Group singing is part of the Indian culture. The word, ‘Sangeeth’ has two words, ‘Sangh’ and ‘Geeth’. While ‘geeth’ indicates song or music, ‘sangh’ means a grouping of people. Sangeeth happens when people sing together. That’s how age old Indian hymns, chants and bhakthi music was created. The modern anglicized term for sangeeth is chorus or choir (though choir has a lot of Christian religious tone to it). With time, the word ‘sangeeth’ has morphed to mean music in the Indian context.
Chorus in Indian film music has been traditionally used by all music composers. They range from simple Indian melody singing to today’s synthesized choir. As mentioned in the blog post titled ‘Voice therapy’ we will use the words choral and choir interchangeably. Even Raja detractors would agree that Raja has used choral arrangements more than any other Indian film music composer.
So, how is he different from all Indian film music composers? Our argument is that no Indian composer has navigated choir the way Raja has. In the next several posts, we will demonstrate his mastery over this form of music and his breadth and depth of application. Most traditional film music composers have used choir as a filler and not as an art form in interludes. This applies to Hindi film music composers more than their South Indian counterparts. The choir parts in Bollywood music is so predictable and repetitive, it almost shows the lack of training of these composers on vocal harmony. As part of this exploration, we will also dive deep to get a formal understanding of what vocal harmony is and what it is not. We will also digress a little bit to understand what scat singing and other improvisational forms are.
The song situations in Indian movies where chorus is used is very predictable as well: 1) the heroine introduction sequence 2) Hero singing a song with his friends 3) a philosophical sequence questioning the status quo by the hero and his friends. In Hindi films of the 90s and before, most party situations have chorus invariably, as party scenes have too many people trying to just look good, and when they jump into the fray, it’s invariably a chorus arrangement repeating the lines of the main singer(s).. There are some exceptions such as patriotic songs which are sang by a group. The majority of these chorus is set to Indian music and sang by female choir not male. Very rarely, we have seen vocal harmony.
We have however a long tradition of chorus music. The 1961 hit film Paasa Malar had a wonderful chorus rendering – Vaarayo Thozhi Vaarayo set to music by MSV-TR. Even the 1957 super hit Hindi song – Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya was executed beautifully by Naushad as a chorus towards the end. Atho antha paravai pola paada vendum from Aayirathil Oruvan (1965) was very beautifully executed by MSV-TR as a nice male chorus along with the main singer. In the 70s, the RD Burman hit, Dum Maro Dum from Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) was executed with a male/female chorus backing Asha Bhosle, the main singer.
Now, how do you beat that history? Raja does exactly what we discussed with his rhythm journey. He does a lot of what his predecessors did. However, he does not stop there. He brings his Western musical training and folk traditions into the mix. As with rhythms, he resets the bar higher and higher. He is one of the few music composers in India, who employs a voice conductor. Indian music has a long way to go to catch up with Western choirs. However, with Raja, it has made a great beginning and has matured significantly in the last 3 decades. If you hear the tracks of Guru (Malayalam 1997), Lajja title score (Hindi 2001), Hey Ram background score (Tamil 2000), you will realize that the BSO is miles ahead of their Indian counterparts.
With his Western music training, he has brought professional choirs into action. He has used choirs in every possible situation that no composer before him ever imagined. He has used them as full interludes, part interludes, instead of string sections, full songs, even rhythm sections. He has drawn out of Carnatic, folk, Western choirs and used them separately and in combinations in his music. He is THE EXPERT in Indian vocal harmony. No other Indian composer comes even a distant second to him in vocal harmony. He has exploited scat singing more than others in Indian film music. He has used both male and female voices in all combinations. Most Raja detractors accuse him of overuse of chorus/choir in his music. There is so much variation in his use of voices that one cannot superficially accuse him of overuse.
He has created unique categories of chorus usage that never existed before in IFM. Sometimes, we take these things for granted that we do not appreciate the sweat and creativity that goes into the work. One thing can be said with certainty: no other Indian composer has painstakingly conducted such choirs in such variety before and after Raja.
In order to navigate Raja’s choral world which is quite floral, let’s have some fun with tulips! Tulips come in all colors and hopefully, we will find enough colors and combinations of them to cover Raja’s choir work. As before, we will use random colors and combinations to describe the various Raja choir combinations. This picture gives you a good impression of what you can expect in this journey. The trouble with Raja is that in some tracks, he shows you this entire tulip garden in just under 4 minutes!
Let’s get a high level sense of Raja’s choral world with the help of the floral world of tulips.
- Female choir singing the traditional Indian choir - White tulips. This is very common with Raja and most Indian music composers. Traditional choir includes singing la la la or tha na na or the group repeating the main singers lines.
- Male choir singing the traditional Indian choir - Red tulips. This is not very common with Raja and most Indian music composers. Traditional choir includes singing la la la or tha na na or the group repeating the main singers lines.
