Notes from the south

Posted on January 28, 2017


Meandering thoughts on music based on a few recent happenings.

When the Carnatic musician TM Krishna unveiled Chennai Poromboke Paadal a couple of weeks ago, it felt like the musical world’s answer to the fall of the Berlin Wall, facilitating a crossover between two hitherto separate realms. “Poramboke” refers to land set aside for communal purposes and “paadal” means song – but this was more than just a song about land, specifically the encroachment on Chennai’s Ennore Creek. RK Shriramkumar’s melodic framework adheres to the grammar of ragas like Ananda Bhairavi and Hamir Kalyani, while Kaber Vasuki’s lyrics reach for slang spoken by the common man. Imagine Eminem’s words (“And since birth I’ve been cursed with this curse to just curse/And just blurt this berserk and bizarre shit that works”) set to a Chopin nocturne. Something like that.

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The fusion of a classical raga and lyrics that wouldn’t typically be found in a classical composition isn’t really new. Indian cinema has been doing this for decades. An Ilayaraja number (Machi mannaru, from En Uyir Thozhan), in fact, traversed the same terrain as Chennai Poromboke Paadal – with a Carnatic raga (Mayamalavagowla) and lyrics from the street-side. But that was a film song, a genre that’s appreciated solely for its musical/lyrical quality – in the sense that even when someone does something path-breaking, it’s acknowledged, admired, but not quite accorded much respect outside the world of cinema. If a song about saving Ennore Creek occurred on screen, we’d say it’s a great song, something that fit that particular story, that particular film.

What sets Chennai Poromboke Paadal apart is that it’s used this particular music/lyric combination to address a social issue, to address society. The ever-prescient filmmaker K Balachander, in Sindhu Bhairavi (1985), said that Carnatic music would reach out to more people in Tamil Nadu if the words of the songs were in Tamil. Chennai Poromboke Paadal takes this entreaty to the extreme. It mixes an art traditionally associated with one class of society with language typically associated with another, and says this is no time for barriers. It’s up to all of us now. Our differences can be united to make a new music.

The director Gautham Vasudev Menon blew up a Berlin Wall of his own when he released a single from his upcoming Dhanush starrer, Enai Nokki Paayum Thotta, without announcing the name of the music director. Who does that? Doesn’t he know that most people choose to listen to a song (as opposed to inadvertently catching the song on, say, the radio) only if it is by one of their favourite composers? Gautham Menon realises this. He wants the music to be considered on its own merit, instead of the listener going “This song is not doing anything for me, but it’s by Ilayaraja, and there seems to be an interesting use of counterpoint at the 3:02 mark…,” or “This song is not doing anything for me, but it’s by AR Rahman, so maybe I need to listen to it 50 more times…”

Speaking of whom. Rahman turned 50 this year, and is in his 26th year as a sought-after composer for big projects. SP Balasubramaniam, meanwhile, completed 50 years as a playback singer. It’s not just talent that explains their longevity. It’s also the fact that they made their mark – rather, established their brand – in an era when music wasn’t as disposable. How things have changed. Once upon a time, you awaited the announcement of an album release, and asked your local music store, and sometimes he wouldn’t have received the cassette shipment yet… Today, you wake up and the album is a mouse click away. When something however good is that… easy, it doesn’t seem as valuable.

I know this sounds presumptuous, but look what’s happened to the movies. The ruling stars today are still the ones that made a name for themselves before the smartphone/tablet/download age. Can a newcomer match up? Maybe in terms of talent. But given that films barely last in theatres for a couple of weekends, it’s going to take them much more effort and planning to find a place in the pantheon.

The fact that it’s possible to use a director’s name to sell a single (as in the case of Gautham Menon) proves how interchangeable music directors have become. This isn’t to say they aren’t as talented as the older lot. Just that – given the use-and-throw nature of consumption today – I cannot see today’s songs being listened to 25 years from now. I’d love to be proved wrong, though.

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