Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Thiruvasagam - Crossover to the divine

i am a person brought up listening to Ilaiyaraaja's film songs and Background music. The spirit of unity his musical mind always tries to achieve has been quite a joy to listen. When i mean "Unity", it is the confluence of varied musical thoughts in their resonating points and then putting them in the simplest possible context for everyone to comprehend. To put this into context , i will have to probably redirect you to listen to his countless melodies in Thamizh film music. If you haven't listened to them, then you probably have not listened to anything.
i have learnt from his biographical and auto biographical accounts that this person who seeks "Unity" in all forms of music became spiritually inclined and it was needless to say, that he started to seek the divine through his talent - Music. (Very much the same way i seek the divine through Java and J2EE ;-))
i am a regular consumer of all his albums, film or otherwise. i like his non-film albums particularly because they tend to be autobiographical and they are my journey into the mind of a genius. Offlate his film albums have not been received well by the public. However that is no dampner to this man who set off to pursue his dream project , that of setting to music the verses of Maniccavasagar a 7th century poet who reached the divine through his heartmelting verses.
A small intro into Maniccavasagar's life. He was a minister in the pandiya kingdom. Highly learned, this man was bitten by the devotion to Lor Shiva and became entirely lost in it. Legends have it that once he was transporting 1000 Arabian horses to the stable of the king and on the way he was lost in bliss and as it happens the restless horses were stolen. Then Lord Shiva came to his rescue converting 1000 jackals in the forest to horses for a day!!! (kind of object casting. alas invalid!!) After some miraculous events, Maanicca Vaasagar (Diamond versed poet!!) retires from King's service to devote his entire life to devotion. The life reminds me of another minister poet Bhadrachalam Ramadas who was jailed for constructing a temple for Lord Rama with public funds and who was later saved by Lord Rama and Lakshmana. Maanicca vaasagar's magnum opus is the "Thiruvaasagam". Thiru - great or blessed, Vaasagam - verse or poem.
A brief account on Thiruvaasagam the book. If i have to relate an english literature for comparison, it would be "On his blindness" by the great poet Milton. Much similar to Maaniccavaasagar, Milton rants to God about his unworthiness to reach the divine and later about how the Divine was kind enough to come down to his level to make him realise his own worthiness of attaining spiritual progression.
One small sample to give the gist of Thiruvasagam(forgive me for the transliterated Thamizh post):

"Kannappan oppadhOr anbinmai kandapin
Ennappan ennoppil ennaiyum aatkondaruli
vannap paniththennai vaavendra vaankarunaich
chunnap ponnERRarke cendroodhaai Koththumbi "
This poem exclaims how the Divine, even after having found a Love in him that is not even comparable to that of hunter kannappan ( Another devotee of Lord Shiva, who donated both his eyes to Lord Shiva without bothering to have anaesthetics while doing that), still chose to accept him by taking over his being with Love (Aatkondaruli). So this book is a personal metaphysical and devotional journey and therefore will appeal to any discerning reader, unlike other religious texts that are simply chantings extolling the divine (not to mean that they are lower in comparison, just that the personal effect of Thiruvaasagam, Bhadrachalam Ramadas verses and On his blindness is a pinch greater in my humble opinion).

Now having given such a long introduction to Thiruvaasagam, and Ilaiyaraaja, let me get to the point of discussing the current work "Thiruvaasagam in Oratorio - a classical crossover". At the very outset, Ilaiyaraja being a great unifier of musical styles, aims at the younger generation's almost ignorance of such works. So he does what he does the best, composing the words of Maniccavasagar in a carnatic (classical south indian music) tune and surrounding it with harmonic melodies(orchestrated by Laslo Kovacks, Budapest Symphony Orchestra) and choir(western and Indian) layer upon layer. If you want to understand it better, try listening to "how to Name It?" a phenomenal fusion music by Ilaiyaraaja where in one of the songs, he played "Thulasidhala" a melting meldoy by Saint Thyagaraja (one of the itinerant saints who sang praises of Lord Rama) in a solo violin, surrounded by Wester Classical Music orchestration, supporting the base melody. To visualise it, imagine a river flowing down a hill, joined by various rivulets and tributaries and flowing down the plains as one big river. The base melody in an Ilaiyaraja song is carnatic (IMO) embellished by all sorts of instruments and choir. The melting base melody is presented in a grand scale by the western style orchestra. So having this clearly in mind, lets see the songs in the album.

