiksha in the ragam. It started out as just a fun little thing trying to transpose the pallavi alone, but then as I started thinking about it more the whole kriti seemed to fit in Mayamalavagowla quite nicely. I then wondered what the majestic Merusamana might sound like in Shankarabharanam. The results are here.

This exercise helped me better understand these ragas and made me ponder the connections between ragam, layam, sahithyam, and bhavam. Needless to say, both of these - in their original forms - are among my absolute favorite krithis of Thyagaraja as they are for thousands of other Carnatic lovers. I mean no irreverence here, and I did these purely for exploration.

Here they are:

Saturday, May 13, 2017

What were you thinking Rahman?

I've been meaning to do this for a while now: compile a list of Rahman songs we all adore, BUT for those few cringeworthy moments in them. Some cringes in life die down. Some, you learn to live with. But there are others which just won't leave you. The cringe is magnified manifold particularly when the song as a whole makes for a great listening experience and when you just want to forward/ mute out those few seconds.

A few notes: 1. I was a diehard Rahman fan up until the early 2000s and I'm most familiar with his work until then. So this (teeny tiny) list doesn't contain many songs post 2002/ 03. 2. I'm only talking about musical cringeworthiness, not w.r.t lyrics/ pronunciation stuff. (I imagine the latter would generate a much longer list.) 3. Obviously this isn't meant to be an exhaustive list - these are (according to me) few of the most obvious ones, and this list might continue to get updated. 4. Rahman, I still love you.

So without much ado... presenting to you the "What were you thinking Rahman?" moments (going roughly from most to least egregious):

1. Dil se re: Okay, this is inexcusable. Anupama and Anuradha mouthing the wrong swaras? Why Rahman? Why? "Sa sa sa sa ri ri ni ni sa ri ma ma pa pa ri ri sa sa sa ni" wouldn't have sounded any less "cool".
2. Thee thee thitthikkum thee: What a remarkable song and vocals. Why oh, why those swaras (ma pa ni sa ri sa...) in that first interlude? "Drishti"? Just. Doesn't. Fit.
3. Anjali anjali: Again, a brilliant song. Not a fan of the third flute interlude. Simply doesn't go. Random major scale/ hamsadhwani/ mohanam notes following a lovely (mishra) maand? Why?
4. Bol sajni: a) Kavitha's voice. Me no likey, sorry. b) That go-up-the-cliff-and-drop effect in the humming in both interludes. :( :( What a gorgeous song otherwise!
5. Poovukkul olindhirukkum: Seriously, what's with those interludes again? Both of them. What is usilampatti penkutti doing in here?
6. Alaipaayuthe kanna: Anupallavi doesn't start on beat! Mixing guy, this one's on you. Despite the "ting" to indicate samam!
7. Snehithane: Not a fan of the first three lines of the charanams. Call me old fashioned, but I can't get over these musical digressions.
8. Kannathil mutthamittal: Same as above. The charanam beginnings are a little too random for me.
Addition as of 05/16:
9. Avalum naanum: Nice, breezy (albeit very simple) pallavi - but what's with the post violin part of the interlude and ugh, the charanam start??
10. Yeh rishta kya kehlata hai: Again, the charanam. Aargh. (Not that I love the rest of the song too much, so this one's kinda okay.)

Anyone got more?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Khamas Thillana - Lalgudi Jayaraman

The Khamas Thillana by the one and only Lalgudi Mama is such a treasure. For starters, the ragam itself I think is breathtaking. Add to it some gorgeous rhythmic structure in the form of jathi patterns and a stunner of a swaraksharam sahithyam - and you get this masterpiece of a composition. Here's my feeble attempt at it.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Madras, Music, Madness

I'm currently visiting home after 3.5 long years, and the trip so far has been nothing short of fantastic. The highlight has definitely been attending concerts at the annual December music season in Chennai. Growing up in Bangalore I somehow never managed to attend the season - the first time I did attend was in 2010, but only managed to catch a handful of concerts. This time I was determined to spend at least a whole week and soak in as much of the music as I could, and I'm so glad to report that the plan fructified. A big shout out to amma and appa for all the planning, making the trip happen, and being awesome concert buddies. We heard 27 different concerts in all (not all of them fully, unfortunately) - averaging about 4 a day - and many of them were excellent. I'm still reeling from the whole experience and I thought I should write down a few thoughts on it when it's still fresh in my memory.

First of all, the sheer volume of concerts is mind-boggling. I've of course known about it very well but it's not until you're in the thick of it that you realize the magnitude. Although it was the Madras Music Academy that pioneered it all 90 years ago and has continued to hold sway over the season, the burgeoning of several other sabhas over the decades has quite massively scaled up the season. By a conservative estimate, there are about 25 (prominent-ish) sabhas in the city, and each of them have 3-5 concerts a day, and the primetime of the season lasts about 15 days, from Dec 15th to the 31st - you do the math. The rasika is then faced with the incredibly hard choice each hour everyday, as to where to be. I constantly found myself wishing I could be at multiple venues at the same time. Attending one awesome concert almost always meant missing another, but after the first few days I learned to make peace with this inevitable fact and not be greedy. Talking about misses, a few musicians I was hoping to hear (each for a totally different reason than the other) but sadly wasn't able to were Abhishek Raghuram, Pantula Rama, and T.M. Krishna who sang just one concert. But anyway, no complaints as I got to hear several other great concerts. Here are some highlights of my experience.

When I think back about the season experience this time, probably the one image that comes to mind immediately is that of the young vainika Ramana Balachandran playing for 'Prabhata Sangeetham' early in the morning at 5:30. (It was my first time hearing him live but dad had heard him at Sheshadripuram in Bangalore a while ago and had been praising him since.) Ramana's absolutely wonderful playing in a beautiful ambience created by 40-50 lit oil lamps in a small, intimate setting will be something I will remember for a long time. His Bowli (Karuna nidhiye), Sama (Annapurne), Harikambodhi (Enadhu manam), and Purvikalyani (Meenakshi) were extremely delectable. At times he would sing along as he played and that made it even more enjoyable. In fact throughout the season, the concerts I enjoyed the most happened to be veena concerts. I heard two concerts by Jayanthi (Kumaresh) akka - one with pianist Anil Srinivasan at Spaces in Besant Nagar, and another solo concert at the Music Academy. I loved both - the former was set in a lovely outdoor ambience and the veena and the piano blended quite beautifully. Akka played a very moving Kaapi (Ragam, Tanam, Inta Sowkhyamani), and Anil Srinivasan's playing there brought to mind flashes of immortal film songs based on the raga. Akka's Music Academy concert was probably the best concert I experienced in the entire trip. She played an astounding Charukeshi. (Incidentally she had played a Charukeshi RTP at the Academy in 2010 as well, but each time - if it's even possible - she keeps outdoing herself.) Her sustains and pulling off (pun intended) unbelievably long gamaka-laden phrases without plucking need to be experienced first hand and cannot be described in words. Lastly I also heard Ashwin Anand at Music Academy whose playing also I enjoyed a lot. He played a lovely Dhanyasi (Meenalochani) and Kambodhi (Ragam, Tanam, Sri Subramanyaya). Another instrumentalist I really enjoyed listening to was flautist J.A. Jayanth - he played a very memorable Nandagopala (Yamunakalyani), and elaborated on Kambodhi (O Rangasayee).

Some of the vocal performances I enjoyed were Brinda Manickavasagam's Madhyamavati (Palinchu Kamakshi), Aishwarya Vidya Raghunath's and Ashwath Narayanan's Shankarabharanams (Shankaracharyam and Manasu swadhina respectively), Vidya Kalyanaraman's Saveri (Rama bana), and Bharat Sundar's (extremely complicated and riveting) Thodi RTP - all at the Academy. Oh, and how can I not mention one of my favorite musicians - Ramakrishnan Murthy! I was delighted beyond words that he chose Begada for his main piece, a relatively rare choice. He sang a wonderful ragam, followed by Nadopasana. I also have to mention his exceedingly beautiful renditions of Sripatimiha Nandagopagrihe in Khamas and Sambandar's kaadhalal kasindhu... followed by shuddhamum ashuddhamum in Yamunakalyani and Sindhubhairavi.

