Wednesday, August 6, 2008

First things first

I thought of sharing some of my views on what makes Ilayaraja the true musical genius that he is. Some of us simply want to listen to his music and not worry about how he makes it happen - it's like enjoying the ride of a car without worrying about learning thermodynamics. I do not intend to discuss anything boigraphical as that is all over the place. My knowledge of music is limited but I have learned quite a bit listening to his music. For the first time, I am part of an internet fan club of Raja! I have never been a fan of anyone in that sense. It is very common in the movie business to call every little guy as a genius - in my view, this is the only living Indian musical person who deserves the term 'genius'. The content will be dumbed down to only showcase his genius and not get too deeply into becoming a musicology text.

Most of the information that I have learned in the last several months is as a result of some selfless work of some of his die hard fans. He is one of two villagers who have left a deep impact on India - the other one was Dhirubhai Ambani.

I would like to specially thank the efforts of the following ilayaraja fans who have helped me appreciate his music better:

1) Dasarathy, through his broadcasts in the Bay Area Stanford Radio - archives are available at

2) CS Ramasami through his great set of educational pages at his website on WCM - the Raja style -

3) Vicky's blog -

4) Suresh's blog - and last but not the least

5) the Raja fan club - , which has been a great site of learning about Raja's music.

Finally, this is more of a Raja for dummies and not an expert commentary. If you want to enjoy and learn about how Raja does his magic (with the view of enjoying the music), you are in the right place. If you want to build expertise on musical techniques, there are other sites that provide you with more precise information.


Some definitions

Before we start embarking on this journey of showcasing the musical genius of Ilayaraja, (will be referred as Raja from now on) let’s define what we mean by genius.

What ordinary people cannot do is done by the skilled. What skilled people cannot do is done by the talented. What talented people cannot do is done by a genius.

This definition of genius fits our context very well. There are many musicians who have enthralled us over the times and they have definitely been skilled and sometimes very talented. Once in a while, someone comes along and does things that even talented people never imagined. Indian film music has been blessed with very able and talented musicians all the time and ours is a country with rich musical traditions – Carnatic in the South, Hindustani in the North and West and Rabeendra Sangeet in the East. Not to mention the thousands of folk traditions that we have in our music. As they say, music has a close relationship with flowing rivers. Most composers have done fabulously well with the tools and techniques that they have come to learn traditionally from their gurus and the rules and constraints of their (local) musical systems. Very few have the ability to go outside of their traditional systems, let alone mix these with ease. Typically you get purists from both systems beating you up for breaking the rules. Musicians tend to stay away from such blatant experiments – unless you have the genius to withstand such onslaught. Raja is definitely one of them. As Kamal Hassan once said, he is ‘Isai Vignani’ and not just ‘Isaignani’.

Some myths about Raja

He is the god of music

He is very human in what he does. He has his laundry list of screw ups and he has messed up with the leading lights of the movie business. If everything went right and he was truly God, he would not have the cyclical ups and downs in his career. He also will not encourage a whole bunch of ‘less talented’ singers for some of his otherwise good compositions.

Every Raja composition is a masterpiece

The word masterpiece is there for a reason – just because a piece comes from a master it does not become a masterpiece. Raja has several masterpieces, but not all his compositions qualify.

Raja is folk composer fit for B-grade movies

Very few Raja tunes are purely folk. He uses a lot of folk techniques, but he rarely renders them in their original format. Exceptions such as Vettalai Vettalai in Rosapoo Ravikkaikari do exist. For the most part, most of Raja’s folk tunes are Westernized (more on this later). In fact, some of Raja’s hidden gems are from B-grade movies that none of us watch, but Raja overrules everyone and comes out with winners. (Example Ennai Thodarnthathu from Mamiyar Veedu, or Vaana Mazhai from Idhu Namma Bhoomi – how many of us have heard about these movies?)

Raja’s music is dated and is unable to compete in today’s rhythm based music business.

It will be more apt to say that he is perhaps tired. Coupled with bad PR and his philosophical ranting, he does not win any more new friends. He has tried every form of music from Jazz, pop, acoustic guitar-propelled Western folk, rock and roll, psychedelia, funk, doo-wop, march, bossa nova, pathos, Tamil folk/traditional, Afro-tribal, Indian and Western classical. He has experimented quite a bit within the constraints of film music and film background score (I will cover this in detail) more than any Indian musician. The rhythm driven compositions and remixes of today (2008) do not have ability to sustain the test of time and it is good policy to stay away from it. Besides, he has very little to prove himself, unless a challenge is posed at him such as animation movies, period films, documentaries (yes, you read it right), or independent albums. If you pay close attention to Hey Ram (2000) and Cheeni Kum (2007), Ajantha (2007) and finally The Music Messiah (2007), he is miles ahead and modern than most of his competitors.

Raja is a good Carnatic classical composer from a film music perspective.

