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!