One vocal concert I was quite bowled over by was Sriranjani Santhanagopalan's at Bharat Kalachar. What a sweet and also extremely pliable voice she has! She sang a fantastic Vagadeeshwari. I felt her ragam delineation was quite out of the box and extremely well done. There were glimpses of Jog-like finishes and in general quite a few Hindustani-type touches that I really enjoyed. She sang Paramatmudu Velige and her kanakku and pattern-rich neraval and swarams in multiple nadais were so deftly and effortlessly done. She has an abundance of creativity and the ability (and voice) to pull off whatever her mind can conceive, and her music is as aesthetic as it is cerebral.

And of course, there were the superstars Ranjani and Gayathri whom I heard at the Academy. How, how, how do they do it every single time? Such perfection with such consistency! In one word, superb (yet again). The highpoint for me was when Gayathri did a gruhabhedam with Abhogi and Valaji in the (Reethigowla) RTP ragamalika swaram section. It was amazing how she could so nonchalantly switch back and forth. I'd love to see a brain scan of hers while she's at it! (Here's a recording of her doing that very same thing in a different concert:

This post wouldn't be complete without talking about the veteran Seetha Narayanan mami. Hers was undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable concerts and more than that, it was a rich learning experience. What a lovely Bhairavi (Janani Mamava) and Kaapi (Inta Sowkhyamani) she sang! Hers is the kind of music that a music student should go to, if they are ever in doubt about anything. Such perfection and clarity of sangathis and such bhava-rich singing, without any fuss on stage. And if you thought she'd just stick to the "traditionally traditional" fare, you're mistaken - she topped off the already wonderful concert with a fantastic RTP in Nasikabhushani. A truly memorable concert. (See here for a detailed write up about this concert in Tamil by Lalitharam:

Among the younger folk, I very much enjoyed Kruthi Bhat whom I heard at Kalarasana. I loved her Mohanam (Rajagopalam). She also sang a very good Sahana ragam followed by Nijamukha (main piece). She finished with a really wonderful rendition of Lalgudi's Pahadi thillana. What really impressed me was the effort she took to reach quite far into the mandara sthayi, a rarity for female singers. Especially given her age, that was commendable. I hope she continues doing this - her voice is quite lovely at the base range. I also heard Sai Sisters at Narada Gana Sabha mini hall, who sang an impressive Thodi with very well done poruttham swarams for 'soumitri thyagarajuni' in Dacukovalena. It's a pleasure to hear the twins' perfectly in-sync voices.

Another small regret I have is that I couldn't attend as many lec-dems as I'd have liked to. But I did manage to attend one very good one, on 'The Structure of Padams' by Vid. Nirmala Sundararajan at the Academy. A direct disciple of T. Mukta - one of the revered torch bearers of padams in Carnatic music - she gave an enlightening lec-dem. She pointed out that contrary to say, krithis and varnams, no book to her knowledge talks about how padams should be composed. But by and large, padams have a pallavi, anupallavi, and multiple charanams. She then underlined that padams involve a lot of dhatu repetitions and are so rich in raga bhavam that they give you the feeling of singing/ listening to a ragam elaboration. She demonstrated this by singing portions of several padams - what's common to most of them are the long, winding lines replete with the characteristic features of the ragam, with layam in fact taking a back seat. Mostly themed on exchanges between a Nayaka and Nayika, padams cover a wide range of emotions from longing to anger. My favorite rendition of hers was the Sahana padam Morathopu.

Overall the season experience was wonderful. I wish I could write more elaborately about each of the concerts I enjoyed but that unfortunately will be a humongous task for which I don't have the time at the moment. One thing that could be better is acoustics and sound: apart from a handful of places like the Academy, Narada Gana Sabha, and Kalarasana, auditoriums have miles to go in terms of sound quality.

As with probably any institution in the world, the season isn't without its muck - I've come to learn there's quite a rigid hierarchy and a mad race to the top, there are prestige issues, there's pedigree politics, and oodles of factionalism and parochialism. There's lots that can change for the better. But as an outsider, my takeaway is that good talent (although perhaps not without the help of other resources) doesn't go unrecognized, and that if you want to listen to good music, the season has plenty to offer. There is no dearth of talent for sure. (Also, on any given day except for one or two of the evening concerts that are ticketed, all concerts are free!) Yes, there are artists not getting the attention they deserve, but setting aside those politics, as a rasika if you seek them out, you will find them. And if you're invested enough, get your hands dirty and "be the change".