Raja is first a Western Classical Music (WCM) artiste – everything is after that. As someone who was familiar with only folk music till 25, it is still difficult to explain, how he became a WCM expert in such a short period of time (8 years). While he has also learned Carnatic Classical Music (CCM) after that and acquired as much if not greater expertise, he still approaches CCM from a WCM perspective. I will detail this later as most of the CCM criticism of his work is from purists who do not understand his approach. He is the one of the few (definitely the best) artists who can harmonize CCM using WCM rules.

Raja - the institution

  • Today, Chennai is the best place in India to do any string section recording. It has the best string artists – several Hindi/other languages film string sections are recorded in Chennai.
  • Some of the best voice conductors in India are out of Chennai. They are trained Western voice conductors. (Note, not music conductors).
  • Some of the best recording studios for sound are Chennai based. While there is a lot of shortage for traditional instrumentalists, it still has the best players supply to instrument ratio. Bollywood is very Punjab influenced and the instruments are very limited. Most Western influenced music is based purely on keyboard and violin. LP used a lot of violins in their compositions, and lots of people mistook it to be Western!
  • While there are still keyboard scammers (sorry about the strong words) and recyclers in the music business, suddenly, a conservative city such as Chennai speaks about score sheets, strings, base, voice training, concertos, as though it is Vienna or Budapest. Why should Chennai worry about shortage of cellists (one who plays cello)? Why does AR Rahman want to start a music conservatory in Chennai?

Once upon a time, Tamil/Telugu film music directors used to take pride in going to Bombay and getting their music recorded. Today, the tale has reversed. How did all this sudden explosion of Western musical talent and discipline come up in the last 30 odd years? The answer, Ilayaraja!

Why is he a musical genius?

What is that Raja has done that no other Indian musician has, to qualify for being called a genius? Here are top 10 reasons.

  1. No other Indian music composer has such a solid understanding of Music theory and especially Western Classical Music (WCM) theory.
  2. He is the first true and complete Indian music composer – he does melody composition (all MDs do that), he harmonizes the melody, arranges the instruments, orchestrates and finally mixes and records as well. He is a one-man show. Unlike Bollywood, where one person does melody composition, another does the arrangement, the third one does the orchestration (conducting). Next time when you watch a Bollywood movie, pay attention to the credits.
  3. He is the fastest background music composer in the world.
  4. He is the best interlude composer that I have ever heard in Indian cinema. While most Indian film composers consider an interlude as ‘filler’, he has developed it into a super fine art. I will discuss this later in greater detail with examples.
  5. He experiments with musical ideas from several forms of music all the time. Other composers do this too. However, Raja’s experiments are so varied, that no one qualifies to be even a distant second. I will cover some of his experiments in detail later with examples.
  6. He does not even hum his tune, or play it on a keyboard or piano – just writes his music! This is music by design, not trial and error.
  7. No Indian musician has delivered so much quality despite being so prolific. At his peak, he delivered music for about 51 films in a year – that’s about 250 songs or at the rate of 2 songs a day, work of 125 days. On an average of 3 days for per film BGM, you are already stacking another 150 days. This does not include discussions with directors to understand the script and story line. In that year, he had at least 125 hit songs. His success rate is definitely above 45% of the tunes he sets. Most MDs will be happy at 10%. And most composers can either get quality or quantity, not both. There is nothing called Raja’s top 10 – the best you can get is Raja’s top 200!
  8. He is the only living musician who understands WCM and CCM so well that can effortlessly move from one to the other, without the listener being aware, honoring all the rules of both the systems.
  9. As someone who started off in an industry that was dominated by CCM, musicians who were not score sheet driven, voices not trained in the formal Western way, a system unfamiliar with multi-part music composition, Raja changed it all within a few years. No sound is produced that is not written, even chorus is written and conducted, precision in timing is taken for granted today and singers just end up doing exactly what the composer is expecting. In other words this is a paradigm shift from a chaotic music production process to an orderly well oiled machine.
  10. Raja has given everybody the boldness to use any instrument for whatever the composer wants to create a ‘feel’ for. Shenai is no more for just pathos, veena is no more for just an auspicious situation, flute does not always signify a village, a sax is no more for youth, a guitar is no more for just romance, a violin is no more for just melancholy – he has changed every visualization that we have had about the musical instruments we hear in just less than 3 decades!

Lastly, some of Raja’s counterpoints (do not worry, I will introduce counterpoints later), when separated can serve as great melody phrases themselves! And so are his bass tracks! In the future, there will be several MDs who will steal his melodies from his bass and counterpoint work, that’s for sure. In my view, if Raja was just homophonic (most Indian music is), he could have scored for another 200 movies by now!

There are several other reasons for calling him a musical genius. As I do not want to repeat what others have already said, here is a great summary of his genius by Kavignar Vaali during the ‘Andrum Indrum Endrum’ show held in Oct 2005.


