A Train Journey With Ilaiyaraaja

An Article that I wrote for the online Tamil magazine Solvanam (with the title "இளையராஜாவுடன் ஒரு ரயில் பயணம்" or "A Train Journey With Ilaiyaraaja") can be found here.

The irrelevant background on why I treat this to be a credible personal milestone can be read here.

My apologies to the readers who cannot read Tamil. I promise to translate this article in the next available opportunity and post it below.
With Love
Aug 7th

Update: 14th Aug
As Promised, here is that translation. This is devoid of the Tamil Verses and cohesive sentences that I used in the original. Honestly I feel that this translation is not doing enough justice to the original. Nevertheless this still gives an idea of what I was trying to say to my non-Tamil readers.

A Train Journey with Ilaiyaraaja

In Tamil grammer, there is a technique known as 'Ani Illakkanam' (ornamentation?). This is often used by the poets to enhance the lyrical beauty (of both the word constructs as well as their meaning). I still vividly recollect all such different 'Anis' from my school days. Out of these, my favorite Ani is the one where a poet skillfully employs the natural backdrop of a given incident to convey his message. It is called "Thar Kuripperra Ani" in Tamil.

In Kamba Ramayanam, When the announcement that Rama would be the heir apparent is made, Kooni is outraged. She tries to plant the seed of jealousy in Kaikeyi's heart by ranting that "you are being besieged by danger". But Kaikeyi responds by saying that, "Every parent in this world leads a carefree life if they have an ordinary son. I have Rama as my son who is exemplary. What possible danger could besiege me?" Kambar wants to convey that, Kaikeyi loved Rama as her own son even if she is not his biological mother. He gets this message across through the practical fact that, Those who have offspring can be rest assured that their kids will support them in the hour of need.

Similarly a flag fluttering in the wind is a normal incident. But in Sillapthigaram, Ilango adigal conceives this natural occurrence as a backdrop conveying a sinister message to Kovalan and Kannagi when they are entering the city of Madurai. He imagines the back and forth movement of the flag in the wind as a warning signal to them that suggests, "Do not enter this city. There is a grave danger here in store for you"

Poets are a privileged lot to have so much of such established norms to enhance the clarity of their communication. What techniques do a Music director have if he has to draw an inspiration from the backdrop of a song? If you close your eyes and listen to the song, its not a easy task to make you 'feel' the situation and circumstantial movements in a song. A successful representation of visual aspects of the song through an audio medium is dependent on not only the individual potential of the Director and the music director but also of the chemistry between the two. This is all the more applicable in Indian cinema that offers a lot of tricky (and often ridiculous) cues to compose. Where else do you have dutifully exercising youngsters who use the excuse of jogging in the morning mist to fall in love.. Or a nitwitted oldy for that matter who is too busy to be perturbed by the petty ceremony of bride watching and would rather prefer making her own pawn. With such tiny details of screenplay facing the real prospect of being lost in translation, a music director is forced to fight his way out to represent it in the song.. As silly it may sound, Using the jogging rhythm as the main beat of the song for the first situation or making the betalnut crusher answer Mrudangam's percussion for the second, indeed requires some advance thinking.

Of all these, the most frequented interesting backdrop in cinema are the songs and scenes that are shot in a Train. Be it the "Kelvi Pirandhadhu Andru" and "Mere Sapno ki Rani" of the yesteryear or "Chayya Chayya" of today, songs that are set against the backdrop of the train have invariably fascinated everyone. However, when it came to expressing the train sound, music directors often stayed conservative, didn't venture much into experimenting and conveyed it through a running symbol of the drum or a maracas and the innovative lot went one step further and added a running rhythm guitar track on top of it.

Ooty train

Ilaiyaraaja however, has been a unique musician in this arena. He shattered the stereotype that train should 'sound' like a train and often brought in his own out of the box interpretation of expressing this feel. He managed it through a gamut of instruments such as a Solo Violin, or a String Ensemble or a Bass guitar or a Shehnai. Besides, the emotional context of his train songs vary widely too. There are happy songs, sad songs, thrillers and teasers. From a picturization view point, the backdrop of all these songs is a mere train. But the onus had been on Raaja to draw inspiration from it in a way it still conveyed the underlying emotional current.

Movies where Trains are an integral part of the story are Raaja's delight. He almost treats them as a predominant character and composes the score. This is evident from the Movie 'Alapana' where the hero is a railway worker and the heroine is a Bharathanatya dancer. The way how their love gradually progresses around the railway station and trains was beautifully expressed just like a Train starting its journey and gradually picking up speed. This is the score during the initial phases of that love. And here is when its moving in full speed and here is when it reappears later with the carnatic background of the heroine.

Two aspects are noteworthy here. He complimented the Director's thoughts (Vamsi) and enhanced the visuals; He used the same tune with a Swing waltz rhythm arrangement and a normal Carnatic arrangement, thus casually demonstrating his musical prowess.

Raaja has successfully passed many such challenges right from the early days of his career. The song Poovarasampoo is a case in point. Even though the main train rhythm in this song is rather explicit, Raaja weaved a musical magic around it by adding a layer of native percussion instrument (Dappu) around it. He pioneered the use of western instruments such as solo violins, Saxophones & Vibraphones for such a folksy song. He leveraged the full potential of Janaki and camouflaged the song behind Sudha Dhanyasi. In the end he ensured that the handicap of importing a fresh face from London who couldn't act for nuts (the then Radhika) was not a deterrent for the success of this song.

Similarly, in the Manjal Nilavukku song, he gave some unplugged moments to even a very senior artist like Susheela, by making her hoot and toot like a train..(With no software available to generate 'loops' at that time, It takes some strumming talent to maintain that kind of tempo in the Rhythm guitar through out the song..)