Thank you, Chennai!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Another concert

With my Guru's blessings I performed a concert in her presence in Coimbatore last Sunday. It was doubly special since my parents were also in attendance. Once again, there's a ton I need to work on - most of all, confidence which was especially low after the last experience. But this time it was definitely a lot better - I think it was at least partial redemption. Here's a song I performed there:

Violin: Smt. Brinda Raghunath
Mridangam: Sri Kovai Raghunath

Miles to go...

Monday, November 14, 2016

Post concert reflections

This weekend I performed a Carnatic concert after a very long time - 4.5 years to be precise. Let me get straight to the point of this post. It was a fiasco in my opinion: I'm still reeling from the disappointment and had to vent. I've always been a reluctant performer. Especially lately, I've struggled with my identity as a singer - I identify myself much more easily as a rasika/ connoisseur, and theorist (and more recently, a teacher). Performing is something I've always had to push myself to do - there isn't much of a natural drive. But you know, having a good voice and having trained ever since I can remember, the right thing to do is to sing more, right? Immanuel Kant also contributed to my guilt: according to him it's immoral to not put one's talent to use/ practice. So while singing and performing don't give me the high that listening to, discussing and analyzing music does, I've tried to do it off and on. Sometimes it does make me feel very good, no doubt - but that doesn't happen as frequently as one might hope. Not that my earlier performances were great - I've never been happy after performing a concert - but this time it was nothing like before. I don't know what happened - I was simply not in the right headspace. I faltered big when singing kalpana swaras in one of the pieces in the middle of the concert and from there on it was only downhill. I've been pretty withdrawn and angry and disappointed in myself. I've been going through many phases. First I decided that I should stop performing and stick to what I know best: writing about music (and doing the little teaching that I do). Then I thought I need to perform at least once more to undo the damage, at least for myself. I'm back to shutting down now though. I'm pretty bad at coping with failure. But then again, when I think back, I feel this was bound to happen: what else can I expect after lack of practice (partly because of a very busy work schedule lately, and partly because of a personal lack of motivation to practice), and being completely out of touch with performing? I realize full well that actual singing is far from punditry and philosophizing about music, but sadly don't do much about it. Anyway, you don't have an option but to move on, and that's what I should do. But it's going to take a while.

Saturday, October 08, 2016


In the ten years that this blog has existed it's a shame that I haven't yet dedicated a post to my awesome maternal grandma, (late) Smt. Komala Parthasarathy. Ammamma/ Komalamma as her grandkids would call her, was a devoted connoisseur of Carnatic music who composed songs and also played the Veena. She was a big influence and I owe a lot of my musical sensibilities to her. Having grown up in Andhra, she was proficient in Telugu and that was her language of choice for most of her compositions. She was of course also well-versed in Tamil, and not to mention, English - she would religiously read The Hindu from top to bottom every single day. In fact as a kid I added quite a few words to my English vocabulary thanks to her. (One of them, I distinctly remember was "imp" - she thought I was one.) This trilingual composer-and-vainika of a grandma was also really fun to hang out with. One topic I would often discuss with her (not surprisingly) was ragas of film songs. I remember one summer vacation in Madras when we were having this heated discussion on the raga(s) of the song ottagattha kattiko(!!) Another thing I remember is how adorably annoyed she would get when Colonial Cousins' song sa ni dha pa ma ga ma ga ri sa would play on TV - not even one note in that line matched what the singers were mouthing - and whenever this would play she'd get really agitated irrespective of whether she was in the kitchen, or with her head buried in the paper, or taking a nap.

She composed several songs in a span of 10-15 years. On this occasion of Navaratri, here's one of her earliest compositions - Neelayadakshi in the ragam Neelambari. Thanks Hari, for working on this with me. (Hopefully there's more to come eventually.) Ammamma, can't believe it's been more than a decade since you left us - we all miss you dearly.

Ammamma playing the Veena sometime in the 90s at the yearly aradhana at one of my earliest Gurus - Smt. Ranganayaki Sridharan's place in Bangalore.

I hope y'all enjoy the song.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Rethinking Ragas in Film Music

Or, How I learned to stop worrying about ragas and just love film music.