1. Poovaar Senni mannan sung by Ilaiyaraja and chorus
This padhigam (collection of similar verses) has songs that asks the devotees of the Divine to stop the playful activities that they have immersed themself into and start the walk towards the Divine. The playful activities are the moorings of the senses that blind us with an intoxicating show of the external, material world. The lines that had marked impact on me are the following:

" Thaame thamakkuch chutramum
Thaame thamakku vidhi vagayum
Yaam aar? Emadhaar? Paasam Aar?
Enna Maayam? Ivai Poagak
KOamaan pandaith thondaroadum
Avandran KuRipPae Kurikkondu
Poamaaru amayin poineekkip
Puyangal Aalvaan ponnadikke!!"
This passage talks about the transient nature of human relationships and falsety behind most of them. It also asks the devotees to start thinking about the King along with his ancient followers, then the King will grant us his feet.
This song has been composed perfectly by Ilaiyaraaja and rendering has been perfect, conveying Maaniccavaasagar's intended meaning. The Bhaava (emotion) couldn't have been brought out better by anyone other than Raaja himself. Special mention on the chorus and the chanting "Ooha Ooha uhum". The song is the best curtain raiser to the rest of the album.

2. Pollaa Vinayen - sung by Ilaiya Raaja and Ray Harcourt with chorus. English counterpoint lyrics by StephenSchwartz.
This is the song that you haven't heard before. Never in the history of music , has such an idea been attempted (In my opinion. correct me if I am wrong). Oratorio the name implies of a story sung by singers in Operaic style supported by orchestra. So technically this song is an Oratorio. Wrong!!! Ilaiyaraaja takes Oratorio and moves it one notch up in that he has envisioned english counterpoints sung by broadway singer and choir supporting the thamizh thiruvaasagam. It is a completely new style aimed at introducing Thiruvaasagam and Thamizh culture to a wider international audience. The lyrics are hot chocolate category (read as melting) and the music is also of the same type. Ilaiyaraaja sings "Polla Vinayaen" (i.e., a person surrounded by evil deeds) and Ray Courthart "Imperfect and Lowly", though not a literal translation, the english verses capture and present the essence of the verses in the most apt way. Of all the multi layered magical compositions Ilaiyaraaja has done this is the most complex and yet humbling due to its content and emotion. The listener is made sympathetic and slowly made to be in the awe of the Divine. the transition of the music from being a humble plea to that of evoking awe and surprise is not a linear and smooth one. There are crests and troughs of vocal, harmony and orchestra that is sweet and ecstatic and thunderous and all of them rolled in one. It is like the best googly Shane Warne ever bowled or the most deft placement by Azharuddin(cricketers from Australia and India). The joy of listening soon transcends into an area where one begins to wonder if they are actually a part of this blissful roller coaster. Whenever the thamizh melody by Ilaiyaraaja and chorus (special mention when they sing "Eesan adi poatri" well done) takes a breather, Ray starts singing in English with western choir and the bliss is relentless. So a cautionary note for those who think music is all about unwinding and relaxing not moving a muscle - Hardly. i did well to switch of the music system at the end to catch a breath and pinch myself to check if i am in the material world yet. My crests(high points in a wave) in the thamizh portion(vocal) are:
a. " Vaedhangal Iyya ena Ongi
aazhndhu agandra nunniyanae "
(ps: there is a beauty in this verse of Maaniccavaasagar. In thamizh this is called a "Muran Ani" where a thing is compared to virtues which are opposite. in the first line he extolls the Divine as something that the sacred texts exclaim "Iyya" , the head, so gigantic and in the second line he says "aazhndhu agandra nunniyane" which is someone who is deep, broad and microscopic, look at the contradictions in the meaning, that is muran(opposites) for you!) wondering if i closed the braces correctly?.

b. " Naayir kadaiyaik kidandha adiyaeRkuth
thaayir chirandha dhayaavaana thathuvanae"
meaning that the Divine has taken pity on a being lesser than a dog and showered Love like a mother does to her child and educate on the deeper philosophies. The word dhayaa is meaning someone who showers grace and forgiveness, a very special sanskrit word.

c. " Aakamum alavu irudhi illaai! anaithulagum
aakkuvai kaappai azhippai arultharuvaai
sOdhiyanae thunnirulae thoandraap perumaiyanae
aadhiyanae andha naduvaagi allaanae"

very special definition of GOD and people of all religions will identify with this.
first two lines describe what GOD does, which is making , preserving and destroying order and worlds. The next two lines (I have left out some in between) says that GOD is a bright light and pitch black darkness, alpha, omega and the things in between. So what/who is GOD? well, maanicca vaasagar says- pretty much everything fellas! The music and rendition of this part has been specially done by Ilaiya raaja.

d. " Maasatra soadhi! malarndha malarch chudarae!
Dhaesanae! thaenaar amudhae! sivapuranae!
paasamaam patraruththup paarikkum aariyanae!
nAesa arul purindhu nenjil vanjam keda..... "
This special crest is heightened by the chorus and Ilaiya raaja. Maasatra soadhi is light without any impurities. Well 12th standard physics says that even white light has 7 spectrum of impurities and they are what we call as colours. Imagine a light which has no spectrum - just LIGHT!!!