In order to appreciate Raja, you need to unfortunately get a bit technical about music. We will take a quick look at Classical Music at a 40,000 foot level. While Indian Classical music in general and Carnatic Classical Music (CCM) in particular has a great tradition and has a long and rich history, it does have a few characteristics that are undeniable. Most Indian classical music is an individualistic experience. It is seldom a team effort. Most instrumentation is merely to support the main vocalist/instrumentalist. We speak about Bhimsen Joshi or Balamuralikrishna and rarely speak about a group of musicians. As Raja once said, ‘Indian classical music is so lonely compared to Western Classical Music (WCM)’. In Carnatic music, there are sections of ‘thani avarthanam’ to demonstrate the skill of the instrumentalist. Beyond that, there is rarely a need for intense coordination. In fact, we use the term ‘accompaniment’, meaning that the support instrumentalists play along with the main artist! In other words, there is very little room for ‘harmony’ in Indian classical music. Most of our music is traditionally carried forward through the generations. There is limited documentation on our music and there is hardly a way in our music to notate everything.

Western Classical Music (WCM) is team sport. For centuries, WCM had composers, conductors, arrangers and players who used notations developed it to the point that composers can work freely on musical ideas and get conductors to do the actual performance. This lends easily to exciting things – coordination of several players to contribute to smooth and melodious music (harmony). Even singing in the classical sense can be notated – there are choral conductors that conduct chorus singing in most WCM concerts. In other words, every sound emerging out of an orchestra can be pre-written, conducted and played. Very unlike CCM!

There are several differences between WCM and CCM that it appears almost incompatible. Here are some:

  • In the world of WCM, everything is based on what is called as ‘scales’ – this is to select the tone. A scale consists of a pattern governed by strict rules but set on a tone. You can vary the tone of the scale, but you are not allowed to vary the pattern. In other words, you can transition from one scale to the next – you might have heard terms such as C-Major or E-Minor – these are naming conventions for scales. I do not want to go deep into WCM scales as this is not about musicology, but to understand Raja, you must be aware of WCM scales.
  • In the world of CCM, you have to fix the tone of the scale, but you are allowed to vary the pattern. If you closely observe any Cutcheri, before any song is rendered, we try to fix the tone (using a thumpura). (It has now become common place for a number of musicians to say, ‘this is in the mayamalavagowlai scale’ – nothing can be farther from the definition of scale – what they mean is the base pattern of the raga).
  • In the world of WCM, there is no room for microtones. Microtones are referred as ‘gamakams’ in Indian music. All our music is rich in microtones. In fact, the entire Raga pattern is dependent on gamakams. Microtones are essential parts of our music to enhance the raga. The raga itself is a pattern and the standard Indian notation (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ne) can be mapped to the Western keyboard. However, we have additional connotations beyond these basic notes, and so does the Western system. 'Solfege notation' in WCM is when they say notations. Example, when Raja narrates his 3-note song to the Italian audience, he uses the 'Solfege notation'. (The Music Journey of Ilayaraja). The C,D,E,F,G,A,B is a written Western notation.
  • In the world of WCM, there are two major methods of playing music with an orchestra – homophony and polyphony. Homophony involves the arrangement and playing of the various instruments and ensuring that there is overall melody in the resultant sound. Most Indian composers have a good grounding on this – this does not mean that it is easy. Polyphony involves several melodies at the same time being played and the resultant music must be pleasant to hear. There is nothing called polyphony in Indian music. There is a view that homophony is the horizontal part of WCM and polyphony is the vertical part. Raja is an expert in polyphonic music. More on this later.
  • WCM has just two patterns – Major and minor – CCM has millions! The CCM world is so mathematically precise, that the 72 main ragas (there are several derived ones – called janya ragas) in the Melakartha scheme have been even named mathematically. For example, the popular ragam Shankarabharanam is actually called Dhirashankarabharanam due to the mathematical nature of naming in the melakartha scheme. The melakartha scheme is similar to Mendeleev’s Periodic table for chemists and physicists. Those of you who want to wonder more at our ancestral mathematical genius are welcome to visit:
  • CCM enthusiasts cannot change the tone – abswaram. That’s supposed to be sin!
  • WCM enthusiast cannot understand mindless (don’t freak out – in their minds) pattern variations and cannot appreciate Indian music. They think ours is some freaky free form music – nothing can be farther from truth.
  • Shifting from one scale to the next is called ‘modulation’ in WCM. There are modulation rules, but nothing prohibits you from modulating. Now you can understand why Carnatic purists dislike Raja – he is full of abaswarams! To appreciate modulation, here are two examples you can try and understand – The first part of Hey Ram (2000) mini symphony, the prelude of Andhi Mazhai Pozhikiradhu (Raja Paarvai – 1980). These are also sometimes described as sliding scales.

That’s a ton of boring music theory stuff, though we have hardly touched the tip of the iceberg. The idea is not to display my knowledge, but impress upon you the genius of Raja. You cannot appreciate Quantum mechanics, unless you appreciate Classical mechanics.