Following this, in Moondram Pirai Raaja raised the bar of all composers, past and present. The second interlude of the song "Poongatru Pudhidhanadhu" is extreme composing. Just by using a String Ensemble that includes 2 sets of violins and 1 set of double bass & cello, he created the suspense of an secretly approaching train. A credible experiment by any yard stick.

He continued using train to his advantage in many songs that followed such as Pogudhae Pogudhae (kadalora kavidhaigal) and Goods vandiyile (Kunguma Chimizh); He also had the compulsion of composing songs for some ridiculous situations in the meanwhile such as a weird heroine who wants her dream wedding in train or a foolish premise of a nearby train making the protagonists roll off their beds. But the quality of musical output even in such songs were supreme.

Ilaiyaraaja has also used the technique of 'Double Stop' in violins (bowing on two adjacent strings simultaneously) quite frequently to convey the effect of train. As if to represent each track by a string, the way this double stop violin follows the train tracks and culminates in a weeping Saarangi is a nicely picturized sequence showcasing the genius of director, camera man and the music director all at once.

The pattern of Train's sound have always appeared rhythmic to me. Sitting on the window seat and dissecting the 'Tala' of train is my favorite pastime during long journeys. Most of the time the pattern would resemble a 'Tisra Eka Tala' (thagida thagida thagida thagida) or a 'kanda chaapu' (Thaka Thakida Thaka thakida); In between all this, whenever the train passes through a bridge or when its track runs through densely or sparsely populated stone bed, its sound changes. In that process, its rhythm gets changed as well. Finding the starting beat of the new rhythm cycle and counting the Tala is indeed a very triumphant experience.

One can understand that the Train's rhythm doesn't remain the same but waxes and wanes while listening to the Thaalattu Ketkadha song. During the 3rd line (that starts as "Pattu naan adimai") the way the rhythm drops intensity and later picks up speed sounds similar to the natural way in which a train's sound change. The fillins of the rhythm are a bit asymmetric and enhances this feel. Dominant usage of Snar in this song that fades rhythmically as opposed to the usage of a hi-hat (of the drum kit) in regular train songs is a new attempt as well. The connecting flute between the lines sounds like the train's horn. In the interlude that follows, the call and response between the pan flute (that simulates the train horn again) and the Double stop violin is very catchy. The solo violin that continues in Keeravani leaves a lasting impression. So as mentioned before, instead of restricting to the usual train sounds, the way Raaja blends other minute aspects of a moving train into the song's mainstream is astounding.

I haven't seen the song "Kotti Kidakkudhu" in a visual medium so far. But the moment I heard the prelude of this song in which the duo violins sets off the mark like a sprinter, I had an intuition that it has to be a train related song. That doubt was cleared when the song's second interlude arrived. Its the fast arpeggios in the bass guitar this time (Headphones recommended) that aids the train feel. Similarly in the song Sakkara katti, just by using a single rhythm guitar, he lays the foundation and completes the picture of running train in one's mind with the assistance of Strings and Shehnai.

Just like a skillful potter who is capable of turning the raw clay into a shape that he wants, Raaja has a gifted talent of molding a tune to convey any feeling that he wants. The titles of the Gopura vaasalile is a morphed version of the popular song "Devadai Poloru". The tune here though is arranged against the backdrop of a train and it creates an inexplicable tension expressing the fear of unknown that follows in the movie. With Ilaiyaraaja complimenting the wizardry of PC Sriram, this titles ought to be in the hall of fame of audio visual treats. Sadly the visual experience is marred by the titles...

Ilaiyaraaja doesn't always take everything but the kitchen sink with him when it comes to the train. There are numerous occasions where he treats the plain real sound of train as music. During the climax of Mouna ragam, when Revathi leaves Mohan for good and when he realizes that he has to stop her, a violin shares his sense of urgency and runs with him bringing the audience to the edge of their seats. As he reaches the galloping train and realizes that he has made it, the music stops and pure sound of train would reverberate on our ears.. That silence is the most powerful moment in that sequence.. Its that silence which relieves the pressure of the audience as they heave the final sigh of relief.

Besides recording 3 songs a day with 70 piece orchestra, Raaja still managed to find some spare time during the lunch break (!!) in which he (what else, but) composed more music. But this time it was for his pet projects. Composing for no one but oneself was his way of relaxing... "Nothing but wind" is one such album and he also composed a track with the same name in that album. Thinking at a different dimension, he tries to convey that even if life is extinct from the face of Earth, Wind and therefore Music will continue to survive in this universe. In that track too, he uses the plain sound of train among other musical forms.

Final reference is, the climax of the movie Moondram Pirai. The spell bounding music that accompanies Kamal until he enters the railway station, stops the moment he sees Sridevi. Continuing with the music would not have been a good idea for Kamal's great acting against the backdrop of Several natural happenings on the platform. Raaja reads this pulse just like a physician and doesn't start the music until the train leaves the station. As it leaves and its sound fades out in Doppler effect, Jesudoss starts slowly as "Kaadhal Kondane kanavinai Valarthane" alongside the rain. If your heart doesn't feel heavy at that time, its probably a good idea to consult Dr. Cherian and check if its there or not !

Music directors should know when to exercise silence as much as composing music for situations. If not, its obvious that director's effort would go down the drain. It is not an exaggeration to say that using the train, Ilaiyaraaja has demonstrated this silent and clear (!!) message to the generations of composers to come. When you look Indian film music in the context of Train based songs and scenes, Ilaiyaraaja's presence would be foremost. For over thirty years now, this express has left the station of Pannaipuram and is still going on track. Its, we the passengers who are the luckier lot.

With Love


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