Varnam is an critical stage in the learning phase of Carnatic classical music. After 'Sree gana natha' in Geethams and 'Rara venu gopala' in swarajathi, entering Varnam is treated as a significant milestone in the learning career. "எத்தன வர்ணம் போட்டுருக்கு?" (how many varnams have you been taught?) is a standard question that the musically inclined grand mother, periyappas, chittappa, mama and mami would always ask, even if you are learning keerthanas. Its like asking a boy who is studying in IIT "whats your mark in +2?". Such is the importance of Varnams. Even Vidhwans start their concerts with a varnam because its ideal for setting the tempo (மேளம் கட்டுறது).

Its even so critical because that's the dicey phase where the Carnatic learner's dropout rate increases exponentially. After learning what would be equivalent of Rhymes, its in varnams that you are seriously exposed to 3 or 4 pages of notes for one song ! That scares the hell out of many right there.. Its also the first time one is exposed to structured melody of Pallavi, anu pallavi, mukthai swaram, Charanam and the zenith - Chittai swaram! Crooked music teachers will deliberately try to catch you on the act by asking you to 'Sing ChittAA swaram'.. When you boldly start one of the 'ChittAI swaram' they will quickly rap you that they asked for 'taa swaram' and not 'tai swaram'. When the real reason for drop out is to practice a varnam in multiple speeds, Its one of those excuses ("My teacher is harassing me, who cares if its Chitta or chittai?")- which the casual, not so committed blokes would use at home as their reason for quitting.

In such a tough regimental life of Varnams, the first oasis that you would come across is the Abhogi varnam - "Evvari Bodhana". Thats when you realize that carnatic music can also be understood without complications. You can't help but notice that this raga has a unique 'sound'. The oddity of 4 consecutive swarams intercepted by a big gap and a jump to Dha and then melsthaai Sa. You will run over this sequence like a little puppy exploring a new territory. In the line "Chalendra Sri Venkatesa" when you climb up "dha sa ri saa ri ga ma ri gaa maa ga ga ri sa" and come down as "ri ga ri sa sa dha ri sa sa dha ma dha ma ga ri sa" you will get the same adrenalin rush of going high on a giant wheel and coming down. Your true first feeling of a achievement of having performed something 'nice'. As you progress further with Abhogi, you will also realize its laying out a clever litmus test for you. Because, often you would forget that there is no panchamam in the song and intuitively deliver that otherwise essential note and suddenly it tastes and sounds absolutely jarring with Sivaranjani.. Slip of one note and a world of difference. (I still do this mistake :-( !!) .. Proof that nature and music can be very cruel to you !

Such is the special place the ragam 'Abhogi' has in my heart and many more who has been introduced to the ragam. Today's song is perhaps the best Abhogi to grace our years in 30 years. One of the those where authenticity stands out.

Composing a classical song is one. But handling the same raga for a film song and yet capturing the same essence of that raga takes a different skill. For example, Without Panchamam its very difficult arrange a song and to give it a color of light music. (Its because of the lack of fixing the root chord). But in this song, Raaja still arranges the song with his trademark rhythm guitar backing the song beautifully. There are not much options for him.. There is no root chord and thats a big handicap. The best bet you have is the Major 4th and minor second (Note that both of them are relative major-minor) and then perhaps convoluted variants of minor 6th and added minor 9ths by omitting the 5th. But the unrelenting quest to find the common ground pushes this innovator all the way and you get this song. It not only arrests the listener it also provides him the benchmark to identify other Abhogi based songs. This song is the Logarithm table reference for many who try to identify other Abhogi based songs. Such is the influence of this song.

Using Mukthai swaram-ish idea in one of the interludes is another novelty in this song. The second interlude is composed full of Abogi swarams that are repeated in Veena. And talking of Veena, what to say about the elegance with which its scales the Abhogi back and forth, always landing in Sadjam and alternatively rhyming with its melsthai counterpart. Veenai Parthasarathy (Pacha) would played Veena for most of the Raaja's song must have had a challenging day at office and he clearly emerged as the winner ! Its his Veenai bits which provide the uncluttered happiness visualization in your mind. Combined with the tisra nadai of the tune and the mel kalam in rhythm, this song does surely sound more 'Happy' than Pharrell William's :-)

When you hear a mature Carnatic composition such as this, you have to accept this man is ambidextrous (Or even multi-dextrous). When it comes to composing song belonging to different schools of music, there is none who can stick to the aesthetics of the domain and delivering. Right from the days of Papanasam sivan to CR Subburaman to KV Mahadevan, composing a out and out carnatic raaga based song in cine music has been hallmark of film music. Illaiyaraja is the last composer still holging this legacy. He is the only one who still produces songs of this highly classical nature. You can be a Ilaiyaraaja lover or hater, but you cannot deny this. Its a fact !

With Love