Thursday, January 14, 2016

Gruhabhedam and Ilaiyaraja - again

Gruhabhedam as a musical phenomenon can never cease to amaze. Gayathri's (of Ranjani-Gayathri duo) brilliant, awe-inspiring Music Academy lec-dem on the topic has recently generated a lot of interesting discussion in the Carnatic music circles, and prompted me to write this long-pending post.

But this post is not about Gruhabhedam in Carnatic music. It is about Ilaiyaraja. Again. (Here and here are articles I've written on Raja and Gruhabhedam in the past.) In my view, just like in Carnatic music, there are good and bad ways of doing Gruhabhedam in film music. I'll get to the bad at the end, but here's the good - or rather, the really, really good. The song I have in mind is aasai adhigam vechu from the film Marupadiyum:

Gruhabhedam in Sindhubhairavi has been handled exquisitely by stalwarts in Carnatic music - check out this piece by Tanjore S. Kalyanaraman for instance, and then there's of course Lalgudi's legendary swarajathi. But this song - aasai adhigam - is a brilliant case of gruhabhedam from Sindhubhairavi in the film music context. It seems like an innocuous song at first glance but on closer listening you see the beast unleashed in the first interlude and go on to wreak havoc till the end. What a masterpiece! Let me say at the outset that this is not a traditional gruhabhedam involving two "ragas" per se. The song is predominantly in Sindhubhairavi but what it morphs into via gruhabhedam is not really a raga: it's more a scale, or rather parts of a scale - the major scale, roughly speaking.

It starts out in straightforward Sindhubhairavi and continues to be so until half of the first interlude. Then at 1:35 you see it happening. There's a departure from Sindhubhairavi and you hear a more fun and upbeat few seconds there from 1:35 to about 1:42. For a long time I didn't think it was anything special - it just seemed to be a normal change of notes/ modes/ moods. But on closer inspection I found that those notes should really still just sound like Sindhubharivai - 1:35 - 1:43 the notes should be nnnn rr rsss... Why do they sound different? Because there are background chords there that have changed the shruthi! If you listen closely you'll hear a pa-sa bass in the background that makes the nnnn rr rsss sound like rrrr mm mggg. And that's where it starts - taking the Sa of Sindhubhairavi as Ga. And then there's a superbly seamless transition back to Sindhubhairavi around 1:43. And then back to major scale (ish) again in the charanam from 1:53 - 2:09. And then back to Sindhubhairavi at 2:09. What's this man made of?

The charanam beginning ("chinna poNNu naa...") sounds like gpgss... ns rr npp... Why? Again, because he's made us subconsciously move the shadjam. The corresponding Sindhubhairavi notes for that line would be sgsdd... pd nn pgg. But we don't hear it as Sindhubhairavi because of the way Janaki sings it - long, plain notes, and a landing on the da of Sindhubhairavi on the word "naa" making it feel like sa. Here's a short demo I did, singing these lines as in the original, and in a slightly different way if we want to retain Sindhubhairavi. With some very slight modification to the rendering, the feel can be changed back to Sindhubhairavi: with some small gamakas and highlighting the pa. (The singing isn't great - Janaki's shruthi is insanely high for me and the corresponding lower pitch too low.)

So it looks like by simply highlighting the pa and not fixating on da, you get a Sindhubhairavi feel rather than the "fun-n-frolicky" major scale feel. But why remain in plain old Sindhubhairavi when you can come up with genius stuff like this? The second interlude again goes back and forth between major scale (ish) in the instruments and Sindhubhairavi in Janaki's humming. I think for me this song will go down as one of the most incredible gruhabhedams done in film music.

There's of course a lot more the song has to boast about: the tune, the singing, and the instruments all brilliantly capture the state of mind of the woman singing it in the movie and the context couldn't have asked for a better song.

That was about the brilliant stuff. And as promised, here's the bad stuff:
Ilaiyaraja fans, please forgive me but I think nanna neenu gellalare - the 80s Kannada song - is a particularly mundane way of doing Gruhabhedam: 2nd song here. It could serve well to initiate someone into the very basics of Gruhabhedam but beyond that I find it quite shallow and in-your-face. It is too overt and the mood doesn't change along with change of ragas and I find the song to have little musical value. In fact I think the ragas don't change really - all that's happening is that the singers are mouthing different swaras.

Edit: While I think the song is musically flippant objectively speaking, friends have made me realize that it is unfair to evaluate it in a vacuum, stripping it of its context - I acknowledge that the song is set in a particular milieu and reflects the image of the iconic "Dr. Raj" of the 80s. And the context/ film in which this song occurs was probably flippant to begin with. Hat tip to Chaya Rao and Madhusudhan Rao.

Anyway - this was just an e.g. to illustrate a specific point. Needless to say there's simply way too much awesomeness to take from Raja's music - and that's that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ragaland - A Romance of Many Anubhavas

Here's an article I wrote for Sruti magazine: