As the pandemic ravaged the world, Carnatic musicians searched for new ways to reinvent themselves. Suddenly, during this forced re-imagination drive, Ilaiyaraaja, the genius film-music composer, became a Carnatic muse. Beyond individual musicians and their choices, it is interesting to observe this trend with a socio-aesthetic lens.
Associating film songs with ragas is not new. In the 1980s, senior musician G S Mani — who was also an assistant to film-music composers Vishwanathan and Ramamurthy — presented lecture demonstrations that mapped film songs to ragas. In the 2000s, singer Charulatha Mani presented a series of successful performances making similar comparisons. It is but natural that Carnatic musicians look for ragas in film songs, or for that matter in any music, because that is the only way we know to recognise melody. But Ilaiyaraaja is not the first, nor will he be the last, composer to use ragas in cinema. Many who preceded and followed him, including A R Rahman, have done so. Hence this singular focus on Ilaiyaraaja is curious. Recently, Rahman too drew our attention to his romance with ragas by highlighting his raga-based film songs in a performance. This need for classical recognition is emblematic of the perceived aesthetic unequalness between film and classical music.
Ilaiyaraaja has cultivated a relationship with Carnatic musicians for a long time. He learnt it from the multi-faceted T V Gopalakrishnan and invites Carnatic musicians to perform at his home every year during Navaratri. Beyond his musical brilliance, his socio-religious inclinations, close association with the Ramana Ashram and spiritual utterances make him a comfortable fit in the socially privileged and otherwise exclusive Carnatic environment. If Ilaiyaraaja had been a strident atheist, would there have been such an embrace? Difficult to say! His recent political leanings may have also played a role in this sudden Raaja-love in some artists.
Is all this about the greatness of Ilaiyaraaja or that of Carnatic music? Though often presented as the former, there is an underlying resonance of what Carnati-cians have always believed is the overarching nature of their ragas. The stand-up comedian Alexander Babu has presented an imaginary humorous conversation with a typical Carnatic music aficionado. When Alex hums the only song he knows in Raga Nattakurinji — a Rahman number Kannamuchi yenada — the ‘uncle’ replies “Yes, that is the one, Rahman has done a great job. They will not give an Oscar so easily!” The jocular import is that Rahman’s Carnatic/classical knowledge brought him the Oscar recognition. Everyone closely associated with Carnatic music possesses this sense of superiority.
Classical musicians have a voyeuristic relationship with film music. We are enamoured by cinema and desperately desire its fame. We use film music just that little bit to glamourise ourselves. Many Carnatic musicians who have sung for films see themselves as special invitees, not as playback singers. Everyone wants to protect their version of classico-social ‘purity’. Raga-based songs are found not only in cinema but also in musical forms such as Kuttu, Kathakali, Yakshagana and devotional music of various religions. But there isn’t much interest in adopting any of these interpretations. It is safe then to assume that this draw comes from the heady combination of cinema and Ilaiyaraaja.
Musicians who straddled the film and Carnatic world with equal elan and class and been for long associated with Ilaiyaraaja have not been tempted to present such comparative teasers or programmes. Ironically, at one time, Carnatic musicians who sang in films were accused of making their music ‘light’. Hardcore Carnatic audiences also measure the extent of Carnatic-ness in a film song. So, if a Carnatic musician sings a raga-based song, it is acceptable. But a non-raga-based racy number is frowned upon!
Some aesthetic questions, too, emerge from these projects. Early Tamil film music was Carnatic-centered because most music directors and actors came from this musical space. But, from the 1960s, film songs became multi-layered creations with complex inter-woven, non-genre-specific instrumentation. In our search for the raga, we separate the primary melody from its in-built instrumentation. Then we relocate it aesthetically as a Carnatic composition. The song also loses its cinematic tonality. Is it then still the same song? We must also understand that no one musical form can take ownership of a raga. Ragas find a home in different musical genres, and we need to recognise and respect each as unique and independent. Just as raga Behag in Hindustani music is distinct from the same raga in Carnatic music, raga Sahana in cinema, Yakshagana and Carnatic music is not the same. Similarly, the harmonisation in cinema music has its own aural aesthetic and is not the same as in Western Classical music.
A colleague once asked me if it would be cultural appropriation to sing a film song as a Carnatic kirtana. Film music is obviously more popular but the latter possesses undue social stature due to its caste position. In a way, bringing a film song into a concert is also a process of sanitising it. Could it be subversion of Carnatic music? It would, if it dislodged or disrupted Carnatic music in some manner. But I do not think this happens.
Interestingly, Ilaiyaraaja has composed kirtanas and invented ragas. In 1994, violin maestro V V Subramanian held an event in which senior musician O S Thyagarajan sang a few of Ilaiyaraaja’s kirtanas and the composer himself presented some of his creations. To the best of my knowledge, these pieces have not been presented on the Carnatic stage, not even during the present Ilaiyaraaja celebration. Why is Ilaiyaraaja the music director who uses ragas in film songs intoxicating but not Ilaiyaraaja the Carnatic composer?
After a two-year hiatus, the Chennai December Music Season is resurfacing. Will Ilaiyaraaja’s raga-based film songs find a place in mainstream Sabha concerts or will they remain online thrills and offline exclusives? We will have to wait and watch!