In essence, we learned that both CCM and WCM are based on solid grounds but have conflicting rules that can almost end up with religious type wars! No system is the better of the two – they are just simply designed that way. What’s one system’s rigidity is another system’s flexibility! What if you can play with the flexibility and the rigidity of both these systems and come out with music that the world has never heard before? That’s Raja and his genius. He does not care about WCM or CCM gurus complaining. While they do, neither did we hear SPB singing in abhaswaram for Raja, nor have we seen an improperly harmonized song from Raja. This requires such solid grounding on music theory, he is deservedly a genius. While this is a rare gift and everyone who understands one or the other, or both systems keep wondering about this little villager, he calls his craft as just fraud!

Carnatic Raja

 There are several Carnatic exponents who keep wondering about Raja’s ability to freely compose music based on several rare ragas. Most music composers are happy with Mohanam, Kalyani and a few other low risk ragas that work very well for film music. Raja has tried out several rare ragas casually, and also harmonized them (I will cover some more heavy lifting WCM stuff shortly). Here are some examples:

  1. Reetigowlai (Chinna Kannan Azhaikiran - Kavi kuyil - 1977)
  2. Lathangi (Thogai Ilamayil - Payanangal Mudivathillai - 1982)
  3. Hamsanandhi (Vedam Anuvilum - Salangai Oli - 1983)
  4. Lalitha (Ithazhil Kadhai Ezhuthum - Unnal Mudiyum thambi - 1988)
  5. Amirthavarshini (Thoongatha vizhigal rendu - Agni Natchathiram- 1989)
  6. Paavani (Paatha Vizhi - Guna - 1992)
  7. Nalinakanthi (Enthan Nenjil - Kalaignan - 1993)
  8. Saranga Tharangini (Isaiyil Thodanguthamma - Hey Ram- 2000)
  9. Panthuvarali (Piraiye - Pithamagan- 2004), Raja Paarvai (1980) title music

Please note that I have avoided references to ragas such as Shankarabharanam, Sarasangi, Charukesi, Keeravani, Gowri Manohari or Natabhairavi. More on this later. I do not want to focus too much on Carnatic music as I have even lesser knowledge than my small understanding of WCM. I also do not rate the capability to set tunes in rare ragas as a great genius qualifier. MSV has used several rare ragas such as ‘Mahathi’ for Apoorva Ragangal. It is our own music and we are supposed to be good at it, aren’t we? I will get back to some more discussion on Raja’s Carnatic foray after covering some other WCM topics.


Indian film music basics

There is a constant reference to a number of music compositions in this document. It may be worthwhile to document the standard structure of our film music track so that our references are understood by the readers in a standard way

Very rarely, there is a third charanam and a concluding interlude. More than 99% of Indian film songs do not have a concluding interlude (Postlude?). Interludes do not normally involve the main singers with the exception of humming. Mostly, it is instrumental or chorus based. A good example of concluding interlude is Megam Kottatum from Enakkul Oruvan. (More on this when I cover Raja’s percussion) Another example of a third charanam is the song “Siriya Paravai Siragai” from Andha Oru Nimidam or Samakozhi Koovuthamma from Ponnu Oorukku Puthusu (both these songs are musically rich).

An introduction to polyphony

In our folk music, we have something called ‘Esapaatu’ where two singers alternate between each other. When one finishes, the other starts and so on. Raja, who is a WCM expert, tries this with his own touch – observe the song – Megam karukkaiyile from Vaidehi KaathirunthaaL (1984). If you pay attention to the chorus in the song, you will realize that the male and female voices not only alternate using the ‘Esapaatu’’ technique, but both use Western and Eastern traditions as designed by Raja. The male voices sing it the proper Western way, the female voices in our traditional folk way. Observe that the male chorus have no ‘gamakam’ in their phrases and the female voices are full of ‘thanananna’ which is traditional. The entire song is fully a scale based song and is not CCM based. However, Raja will embellish it with flute interludes which are fully folk, but harmonized! You will realize that there is a bass guitar pattern throughout the interludes/song that will start revealing to you that this is not from a village folk artist!

I want to go from the known to the unknown - megam karukkaiyile is not polyphony. You need to have more than one melody played simultaneously fitting the same scale to get to polyphony. If the two melodies are entirely different, but together, the end effect sounds very melodic, it is called counterpoint. Westerners make a big fuss about this and you can hear this with every WCM music station in the West making a special mention of it before they play any number that contains this technique. Piece of cake for Raja! Counterpoint is a musical idea first expressed by JS Bach in the seventeenth century. Raja is a big fan of JS Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. His music has their strong influence. JS Bach’s work was primarily on violin, piano and some other seventeenth century instruments (harpsichord) that are not in use anymore (JS Bach). Raja is the world’s greatest living counterpoint specialist. One can write a book on Raja’s counterpoints only. This should not be new to you at all, as you are hearing counterpoints every day without knowing about it! Every other Raja’s song is filled with counterpoints. Even Bach would not have thought of so many counterpoint applications. Time for few examples, as it is impossible to list all gems of Raja.

Counterpoint with voices

Poomalaye Thol SeravaPagal Nilavu (1986). This is a masterpiece of sorts on counterpoints. You can observe that Raja and Janaki sing two different melodies at the same time. There are at least 6 voice phrases in this song that demonstrate voice based counterpoint.