Some 16 years ago when I was just starting life on the internet, one of my entry points was this lovely page called 'Raga of Songs' on It was a discussion forum where day in and day out, enthusiastic folks (some, over-enthusiastic like myself) would pore over the use of ragas in film songs. We would get down to the minutest of details, unearthing (now in my view some of the most insignificant) 'anya' swaras in the chords of a particular interlude that made the song deviate from its 'main' raga. The whole exercise was a mad obsession for me. It remained a mad obsession for quite a while. And this was of course not just me or the few people on 'Ragas in film songs' has forever been a pet topic for several rasikas as well as musicians. My own interest in this in fact comes from several people in my immediate and extended family. I still fondly remember a G.S.Mani tape on the topic my dad used to play decades ago. Many practicing Carnatic musicians have also often discussed this with great interest. For instance, here is the legend T.N. Seshagopalan praising Ilaiyaraja's use of Hamsanandi, here is Sikkil Gurucharan talking about Ilaiyaraja deftly alternating between Kalyani and Kosalam in Sundari Kannal, and then of course there are the many lec-dem videos by Charulatha Mani on the topic.

Over the last few years though, I've begun to question this whole idea of associating film songs with ragas for many reasons. Not all of these reasons are objective (in the sense of being removed from personal judgment). I'll admit that these are a combination of (what I think are) some principled reasons based on certain fundamental aspects of the Carnatic tradition, and some purely personal and idiosyncratic factors that have to do with my general propensities moving in a different direction over the years. Let me say at the outset that I don't claim to break any ground here. Probably by the end of it some of you will have found all of this entirely obvious but still find intellectual and entertainment value in figuring out ragas of film songs. I have no qualms with that :)

So why am I less enthusiastic about ragas in film songs today?

1. (Mis)appropriation of the idea of 'Raga' in Carnatic music: It might probably help by starting with what a raga is not. A raga is not a set of notes or swaras. Scholars and musicians have time and again reminded us that a raga has a form and life that goes beyond its constituent notes. And therefore - and more to the point here - a raga is not a scale, i.e. a raga cannot be reduced to its arohana and avarohana. A raga comprises phraseologies, pidis, gamakas, and prayogas that go well beyond its basic notes. This is a classic instance of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Sure, some ragas are closer to the scales formed by their notes than others, and have fewer of typical prayogas etc., but no raga is just a scale. My biggest beef with associating film songs with ragas, saying "Song X is in a Raga Y" is that more often than not the song is not in that raga, but just has the swaras of that raga in their most basic form. In essence then, when claiming that a film song is in a particular raga, what we are doing (often if not always) is appropriating a classical term into a non-classical context: and that is problem # 1. When we claim that Sundari kannal is in the raga Kalyani, we are appropriating the term 'raga', as well as the idea of 'Kalyani' itself from a classical into a non-classical context, and I think to avoid misunderstanding, we need to be very clear about this if we want to make this claim. In my view, Sundari kannal is not Kalyani, and the charanams don't go into Kosalam. Why? Because the song has none of the characteristic phraseologies or prayogas of Kalyani. What it does have, are the basic notes of Kalyani. So I think the song is really in the Kalyani scale, stripped of all the lakshanas of Kalyani. (Thanks to my awesome student, I learned that this is called the Lydian Mode in Western classical, so that's probably what this song is closer to, than Kalyani.) To my ears, there isn't an iota of similarity between Sundari kannal and say, Nidhi chala sukhama. And for similar but slightly different reasons I don't think there's Kosalam in it (in the charanams and interludes) either. Sure, the Kalyani scale, with the Ri2 replaced by Ri3 yields the Kosalam scale, but some 45 odd seconds of some subsets of Kosalam notes - and rendered pretty plain without any gamakas - don't maketh a Kosalam. Kosalam is definitely a much more "scalar" raga than Kalyani, so I would be relatively more sympathetic to the Kosalam claim about this song than the Kalyani claim, but I'd still have reservations in saying that the charanams are in full-blown Kosalam. (Of course, I'm sure Gurucharan knows exactly what he's talking about and that he would be able to pull off a fabulous RTP in Kosalam - as he in fact briefly does in the video - that will sound almost nothing like Sundari kannal - but I still think it's important to remind ourselves of this difference between raga and scale.)