- Male/Female choir singing the traditional choir - Red and White tulips. This is not very common with Raja and most Indian music composers.
- Female choir singing set to Carnatic swaras - Yellow tulips. This is very common with Raja’s work. Mostly, the chorus singers sing swaras.
- Male choir singing set to Carnatic swaras - Pink tulips. This is very uncommon even with Raja’s work. Mostly, the chorus singers sing swaras.
- Male/Female choir singing set to Carnatic swaras - Pink and yellow tulips. This is very common with Raja’s work.
- Sanskrit chant based choir – White & Orange tulips. This is a Raja specialization that he began with Alaigal Oiyvathillai (1981) and has used it in several of his compositions.
- Female folk choir singing - Orange tulips. This is very common with Raja’s work. He draws heavily out of kummi, esapattu and other folk techniques.
- Male folk choir singing. - Purple tulips. This is very common with Raja’s work.
- Male and female folk choir singing - Orange and purple tulips. This is not very common with Raja’s work.
- Usage of choir in the dance jathi mode – White and Orange tulips. This technique involves use of the chorus singers singing the dance jathis and not the usual ‘thana thana’ or ‘aaaa’ as it is in pure carnatic based chorus work. This is uncommon even in Raja's work, as mostly jathis are sang by a lone voice.
- Full chorus track – Red and yellow tulips – the track has no main singers. Raja has done quite a few tracks.
- Using chorus voices in a C&R arrangement – White and purple tulips. This technique involves using two groups of voices. One of the group responds to the other group’s call. While this is very common with instrument music, few composers try this with voices.
- Use of Bhajan format for the chorus - Black Tulips. This could be set in North or South Indian style. This normally has both male and female voices though on occasions, only one of the gender is used.
- Female western choir singing - Pink and purple tulips. Raja has used them extensively in his compositions.
- Male western choir singing - Yellow and Orange tulips. Raja has used them selectively in his compositions. This is very uncommon with Indian film music.
- Male/Female western choir singing - Black and White tulips. Raja has used them selectively in his compositions. While this is a regular with Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams, Indian composers shy away from it due to lack of training in Western notated training as it applies to voice (singing from a song sheet).
- Scat singing - White with red stripes tulips. Raja has used them in his music throughout his career using both male and female voices.
- Chorus by children - Blue tulips. Raja has done this extensively, all the way up to ‘Paa’, though ‘Anjali’ comes to mind immediately. He has used children to sing, western, folk, traditional chorus in different situations.
- Usage of Folk and Carnatic choir in a single track - Red, white and yellow tulips. Can be male, female or both. This is a Raja specialty that few composers have comfort handling multi-genre choir.
- Usage of Folk and Western choir in a single track - Pink and Orange tulips. Can be male, female or both. This is a Raja specialty that few composers have comfort handling multi-genre choir.
- Usage of Carnatic and Western choir in a single track - Red, white and Blue tulips. Can be male, female or both. This is a very rare occurrence and Raja has done this. Again, this is a Raja specialty that few composers have comfort handling.
- Usage of choir for string section, bass sections, wind sections - Black and Red tulips. This is a Raja specialty. No other composer can match him as this seems like a bit of improvisation at the last minute before conducting the piece. There are so many situations where he has replaced the notes written for an instrument with the human voice. It is interesting to guess the instrument for which the notes were originally written!
- Usage of choir for harmony singing - Blue and Orange tulips. It can be male or female. Sometimes, the main singers themselves sing in harmony. This is a pioneering area of Raja. This is a subject that needs to be detailed later on but we will touch the surface briefly. Raja’s work on vocal harmony deserves a special focus.
- Usage of choir for transition - Red, Pink, Purple and Yellow tulips. The transition between the charanam and the pallavi is done using several techniques, and chorus is used very rarely. Raja has done that too.
25 chorus types – that’s a lot for one composer. By now, it should be clear the breadth of Raja’s work with just voices. As always, there will be some chorus rich tracks which do not fall into the 25 categories. We will definitely have a 26th catch-all category! What will come out of all this analysis is that Raja’s use of Western choir techniques is unmatched and no composer of IFM gets anywhere near him. Unfortunately, he is often associated with folk chorus than Western choir in the popular sense. After these detailed sections, it will become obvious, how this man views everything from a WCM perspective, voices, chords, orchestration etc. We will next work though the individual flowers in his tulip garden and enjoy it even more.
Time for the usual disclaimers. I may not be able to navigate through all his work and most of my analysis is based on my select 1,500 tracks. Feel free to add your input to the analysis. There will be some repetitions as some tracks have more than one technique employed.
Lastly, two individuals that helped me with some good examples need mention. Kamal tirelessly answered my emails and Suresh contributed his Carnatic knowledge where I lack.