Dhaas Dhaas Chinappa Dhaas Dhaas – Kadalora Kavidhaigal (1986) – You can observe the chorus and Raja’s voice overlap with different melodies (this is strictly not a counterpoint as it uses a phase shift of the same melody between Raja and the chorus – polyphony nevertheless). If you research Raja’s work, you can find another hundred easily.

Raja’s famous Rakamma Kaiya Thattu from Dhalapathi (1991) is another case in point. If you observe the last pallavi of this song, which is fully scale based, the Aberi based Carnatic chorus continues when SPB gets back to his Pallavi. This song has so many other spectacular musical elements, but we will stick to counterpoint for the moment.

Thendral Vandhu Theendum Podhu from Avadharam (1995) uses the counterpoint technique between Raja and the chorus voices during the interludes. This track also has spectacular violin counterpoints and is a musically rich track. Pay attention to the below clip between 0:29 to 0:39 secs and also 0:44 to 1:18 secs to appreciate the counterpoint technique used with voices. Hear the track....

The song Pudhu Mappilaikku from Apoorva Sagodarargal (1989) has very rich counterpoints when the Ra Pa Pa humming goes on between the singer and the chorus background. In this track, pay attention to 0:33 to 0:52 seconds to appreciate the usage of vocal counterpoint. Hear the track...

One more unusual candidate for this category – the prelude of Metti Oli Kaatrodu from Metti (1982) – pay attention to the initial humming of both Raja and Janaki – a wonderful counterpoint. Pay attention to 0:01 to 0:22 seconds in the clip below to appreciate the usage of vocal counterpoint in a complete Indian melody. Hear the track...


If you trace Raja's early work, he did some amazing vocal counterpoints as early as 1981 that was not appreciated much at that time. The track Pon Oviyam from Kazhugu (1981) has some amazing vocal counterpoint work. Both Raja and Janaki take turns, sing with the chorus as well as overlap with completely different melodies. This is far ahead of its times. Perhaps, Raja repeated his vocal experiment again in 1986 (Poo Maalaye in Pagal Nilavu -1985) and got noticed at that time. In the clip below, there are several vocal counterpoints between Raja, Janaki and the choir. Specifically focus on the usage of vocal counterpoints in the following segments: a) 0:06 to 0:28 secs b) 1:01 to 1:17 secs c) 1:25 to 1:49 secs d) 1:51 to 2:06 secs. Some segments have all the three sources and others have two. Let's hear the early Pon Oviyam...

These are some examples from Raja's wide body of work. He continues to do this till today - Nandhalala (2009), as it comes very naturally to him.

Counterpoint with violins

Here is the masterpiece. Listen to And we had a talk in Raja’s famous album How to Name it (1986). Bourre is a dance form of the seventeenth century and JS Bach did a lot of music for court dances. Raja has taken ‘Bourre in E-minor’ of Bach and played Hamsadhwani raga as a counterpoint to it. If you start comparing the scale matching in this piece and his harmonization of the CCM with WCM, you will understand the genius that Raja is. Nobody, anywhere in the world, has done anything like this before. The HTNI album is full of such gems. I would like to mention one more track on this album Study for violin the Mayamalava gowlai based Tulasi Dhala (you can hear Yesudas sing this piece in Rudra Veena) mixed with a WCM composition that matches the same violin (appears like two) in the lower and higher octaves.

Let’s take some simple examples from film music. Back to Poomalaye ThoL Serava from Pagal Nilavu (1986). Listen to the 1st interlude and see the play of violins and the melodies they play. Specifically, pay attention to the following counter melodies involving violins: a) 0:01 to 0:12 secs and again 1:28 to 1:39 - these sections have violin and violin playing counter melodies b) 0:12 to 0:19 secs - violins playing counter to synthesizer c) 0:30 to 0:33 - violins and violins in counter melody d) 0:58 to 1:15 secs - violins in counter melody with synthesizer again.  Hear the track...

Ennulle Ennulle from Valli (1992). Listen to the 1st and 2nd interludes and the violins transport you to a different world. This song also qualifies for the first category on voices as the chorus does a counterpoint on the violins which also is playing against another melody on guitar. If you observe closely, there are three melodies going on simultaneously- violins, guitar and voices and you feel that everything has its place.

Another great example is Maalaiyil Yaaro from Chatriyan (1992). The first and second interlude are not just examples of violin based counter point, but also another great WCM technique called chromaticism, ( something no other Indian composer has touched till date! Specifically, this track uses a technique called 'tremolo' where several violins play micro notes that have a very minor degree of separation. Coming back to the topic of counterpoints with violins, pay particular attention to: a) 0:05 to 0:16 secs - synthesizer in counterpoint to violins in the background b) 0:17 to 0:24 - violins and flute in counterpoint c) 0:49 to 1:03 secs - violins and guitar in counterpoint. Hear the track...