For similar reasons, Ennavaley is not Kedaram - not even just the first lines of the pallavi (and no, one occurrence of Ri3 doesn't make it Kedaram + Nattai), Sundari neeyum is not Kedaram, and Pon maalai pozhudhu isn't Kedaram. (For starters, none of these songs has the typical S-M-G-M phrase of Kedaram, let alone the pidis, gamakas etc..) Puducheri kacheri is SO NOT Shankarabharanam and sadly, even Omkara nadanu is not really Shankarabharanam. You get the idea. As I said, the problem is less acute when it comes to the more scalar ragas - ragas without many typical prayogas or phraseologies - but I still think it's a long stretch to say Kaali perungaya dabba is in Rishabhapriya or Ooru vittu ooru vandhu is in Shanmugapriya - even though these are both relatively scalar ragas. These songs are so un-Carnatic in nature that we simply cannot associate them with ragas. We might say they use the scales of these ragas.

Needless to say by the way, none of this is about making any value judgments about the compositions. I think many of these are fantastic songs.

"But of course!", you might say: "A "filmi" Kalyani is not going to sound the same as a Carnatic Kalyani, and don't we know that very well? We just use the name 'Kalyani' more loosely/ broadly in the film context and we're very aware of that." Well, if there is always this understanding of the distinction, the problem - at least at the level of comprehension of the 'Carnatic Kalyani' - is probably not as big. But there's a problem nevertheless - at the level of categorization and nomenclature. I think it's not just an approximation to say that Sundari kannal is in Kalyani. I think it's plain false - for reasons explained above. And such raga associations with film songs could cause a misunderstanding for people not familiar with the Carnatic paradigm.

"Ilaiyaraja does not know Carnatic music." thunders T.M. Krishna, here:

(I wonder how this hasn't made headlines and gone viral on social media yet - clearly, not many people (particularly Ilaiyaraja fans) have watched this yet which is probably good ;) )

As much as I didn't quite appreciate the confrontational tone he takes (here and at various points throughout the lecture series) - despite making the purportedly humble claim that he doesn't know any film music (and I trust that was earnest) - I really recommend these lectures to anyone looking to learn anything about Carnatic music. It's quite an educative series, and the man makes several important and interesting points, particularly about the history and evolution of Raga in Carnatic music. I personally learned quite a bit from them and many points he makes here reinforced my understanding of the idea of Raga in Carnatic music and influenced much of what I'm saying here. (I'm not completely on board with him on the "scales vs. ragas" issue though - and this musical fiction I wrote sometime ago talks about why: Coming back to the Ilaiyaraja comment: Raja claiming that Maand is a Carnatic raga - even if that's wrong - doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't know Carnatic music. (By the way a Hindustani musician once told me - contrary to what T.M.Krishna says - that Maand is not even of Hindustani origin, but comes from the Rajasthani folk tradition. Now I don't know which one of these is true.) The most charitable way I can think of to interpret that remark about Ilaiyaraja is to situate it in the current context of ragas in film songs. All we can probably say is that the bulk of Ilaiyaraja's songs are not in Carnatic ragas. (There are definitely quite a few exceptions like Poo maalai vaangi vandhaan.) This still doesn't mean that Ilaiyaraja "does not know Carnatic music" - all it means is that he doesn't operate in the Carnatic paradigm. But moving on...

2. Songs that are not really in any raga OR scale getting put in a box: I don't think "What raga or scale is this song in?" is a valid question for any and every song. A song might even sound very classical and still not be in any raga or scale - for instance Ennavaley or Manam Virumbuthey or Sippi irukkudhu... These are some of my favorite songs, but I often see songs such as these getting boxed into some raga. I think these (and several thousand others) don't fall into any raga or even a (existing) scale. Each of these is just a (really well-done) melange of different scales and ragas (as the case may be).

3. A personal decline of appetite for figuring out ragas in film songs: Gradually over the years, I've become much less interested in finding out ragas of songs - except of course cases where the raga of the song is so obvious it leaps out at you. Involuntarily, my focus has shifted to the overall aesthetic and emotional appeal of the song irrespective of what raga it is (or is not) in. This is in (large) part due to the above reasons, but it also just has to do with an idiosyncratic move away from the obsessive need to break down a song to bits and analyze it. This in fact also happens when I listen to Carnatic songs in a new raga, but to a lesser extent.

