Raja Chaapu

Pongal of '94. After duly monitoring the direction in which the milk boiled over, I knew what I should tell my mom and started counting my chickens. Of course whichever direction it flew out, she will have a theory that its still a good 'sign'. But only 'East' would make her content to the brim that all else would appear irrelevant. Even the thought of letting her sons commit the heinous crime of going to the theater on the morning of a festival...

Mahanadhi is the only movie till date that I have watched First day! First show !!

Watching the movie that day, the background motif for the romance between Heroine and behind-the-bars hero was something inexplicable. Though a usually emotional Kamal Hassan became a super emotional Kamal Hassan on that particular movie and was grabbing the best part of my attention, I could still notice how 'complex' that background score was .. Years later in Coimbatore - thanks to the vast collection of Jaffer brothers who ran a successful audio recording business in Gandhipuram - I came to know, that background score was actually a full blown song which never found its way into the movie. Back in my college music club, Our drummer Rajesh and me have spent quite a few nights trying to understand the song.

You can listen to the song in question here.

Its after all a 8 beats per measure song.. But its neither a 'normal' 8 beat cycle that we are used to in pop/ movie songs nor our Carnatic Aadhi Talam. In fact to discern that its not any monster but just an 8 beats a cycle song, requires some observation. Its because though the song has 8 beats, the strong beats are on 1,3 and 6th beat.

In other words, the key here is the absence of any emphasize on the usual 5th beat where an unmistakable divider is felt in most forms of 8 beat cycles of world music. Its signified by concepts such as Aridhi in our Carnatic music or an odd crash or a base pedal which signifies the symmetry that you have completed the first 4 and entering the next 4.. Much like Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie that proclaims "You are now entering the American Territory"..

But that is not to be in this song!

Therefore, the meter is more of a: 1 2| 1 2 3| 1 2 3|

I really couldn't fit what I heard in this song into any of the known conventions. For a long time it remained as my Reimann's Hypothesis making me wonder how to trap this prime.. But the answer to this puzzle was no where in sight..

Almost a decade and half later, when this query was still haunting me I finally found help. Rasikas.org is a high quality carnatic musical forum where lot of professionals discuss and guide beginners like me. I posted the same query there and got quite a few remarkable and enlightening responses. Following is the summary of that discussion.
- You could consider this meter as a Tisra Mattiya Tala (Which is a cycle of 3 + 2 + 3) with an eduppu at 4th beat. But the problem with this view is that, no 'shift' is perceived in the song whatsoever. Samam is unmistakable and woudln't fit.
- Through an advanced concept called 'Talaprasthara' in Carnatic Music, it could be established that there are 128 permutations in which beat cycles of 8 could be arrived. Our case of 2 + 3 + 3 is actually the 19th combination in this set.
- If I am insisting of having a structure of Dhuratam + Tisra Lagu + Tisra Lagu, then it lacks necessary Talangas required for a regular 'Tala'. So this can not be even considered as a 'Tala', but a more of a Rhythmic form which can be named after you or me.
- It is a song with actually 3 beats, and not 8 beats per cycle, where by the first beat is divided as two sub-beats, 2nd and 3rd beats is divided as 3 sub-beats each. More like an interpretation of: 2/8 + 3/8 + 3/8; It makes this beat cycle one of mixed gathi since each beat is not divided by same number of sub-beats. This is the way how Chappu talams in Carnatic music are interpreted. i.e., They have Tala cycles with no lagu in it but only beats that are not necessarily of same Gathi. Other popular examples are Kanda Chappu (2/8 + 3/8) and Misra Chappu (3/8 + 2/8 + 2/8).

(For academic interest, you can follow the whole thread here.)

To me the last explanation is more satisfactory. Not just because it compliments the other points above, but also the lyrics of this song seem to be beautifully written emphasizing the syllables of the aforesaid duration per each beat. i.e., Solladha = 2/8, Raagangal = 3/8, Ennenna = 3/8 and so on. (Who is the lyricist of this song, any idea..? He has done a fabulous job writing poetic words for such a tough meter..He deserves as much acclaim as Raaja.. I would love to think its Vaali..)

The way in which the experiment is carried on through out the song to bring about variations even in such a tough beat pattern is beyond my imagination;
For instance, take the finishing of Pallavi
Inaindha Sandharpam = 12 123
Izhandha Pon sorgam = 12 123
Thirumbumo = 123
Pudhu Yugam= 123
Arumbumo = 123
+ 5 beats offset by chords
i.e., a total of = 5 + 5 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 5 = 24 or 3 cycles of the original meter.

First 4 bars of 1st interlude is a maze agin... Especially the 10 count synth vibraphone that runs from the 6.5th beat of 1st bar and offsets all the way to the end of the second bar.. what an half beat timing man.. Keyboardist's nightmare..

And think of layers of attentive craftsmanship to the main beat.. A Triangle at 2nd and 5th count somewhere in the back. (can be more clearly heard in the pallavi)

So is the variety in ending of interludes with divisions of 5 + 5 + 6 to makeup two cycles. The second interlude where the song switches to Roopakam is one of the enchanting shifts in the song (although from a theoretical view point the song fails to return to the original meter at Samam).

The point I am trying to make is, even though it appears that the beat is running in the loop, its still full of mutations that wanders away in an almost unnoticeable fashion. That is the aesthetics of Raaja's compositions.

As is his ability to simplify a complex thing, he ably demonstrates a dummy's version of this tune in regular 8/8 in the background score that I spoke about. Listen to this string ensemble adoption of the same theme. Who can dare to erase all the rhythmic complexity and make it appear more appreciable to mortal ears. And later the Guitar strummed version of the complex meter returns.. and caps with chromatically embellished finish.

If you are tempted to think, this is an one off indigenous idea that struck him one fine morning by fluke, you are terribly wrong.. A decade prior to Mahanadhi, Raja already demoed a very similar complex meter... It was in fact the title track of Nothing but wind, one of his most significant non-film albums that sealed his status of genius.

Listen to this.

This is a movement with beat cycles of 3 + 3 + 2. Surely not your Adhi Talam next door. Yet we missed it because the lead melody here is set as if its played on top of a normal 8/8; This is highly camouflaging. Once you notice it, you will kick yourself. Because the stress points of the drum beat is highly accentuated by the base pedal very prominently at 1st, 4th and 7th count, while the melody is oblivious to these stress points and takes a more conventional reference. In one sense, this cycle is an alternate view of the meter of the Mahanadhi song. i.e., if you consider the "Solladha" song's meter with an 'Eduppu' at 3rd count you will arrive at this movement's meter.

Instances such as this are proof enough that, time and again Raaja keeps himself savvy with such real experiments. I mean, music experiments in film music often needs to be deliberate. You tell me how often true and meaningful experiments are attempted by composers in Film music whose limits are driven - Not by the technology you possess nor by some stupid script that demands Hero plays an instrument until blood is dripping from his fingers. Music composed with such ulterior aids are already prejudiced in the mind of the listener, that it ought to be good.. Its creator ought to be a genius. This is the reason everyone is a genius now a days.

But its music that's innovated for art's sake that needs to be celebrated.

With Love

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