e. " Noakkariya noakke! nunukkariya nunnunarvae!
Poakkum varavum punarvumillap punniyanae!"
wow! lyrics from maanicca vaasagar. He says that divine is the gaze of the thoughts of learned men, a feeling so minute to be analysed, a transaction less entity(no birth, death, income, expenditure , reproduction . hence is very happy). Very profound religious words expressed in a moment of charged emotion. No wonder Ilaiyaraaja picks up this moment to peak.

f. " Eesan adi poatri! Endhai Adi poatri!
Dhesan Adi poatri! sivan sevadi poatri!
Naeyathae nindra nimalan adi poatri!
Maayappirapparukkum Mannan Adi poatri!
Seeraar perundhurai nam dhevan Adi poatri!
Aaradha inbam arulum malai poatri! "
At first the involving thing about this passage was the blending of eastern and western choir and at one point i felt like hearing resonance of two cultures in my small ears. Then when I moved my gaze to the words, it was no wonder! These passages talk about total submission to the feet of the Divine and all religions stress only on that. Common point for unity!!

The English portion had peaks (crests) and cleverly they were placed in the points where the thamizh portion was at a trough (low point in a wave). Few of the crests in the english portions, I felt are:

a. " I'm just a man
Imperfect lowly
How can I reach for
Something holy? "
One can almost see maaniccavasagar asking this question to the Divine in English!! Well done by Stephen Schwartz and Ray!!

b. " So many forms I must wear!
So many lives I must bear! "
Well thats karma theory for dummies!!! Excellent evocative and apt. Kudos to SS and Ray once again.

c. " Learn the sky and turn the earth
How long till I'm Fin'ly worthy"
EXCELLENT!! The lyrics Stephen has written and Ray has sung couldn't be any more finely worthy. The essence of Karma theory and thiruvaasagam brouth out in the most evocative of pleas to the Divine. The music is extremely supportive and reflects the tumult and frustration in the mind of a devotee.
d. " I was in it's control
I was in it's control "
The sigh of relief from a pilgrim who has begun his/her journey!!! again kudos to SS and Ray.

e. " To this man - so
blind and base! To him
you granted - a glimpse of grace- a
glimpse of grace! oh! oh! oh! "
one word for this passage - OH!!! i almost get a feel of my breath stopping for a millisecond. Words so charged with emotions and the voices and orchestration heightening the tension. This is again superb stuff!!

f. " Deep in my soul! there now abides!
Some one who is not me!
who breaks the bonds of caring for!
The things we own and see!
I'm just a man! Imperfect lowly! - Yet
Beginning to be free!..."
The highest point in this album!!!!! The interpretation could not have been more apt and it can by itself stand alone as a wonderful poem!!! Well done SS, Ray , Ilaiyaraaja and choir and BSO (orchestra), lift your collars and pat your back! GREAT JOB!!

3. Pooyaeru koanum purandharanum - sung by Bhavadharini Ilaiyaraja and her father.

This song is an instant hit. The song is sung to a dragonfly or a bee. One sentence summary is that it is as sweet as the sweetest honey anyone can ever taste. The orchestrations give a feel of a helicopter waiting to take off and taking off in a jiffy at the signal. The signal being " sendroodhaai Koathumbee " at the end of every poem. If you are an avid listener of Thamizh film songs of early 60s, then you might be reminded of the song "Kangal engae Nenjamum engae" from the Sivaji Ganesan classic "Karnan" (I watched this film only 50 or so times) . I am not able to ascertain whether it is the raaga of the song or the orchestration that reminds me of that song. Maybe it is the first aalaap that Ilaiyaraaja sings that gives me that feel. This song may turn out to be the mass song of the album.

4. umbarkatkarasae - sung by Ilaiyaraaja.
I liked this song almost immediately when I heard it. The reason being Ilaiyaraaja's voice and the choir and also the interludes to certain passages that are very subtle. It is one of the most sensitive songs and it will grow on one slowly. It is also the song in which the devotee who has opened his/her eyes to the grace of the Divine and has held on to it leaving all other worldly bonds. It is marked by the words " chikkenap pidithaen " . Again going bac to 0 BC or AD, thiruvalluvar wrote in his thirukkural,
" patruga patratraan patrinai, appatrai
patru vidarku "
That is, hold on to the one who doesn't have any holdings so that you dont have to hold on to anything anymore. Here Maaniccavaasagar uses "Chikkenap pidithaen". Ilaiyaraaja has aptly underplayed the orchestration for this profound song. One passage which startled me musically as well as lyrically was
" Paal ninaindhootum thaayinum saalap
parindhu! nee paaviyaenudaya
...... "
In this passage maanicca vaasagar exclaims that the grace of divine is so great that it is more benevolent than the mercy of a mother feeding her baby. Only difference being that in this case, the milk is no ordinary milk, but heavenly nectar that symbolises eternal happiness. i have known from Ilaiyaraaja's film songs, the special place he has held for mother's Love. So watch out for the change in the choir , orchestration and the voice of Ilaiyaraaja when hesings this. It is a treat.