The second interlude of Sangeetha Megam in Udhaya Geetham (1985) is almost like a simple demo of counterpoint on violins. Some more interlude examples: Metti Oli from Metti (1982), violins against a gush of background violins in Madai Thiranthu in Nizhalgal (1980). Pay attention to the following sections: a) 0:25 to 0:37 secs - violins and flute in counterpoint b) 1:22 to 1:35 secs - violins and violins in counterpoint. Hear the track...

Rasathi from Poovarasan (1996). The lyrics are folk, but focus on the orchestration. This is like hearing any Western Classical music bit! The track uses synthesized violins and real violins. Specifically, pay attention to: a) 0:03 
to 0:09 secs - Synth violins and real violins in counterpoint  b) 0:10 to 0:25 secs - synthesizer in counterpoint with violins and c) 0:57 to 1:01 secs - Violins in counterpoint with background violins in tremolo.  Hear the track...

Mazhai Varuthu Mazhai Varuthu Kudai Konduvaa from Raja Kaiya Vachha (1991). The violin counterpoints with the background violins in this track are mind boggling. Specifically, a) 0:01 to 0:11 secs and 1:38 to 1:49 secs - brilliant counterpoint between violins and violins b) 0:49 to 1:05 - counterpoint between violins and violins. Hear the track...

Kanna Unai Thedugiren from Manadhil Urudhi Vendum (includes a guitar counterpoint with violins as well) (1988), Neela Kuyile Unnoduthan from Magudi (1984), Pothi Vacha Malliga Mottu from Man Vasanai (1983), Oru Naal Unnodu Oru Naal from Uravadum Nenjam (1977).

The great second interlude of Nilavu Thoongum Neram from Kunkuma Chimizh (1985 - it is hard to believe that this is film music!). Specifically, a) 0:01 to 0:14 secs  - violin and synthesizer in counterpoint b) 0:23 to 0:30 secs - violins and violins in counterpoint and c) 1:09 to 1:16 secs - violins and violins in counterpoint.  Hear the track..

Ananda Ragam Ketkum from Paneer Pushpangal (1981). This track is loaded with counter melodies all over the place. Some sections of interest: a) 0:10 to 0:20 secs and again 1:09 to 1:20 secs - violin and flute counterpoint b) 0:22 to 0:24 secs - violin and violin in counterpoint c) 0:57 to 1:00 secs - 
violin and violin in counterpoint d) 1:28 to 1:34 secs - violin and violin in counterpoint e) 1:53 to 1:56 secs - violin and violin in counterpoint. Hear the track..

Some others that I will feel bad if I do not mention specially Agaya Vennilavae from Arangetra Velai (1990) the interlude has mind blowing counterpoints on violin and flute. Specifically, a) 0:01 to 0:17 secs - violin and violin in counterpoint b) 1:05 to 1:10 secs - violin and violin in counterpoint. Hear the track.. 

Another very worthy mention is the prelude of Nilavondru Kandaen from Kai Rasikaren (1984) and its interludes a masterpiece of sorts by Raja. In particular, a) 0:04 to 0:33 secs has several counterpoint combinations - violin-violin, violin-flute, violin-synthesizer b) 0:47 to 1:00 secs - violin and synthesizer in counterpoint  c) 1:00 to 1:07 secs - violin and violin in counterpoint and d) 1:31 to 1:41 - violin and  synthesizer in counterpoint. Hear the track..

There are at least 500 tracks of Raja where you can see the use of this technique (counterpoint with violins) and none of them are the same! I just highlighted only some examples here.

Counterpoint with Flute

Raja has done several mini flute sonatas (inspired by Bach) very quietly in his film interludes and we have to separate these gems to appreciate it. Here are some that I am aware of: Poovile Medai Naan Podava from Pagal Nilavu (1986) – listen to the prelude and the interludes with flute with the keyboard/guitar counterpoint - this is vintage Raja paying homage to Bach. You can use this great composition as your phone ring tone! You can feel proud that a musician of our times could do something like this. Hear the track....

Pacha Mala Poovu from Kizhakku Vaasal (1990)- pay attention to the first and second interlude – I will challenge anyone who thinks this is some folk fluke. The flute and the guitar are on co-opetition to create a wonderful listening experience. Another great counterpoint. I will cover this song more when I cover Raja's folk based compositions. Hear the track...

Etho Mogum from Kozhi Koovuthu (1982). I am yet to hear a prelude that is better than this song. Raja played this prelude to Paul Mauriat, the French classical music composer, when he traveled to Europe. The guitar, violin and flute play in this song deserves an award for just the prelude. Amazing composition. The prelude is so enchanting that the track below has it 3 times! Hear the track...

Another Raja flute counterpoint based masterpiece – Chinna Chinna from Mouna Ragam (1986) – I will cover this song more when I uncover Raja’s use of bass guitar.Pay attention to the flute, the synthesizer and the guitar in the first and second interlude. Hear the track...

Putham Pudhu Kaalai from Alaigal Oiyvathillai (1981) – there is no discussion on flute that is complete without this song. The counterpoint play is between violins, flute and voice in this song - another masterpiece. The conversations that take place between the violins, the flutes and the guitar in this composition, clearly shows the master mind behind the work. We have every reason to be proud that this was a creation during our lifetime and can easily stand up with some of the best orchestration work anywhere in the world. Hear the track...

