Sunday, September 7, 2014

Will there ever be another Ilayaraja? Part 5

#7 Ability to hone and develop instrument and singing talent

Raja has a long instrumental conducting experience before he turned independent. With his SPB band and GKV assignments, he not only conducted sessions, but also closely observed the talented instrument players. When he turned independent, he ensured that the best instrumentalists work for him. It is always a pleasure to work for a composer, who understands the ups and downs of a session musician’s life. However, Raja did not turn out to be the nice guy that he was forced to play, when he worked under other MDs. His demands on total discipline, no-alcohol, strict silence and sheet music based music put a lot of musicians at unease. However, over time, they have turned out to be some of the best instrumentalists in the business.  Puru, Sada, Sashi, Viji, Prabhakar, Blasco, Balesh, Prasad and later Napolean, have stayed with him for a long time.

Most of the session musicians play film music very routinely, as there are not many variations, once you get past a few years playing for a MDs. However, as most of Raja’s musicians have said in interviews, he has kept them sharp and on the edge and keeps pushing them to perform better than the previous session. Now, this requires a lot of talent to keep such talented musicians engaged. Raja not only studies what is possible with an instrument, but also what is possible with the instrument player. There are several occasions, where he has asked Sada to play the veena parts with his guitar. He has pushed percussion artists to their limits and engaged talented musicians who would play for him willingly. Embar Kannan, Ramasubhu, Veena Partha, or Madurai Sreenivasan can go out and play for Carnatic Cutcheris (Balesh could have done the same on Hindustani concerts). Still they prefer playing for Raja as they love the challenge. It is not easy to be seen as a mentor of veteran Carnatic musicians and being a film composer

Perhaps Raja will be the last such composer to show such command over trained Carnatic instrument musicians. RD had musicians such as Vishwa Mohan Bhat playing for him. After that, the only film musician to command such respect has been Raja.

Think of newbie composers who could cultivate such an environment. They fall short in classical musical knowledge which puts them at a disadvantage in attracting serious classical musicians.  The new environment has created a multitude of problems, not just because of knowledge alone: a) firstly, newbie composers  have a hard time keeping a constant set of session musicians, let alone attracting classical musicians b) Some of them consider other instrument players as competition to their keyboard based skills c) They simply do not have the budget to attract such talent, even if they have a requirement.  d) Lastly, their genres of music does not require any Indian/Western classical input. You end up hearing nadaswaram or veenai on keyboard that sounds totally out-of-place.

For most of the new composers, the Raja size orchestra is simply unviable, economically as well as musically. They have a hard time honing themselves, let alone honing instrument talent.

Honing singers is a different ball game. Raja did a lot of that till the early 90s as he could throw several challenges at his staple set of singers. He was in the game of both quality and quantity. While he may have dropped a few singers due to the time they took to grasp his ideas (the most complex in the business), he provided enough runway for those who could turnaround quickly on understanding his composition’s needs. His initial singers were well established ones such as SPB, KJY, MV, PJC or SJ. However, he made each one of them achieve their potential with enough challenges thrown at them. SPB was an upcoming singer and he turned out to be the veteran he is today, after going through the Raja grind. So are newer singers such as Chitra, Mano, Swarnalatha. To a lesser extent, Raja did throw a few curveballs at Madhu, Manjari, Shreya, MGS. However, they did not get the same grind as the veterans as he had lesser assignments.

Singers generally praise the contributions of the MDs for their breaks and this is the only area where newer MDs seem to have scored well. They do have their preferences and comfort zones and singers do benefit. However, it is hard to say if they really hone singers big time like Raja or MSV did. Honing singers requires intricate compositions that requires deep knowledge.  Case in point is Harini – ARR introduced her and she has sung for a few other composers as well. She is still unable to hit top marks as she has not been challenged enough by most composers. I am sure there are several others, who keep waiting for Raja to push them as that is the true test in their view.

#8 Ability to compose music to fit the emotional requirements of the medium

The biggest achievement of Raja over the last 5 decades is not the number of songs that he has composed, but the fantastic background scores he has written and executed. BGM is the hard part of film composing that slows a composer significantly. In Bollywood, this is relegated to another musician to arrange and execute. This frees up the song composer to do other assignments. Some South Indian composer stick to doing BGM on their own and Raja is one of them. While common filmgoers do not pay attention to BGMs in films, they do complain about loud scores in movies. It is not any exaggeration to say that the word 're-recording' or BGM became film vocabulary in India, only after Raja.