[While I find myself moving away from putting raga names to film songs and generally (over) analyzing songs, one phenomenon I still can't resist is gruhabhedam: both in the Carnatic and film contexts. I'm still a sucker for really intriguing theoretical ideas being aesthetically executed. If you think about it though, recognizing/ appreciating gruhabhedam has nothing to do with ragas. As long as we have in place our fundamental concepts of shruthi, tonic, shadja, swara, and swarasthana, we can talk about gruhabhedam without reference to raga. I've written on this topic many times on this blog, the most recent one is here.]

Having said all that though, I think there are many situations where it does make sense to talk about the raga of a film song:
1. When the song is actually classical in nature and is true to the raga (even if only in parts) and doesn't just make use of the notes of the scale: several old classics come to mind: Paarthen siritthen (Sahana), Mounathil Vilayadum (Sama), Poo maalai vaangi vandhan ((Darbaari) Kaanada) to name a few.
2. When the song is not really classical in nature, but in a scale that is not too far from the raga: As I mentioned earlier, some ragas are much closer to the scale formed by their notes than others. In such cases, since the difference between scale and raga is not too huge, it might be more acceptable to say that a song is in a certain raga. Lots of ragas fall under this category: Hamsanandi, Panthuvarali, Hamsadhwani, Mohanam to a good extent, Simhendramadhyamam, Dharmavati to name a few. Even in these cases, we're still misappropriating the term 'raga' into a non-classical context, but the misappropriation may not be as grave. This is the reason I think why a Sundari kannal sounds nothing like a Nidhi chala sukhama, whereas a Vellarikka pinju vellarikka sounds quite related to a Mohana Rama or Evarura. An interesting case in point is the assoication of Hindustani ragas to (mostly older) Hindi film songs. To the best of my knowledge Hindustani music is not as "hung up" or hardcore about prayogas and phraseologies as Carnatic is, and so lots of the ragas there are quite similar to the scales. So I think it's easier and less problematic to make this association of raga with song in the Hindustani-Hindi film music context. (Of course, even here I'm sure there are exceptions.)
3. For pure intellectual gratification derived from figuring out a scale and putting a name to it: This is great, but to be exercised with caution :)

In a nutshell then, "ragafication" of film songs doesn't work a lot of the time, and if we still want to do it, we should be very careful about it.

Okay, that was a LOT of rambling, and I'll stop at that. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


I'm in NYC visiting a dear friend, Diya, and I had the most incredible dream this morning - and for that I'm for once so thankful for jet lag and my general holiday laziness and reluctance to get out of bed well into the morning. A very concrete musical tune came to me out of nowhere and I haven't felt this blissed in a long time. The setting for the dream was basically (surprise!) my Facebook news feed, but what popped up in it was this beautiful video from a (imaginary) page I'd "liked": of Bombay Jayashree singing with her (Carnatic) orchestra on the beach, in front of a gorgeous South Indian temple. Oddly enough she was singing in Bengali - which was probably the result of recently attending a wonderful concert by Kaushiki Chakrabarty in which she sang a Bengali piece and/or the fact that Diya - whom I'm visiting now - is Bengali and/or the fact that I've lately been watching a Netflix series on Tagore's short stories. The highlight of the dream was the tune. What I heard - although it was just one line - was very intriguingly, a really well-defined and "distilled-out" tune with quite a unique meter and rhythm. (It was in khandam/ 5-beat cycle.) This has never happened to me before. Or it probably has a couple times but I've never woken up remembering the tune. This time I did, and it was an incredible feeling. I like the tune although it isn't very unique. I think it's nice - and sounds something like Pancham se Gara/ a Bihag-ish Khamaj, which has been quite a common Raga in film songs though. And I think I like it because I really had nothing to do with it. The tune isn't really mine. But what I'm feeling more than anything - pride/ happiness etc. - is a sense of intrigue. I'm fascinated by this experience and wonder if there have been other such Kekule's-Benzene-ring kind of moments of serendipity in music. (I'm sure there have, and much more grandiose ones.) I've always been a very deliberate - as opposed to a spontaneous - musician, and always felt inadequate because of that. That makes this dream even more fascinating. Right now I'm torn between developing this tune into a full-fledged composition and Googling on music and dreams. It's a good place to be :)

Sadly no amount of Google image search yielded a picture of Bombay Jayashree singing on the beach, but this post wouldn't be complete without her face, so here goes:

Friday, July 01, 2016


A clip from today's practice.