How about a counterpoint with flute and flute? Oru Kili urangudhu from Ananda Kummi (1982). Hear the track... 

Another masterpiece that it is impossible to ignore is the track from the album called Nothing But Wind (1985) titled Mozart – I love you. Raja takes on a WCM composition that is Mozart’s style, brings in Hariprasad Chaurasia in his native format (Hindustani), merges him slowly with Mozart and gets him to play a counterpoint piece with the grand violins in the background.

Now let’s look at a sample of his hundreds of flute and violin based counterpoints. Most of the ones that I have mentioned in the violin section qualify for this section as well. The trouble with Raja’s music is it is hard to categorize – you never know which one technique he uses in a song. Naan Padum Mouna Ragam from Idhaya Koil (1985) features both flute and violin based counterpoints. The solo violin brings out the pathos when the string section continues in the background. Hear the track...

Nee Padhi Naan Padhi from Keladi Kanmani (1990) uses flute in counterpoint mode with violins in the first interlude in an enchanting way. Siru Ponmani from KallukkuL Eeram (1980), second interlude of Vanakuyile from Priyanka (1994). Hear the track... 

Ithazhil Kadhai Ezhthum from Unnal Mudiyum Thambhi (1988), Thaalaatum Poongatru from Gopura Vasalile (1991). Amazing flute work that is hard to ignore. Pay attention to the 1st interlude between the flute and the bells in counterpoint. Hear the track...

Observe the first interlude of Sempoove from Siraichaalai (1996) – please listen to the cellos and the string section when you hear only the flutes – mind blowing! Raja's techniques only get better with time. Hear the track... 

The first interlude of Un Kuthamma En Kuthamma from Azhagi (2002) – interesting counterpoint between the string section and flutes. Raja uses counterpoints for all moods - this is a track that is very pensive (similar to Naan Paadum Mouna Raagam). Hear the track..

The list is endless as one of Raja's primary instruments is flute and his flautist (Arunmozhi alias Napolean) sings for him too.

Counterpoint with guitar

Raja was a guitarist and an organ player before he became a composer. No prizes for guessing who has done some of the best guitar work in Indian cinema – he got his music qualification in Western Classical guitar. The unique feature of Raja's guitar work is its simplicity. I do not think anyone in Indian cinema has used the regular acoustic, electric and bass guitar the way Raja has used it. I will start with Manadhil Enna Ninaivugalo from Poonthalir (1979) – please hear the prelude, first and the second interludes and see the play of guitar (electric, rhythm, bass), flutes and saxaphone in counterpoint/call and response mode – vintage Raja. Pay attention to the following segments on counterpoint technique: a) 0:01 to 0:15 secs - guitar in counterpoint with sax b) 0:16 to 0:33 secs - guitar in counterpoint at times with another guitar and also with a flute c) 1:20 to 1:35 secs - brilliant guitar-guitar counterpoint. Hear the track...

I chose this track first as this demonstrates the mastery Raja has over the Western idiom. If you notice closely, the lead guitar plays three roles: 1) plays along with the melody at times 2) plays a different melody at times (counterpoint) and 3) plays a coversation with the other instruments (also called call and response technique).

Then Poove Poove Vaa from Anbulla Rajinikanth (1984) – pay attention to the second interlude and see the guitar play with the keyboard in counterpoint mode. It is the regular hollow guitar (or Hawaiian guitar) that plays for a few seconds with the bells in a different melody. Pay attention to the following counterpoint segments in the track below: a) 0:03 to 0:13 secs - Guitar in counterpoint with flute b) 0:25 to 0:34 secs - again, guitar in counterpoint with flute, but the melodies are completely different c) 0:35 to 0:52 secs - guitar in counterpoint with the synthesizer and at times with the flute d) 1:09 to 1:29 secs -  again, guitar in counterpoint with flute, but the melodies are completely different from the earlier two examples! Hear the track...

Singara Cheemaiyile from Ninaivu Chinnam (1989) - the first interlude is a masterpiece using a guitar in counterpoint with a western flute – another masterpiece. It is very easy not to pay attention to this wonderful piece of work. Sometimes, Raja places some of his great work on orchestration in some obscure song that you need to unearth. This is truly a gem in my view. Pay attention to 0:01 to 0:17 seconds. Hear the track...

In Ilaiya Nila from Payanangal Mudivathillai – (1982) the second interlude has an acoustic guitar playing in counterpoint to the electric guitar. Not to mention the flute doing the same with the electric guitar. However, this track is more popular for the jazz style guitar usage by Raja very early in his career.