Even the most ordinary film goer can recognize the simple piano notes of ‘Nayagan’ ,as Raja ensured that the viewer is able to emotionally relate that score to the film's visuals. No other composer comes anywhere close to him in getting so close emotionally with a film viewer with his BGM. Most directors who have worked with Raja thank him profusely for the elevating BGMs he has provided for their movies. When the directors talk about ‘elevating’ scores, it is the way Raja scores music to fit the emotional requirement of the scene.

The ability to fill a void with music is not that comes easy. Most directors who work with Raja, take that ability for granted. They introduce gaps in their raw shoot, hoping that Raja will create a score that will somehow keep the audience engaged. Most Indian films require a variety of emotions to be portrayed from longing, love, distress, anger, panic, fear, joy, celebration, mischief, humor, suspense, disappointment, betrayal and so on. While there is a lack of grandeur with Indian film BGM, there is immense scope on the emotional side.  For every type of emotion that has been portrayed in films in the last 5 decades, Raja would have several examples for any new composer. This is a key weapon in the Raja arsenal.
The new composers have serious limitations in this area and have limited exposure, as most new composers are city bred with limited training and apprenticeship. Unlike Raja, they have no way of turning any instrument into an emotional weapon. For a comedy situation, Raja would use a solo violin (normally relegated to sad situations) or even in a tense situation (Mouna Ragam scene where Karthik is desperately crying for Revathi from a police vehicle, who is waiting in the registration office). For a mischievous situation Raja has used whistling (Netri Kann), or saxophone (cheeni kum). There is not an emotion he has not portrayed with his violins. The shehnai, which is a North Indian instrument that has traditionally been used for auspicious situations is used by Raja for joy (My Dear Kuttichatthan) , melancholy (Devar Magan). The trumpet has been bent in a myriad of ways to suit his emotional support requirements. The list is endless…

Needless to say, he has an unfair advantage over the newbie composers. When you have 1,000 such project experiences under your belt over the past 5 decades, it is really hard to beat. This is the area that separates him from the boys. He will always be remembered for such background scores for a very long time. Unfortunately, as many of the films in the first 3 decades of his career were shot with such poor scripts, only select films where the director had done a good job with story, script, shoot and editing will stay the test of time. There are several great scores of Raja that have never surfaced as the film itself bombed. However, that is part of a film musician’s life.

It is impossible to even imagine any new composer in the near future to have such accurate musical and emotional fit to the film medium, however unfair advantage he has in this area.


   Are these just the 8 major reasons why Ilayaraja, the phenomenon is not repeatable? Perhaps, there are a few more. However, what is important is not the number of reasons, but to understand that Ilayaraja is not just a film musician who can be compared with any other. He is an institution. To put it in other words, he is a musical ecosystem. All the 8 factors we talked about are characteristics of that ecosystem.

   There are millions of lakes in the world, but none like the great lakes. As one of the largest fresh water bodies in the world, it is a natural wonder. However, it has an interconnected ecosystem that has no parallel. Most musical arguments about Indian composers end up in bun fights on any one characteristic of the ecosystem, not the entire one. The great lakes is a system of thousands of feeder streams, rivers which feed into the lakes apart from the snow melt. It has been there for millions of years and has never dried up. It has been exploited for commercial shipping. Yes, during the cold Canadian winters, the St. Lawrence Seaway is closed. However, you cannot start comparing this to Panama Canal and state that Panama is better as it operates all year around and it can even allow large oil tankers to navigate. Beyond commercial navigation, the Panama Canal to great lakes is a silly comparison. Commerce is one small part of the great lakes. Close to 150 million people's livelihood in Canada and the US are dependent one way or the other on the Great Lakes. The endless fertile terrains that it creates, the beautiful vineyards, orchards, countless waterfalls, streams, and parkland around the feeder system is something no other water system in the world can come close.

  Raja is a similar musical ecosystem that goes beyond commercial success, obvious factors such as speed of composition or creation of great melodies. He has created an ecosystem that has allowed him to perform for five decades when the components of his ecosystem, continued to evolve. Like all ecosystems, even his, has its shortcomings, but has stood the test for 5 decades.

In my view, this is the key to Raja's continued success in the last 5 decades. New composers must not be contend with a few commercial hits and rewards they win. They need to spend time in creating a musical ecosystem around them, involving factors that can best address their longevity. Until then, there is no question of another Ilayaraja!