Readers Write In #13: Adho Megha Oorvalam and how Rahman gave Ilayaraja feedback

Posted on April 8, 2017


I am a happy man these days.  My DTH provider is now offering me Jaya Max as a part of the package I have already subscribed to. Why Jaya Max?  Because it plays Ilayaraja tracks mornings 7 to 8 and nights 9 to 10.  Watching a TV channel to listen to music may seem an antiquated idea in the age of streaming and customised playlists but when I am gulping down breakfast and rushing to office, I actually prefer letting the songs gently intrude my ears rather than spending time on selecting songs on making a playlist.

So…the other day, this early 90s song called Adho Mega Oorvolam came on.  I confess to having watched this film in my school days and, as with many other films that Ilayaraja scored music for, only remember the music now.  Rendered by Mano, the song has a gentle albeit stately 3/4 tabla beat and a faux-classical orientation.  You know, the kind of track that would befit royal attire and sets and which only requires the hero to strike a suitably contemplative pose.  Turns out that is pretty much how the song is picturised (except that actor Shiva’s purportedly royal attire pales in comparison to the sherwanis sported by grooms these days).

For some reason, I struggle to concentrate past the halfway mark when it comes to this song.  Part of it is the lack of clarity in Mano’s enunciation compared to S P Balasubramaniam and also the former’s lack of expression (a complaint that would be frequently repeated by listeners from the 90s and onwards with regard to Raja’s compositions).  But part of it is also an ennui.  They say familiarity breeds contempt and perhaps the song’s approach is too familiar to me.  It’s a template that goes back to the 1960s – think Jo Baat Tujhme Hain.  It’s a beautiful melody in its own right but predictable, whether in terms of the mood, the settings or even the flow of the melody.  Predictable every step of the way….

And as these thoughts came to my mind, I had a eureka moment (though, unlike Archimedes, I was already in full formal attire).   This was it.  This was why A R Rahman ousted Ilayaraja as the top dog.  Let me go a step further: the reason why a Rahman had to happen.

Discussing the Raja-Rahman transition remains a painful process for many Raja fans to date.  Usually, all of the blame is laid on resentful, vindictive directors and producers and none on Ilayaraja.  On the flipside, the transition is attributed to Rahman’s superior sound engineering, his more minimalistic approach which was a contrast to Raja’s complexity and the contemporary beats he brought to Tamil music for the first time.

While these may be valid reasons as far as they go, they are not very intuitive.  Nobody was thinking deeply about Rahman’s sound engineering when they embraced the Roja soundtrack.  It was, I suspect, something more fundamental and perhaps I’ve stumbled on it while listening to Adho Megha Oorvalam.  That is that people simply wanted to hear a new way to express.  Be it love, heartbreak, anger, pain or whatever.  As inventive as Ilayaraja was musically, by the time of the early 90s, he no longer surprised the audience with the way he approached an emotion, at least not as often as he did in the beginning.  Again, familiarity breeds contempt.

It is often forgotten whilst discussing musical intricacies threadbare that all the music is intended to evoke a particular expression.  Rahman’s freshness was most evident in just the way he said the words, “I love you” so to speak as opposed to Ilayaraja.  At last and after many years, the audience heard a new voice and they were excited (understatement).

And this is how Rahman delivered much-needed feedback to Ilayaraja.  As long as he was the top dog, Ilayaraja was constrained to repeat himself…by directors and producers who wanted him to give them a song that resembled some earlier hit of this.  He has ranted against this many times in interviews.  Rahman’s success delivered the unambiguous message that the audience didn’t want more Adho Mega Oorvalams in spite of whatever may be the musical merits thereof.  More of the same, however good it may be, becomes a drag.

If in 2012, Ilayaraja could come up with a Sayndhu Sayndhu, it is at least partly because Rahman’s success liberated him to search afresh for new ways to express  It is fully to his credit that he succeeded where many yesteryear composers failed in coming up with a new idiom of expression that still accommodated enough Ilayaraja tricks for us to recognise his voice. Like Paul McCartney singing Wings songs instead of Beatles.  Still McCartney but very different.

Some Raja fans have of course never made peace with this metamorphosis of his music and yearn for the golden melodies of yore.  Me, I know what I don’t want and that is another Adho Megha Oorvalam!

Authored by Madan Mohan, recreational tennis hack in the early morning, chartered accountant by day and wannabe writer by night.