All that I mentioned about Ilaiya Nila applies equally to Nalam Vazha Ennalum from Marupadiyum (1993) – on top of it, note the violin counterpoints in the song’s interlude – this is another masterpiece of Raja. This film has some excellent tracks in general and one of the finest scores by Raja for Balu Mahendra. The simplicity and the elegance of the guitar usage somehow reveals how close this instrument is to the composer's heart! I will cover more on this track later as the original Hindi film ('Arth') tried to convey melancholy through the usage of ghazals - Raja did better with his guitar in counterpoint with the violins. Pay attention to two fantastic guitar-guitar counterpoints in this clip, the first one between 0:09 to 0:23 secs and the second one between 1:06 and 1:16 secs - notice the melodies are not repeated. Raja also throws in a violin-violin counterpoint in the same track between 0:47 to 0:53 secs as a bonus! Hear the track...

How can we forget Pani Vizhum Malarvanam from Ninaivellam Nithya (1982) ?– the string section is one of Raja’s best not to mention the counterpoint rich interludes with guitar and violin. The usage of solo violin is special in this track and I will discuss more on this in the section – moods of Raja.

If you observe Ithu Oru Pon Maalai Pozhuthu (from Nizhalgal – 1980) second interlude the guitar plays counterpoint to the keyboard.

Similarly if you observe Pattu Poove Mettu Podu from Chembaruthi, (1992) the interludes are very vibrant with the great counterpoint play of guitar with violin and keyboard – I rate this one of the vibrant guitar play of Raja. Observe the orchestration in this song - once the guitar and the violin counterpooint play is over, the saxaphone is used as a brilliant bridge between the guitar and the high powered violin play to keep the vibrant mood of the composition. The track is an example of how great things can be achieved in less than 2 minutes! Pay attention to the following segments: a) 0:01 to 0:15 secs and again 1:36 to 1:51 secs - guitar in counterpoint with sax b) 0:19 to 0:39 secs - violins in counterpoint with violins c) 0:52 to 1:02 secs - guitar in counterpoint with violins d) 1:55 to 2:15 secs - guitar in counterpoint with violins e) 1:09 to 1:18 secs - synthesizer in counterpoint with violins. Hear the track..

You cannot discuss Raja's guitar and not include Senthoora Poove from 16 vayathinile (1977) – the guitar and violin play counterpoint throughout both the interludes and has been lauded as one of the earliest display of Raja's Western music abilities. Pay attention to the following segments int he clip below: a) 0:01 to 0:09 - guitar in counterpoint with violins b) 0:29 to 0:40 secs - violins in counterpoint with violins and c) 0:58 to 1:17 secs - violins, flute and shehnai in counterpoint. Hear the track...

Guitar playing a different melody with flute and chorus is all over Pani Vizhum Iravu from Mouna Raagam (1989). Hear at the relaxed pace of the electric guitar when the violins try to play the counterpoint at a different pace. Another display of mastery over the counterpoint technique by Raja. Pay attention to the counterpoint segments 0:01 to 0:15 secs and 0:25 to 0:32 secs. Hear the track...

Similarly, violin and guitar counterpoint play in the interludes of Seer Kondu Vaa from Naan Padum Paadal (1984) is another pleasing one.

Observe the second interlude of Raja Raja Chozhan Naan from Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987) and you can see the play of guitar, solo violin and flute in counterpoint.

Another great guitar and guitar counterpoint that is unforgettable is the second interlude of Poonthalir Aada from Paneer Pushpangal (1981). With the chorus Raja will transport you out of this world – this is one of the best interlude scores of Raja, in my view. There is also a view that this score uses Invertible Counterpoints- supposed to be the highest level of sophistication in western orchestration that you can ever get to. While I am not knowledgeable enough to add to this view, it must be mentioned that I have never heard of any Indian music composer even talk about it other than Raja. If there is a guitar track to die for, it is this! The first 16 seconds of the clip below is simply the best guitar to guitar counterpoint in Indian film music! There are other bonuses too: a) 0:17 to 0:36 secs - brilliant arrangement of the bass guitar and voices b) 1:17 to 1:28 secs - another brilliant arrangement of the bass guitar and voices, set to a different melody c) 1:50 to 2:01 secs - a violin-violin counterpoint thrown in as another bonus. No wonder, Raja elevates the art of interlude composition to the highest level on the planet. Hear the track...

Another song that uses the invertible counterpoint technique by Raja is the song 'Gangai Aatril Nindru Kondu' from Aayiram Nilave Vaa (Tamil 1983). The clip below is the second interlude of this song. Listen to the 16 seconds onward and you can hear the two guitars in invertible counterpoint mode, with one climbing in notes as the other descends. Hear this brilliant work in this track...


Some others that are worth mentioning from a guitar counterpoint perspective – Vaan Engum and En Iniya Pon Nilave from Moodupani (1980), Ithu Oru Nila Kalam from Tik Tik Tik (1981) – I will cover more on this song in the chorus discussion etc. Poove Sempoove from Solla Thudikuthu Manasu (1988) is another great guitar and flute play in counterpoint. The list is endless and shows not only the talent of Raja as a composer but also his lead guitarist Sadanandam. There was a time I used to wonder about RD Burman’s use of guitar – looks insignificant before Raja’s work.