5. Muthu natraamam sung by various artistes
This is a cheerful song that invites all to rock the swing in which the divine is sitting. It is a group song and is more on the lines of thiruppaavai or thiruvembaavai, the quintessential Maargazhi (December) songs that ask for everyone to wake up early for God's service. The mood is jolly and symbolises the group feeling of devotion. Probably one song in the album, where the reflections are on a universal level and not on a personal lever. The orchestration is brisk and the choir is also cheerful.

6. Putril vaazh aravum anjaen sung by Ilaiyaraaja.
This song is about the new found confidence in the lowly person, who in the interim was helped out by the Divine. Now the devotee is confident of facing any adversities in life as he has tasted the Divine grace. However the caveat is the last line of each poem which speaks about things that put him/her off. Things like people with no Love, people with no knowledge and inclination to know the divine and so on. In the beginning , Ilaiyaraaja explains to his Thamizh brothers and sisters , how this idea came about. It is very interesting. The orchestration strictly follows the melody of the lead voice. In between the third and fourth passage there is a jazz interlude which is OUT OF THE WORLD!!! and in between the 4th and the final passage the interlude orchestration is so beautiful and emotionally powerful. A simple song which has been decorated by Ilaiyaraaja so beautifully.

I would have heard the album at least for 50 times in the last 10 days and the immediate feeling after completing one hearing is ..... TO GO FOR ANOTHER!!!! That is my one sentence on the album. However, for the sake of justifying the title of the post, I have to say that it is a truly "DIVINE CROSSOVER". Why is it a crossover, because Ilaiyaraaja is on the otherside of the river of music and he wants us all in that side. So this is an effort to reachout for us to transport to the other side of the river of music where people like manniccavaasagar, Sundharamoorthy naayanar, Appar, Periyaazhwar, Aandal are residing.

So what are you waiting for? Go grab your CD today!!!


Blogger Suresh Kumar said...


I liked the way you analysed and explained the verses of Manickavasagar. We people badly need such contextual translations to enjoy the songs more. It was really helpful for me. Thanx

5:26 PM  
Anonymous mohan said...

Hi Jaiganesh,

Excellent writeup. When I was listening Thiruvasagam with kids (who learn Carnatic and WCM), they got into it so much, they started asking me meaning for each line. I tried my best by reading my 1000 pages Thiruvasagam book to give the explanations. They asked me to produce writeup in English. I planned to do it work in this weekend. Your writeup is almost one I planned to write. I am going share your work with them. Thanks a lot.

BTW, Kids are listening to Thiruvasagam (by Raaja) twice a day for past 4 days. I think it is a great thing happening. As a person, who love Tamil and English literature (since I can read only these languages) and music, I always worry about preserving the great treasure of Tamil literature like Thiruvasagam ( I have hard copies some of the ancient Tamil literature and in the process of collecting more works...). Thiruvasagam (by Raaja) is given me lot of hopes.

I think the great outcomes of this album in my point of view are :

1.Kids learning Carnatic music will learn WCM

2.Kids will try to understand great literature like Thiruvasagam . It happened to me when I was in 11th grade(or std in 1970s), a great Tamil teacher turned almost all of students (most of them were English medium – English was main language) to become lovers of great Tamil literature. We were trying to get these books along with 'Electronic Made Simple' by Henry J. I think Raaja's work is doing similar thing in a very grand scale. God bless this genius for his works. We get benefited by his works.

3.More works in this nature will get birth (by Raaja or geniuses like him)


7:43 PM  
Blogger V.P.Jaiganesh said...

I couldn't agree more with you Mohan! Glad to know that kids are growing up with classical music and thamizh literature. Have seen more parents bringing kids up with pizza hut and Harry potter. The work you are doing is really heatening. Carry on with the good work.

10:34 AM  
Blogger pinchivasan said...

Hi, JaiGanesh,
Excellent job. Having born and brought up in Karnataka with Tamil as my mother tongue, I learnt Tamil to read and write (with lots of errors) only in my 8th standard and I have always feel so bad when ever I am in a situation unable to understand the lyrics/poetry in tamil fully especially works like "Thirukkural" and Thiruvasagam to name a few. Thanks again for your nice write up. I got translation by a member from Yahoo IR group for all the Thiruvasagam songs except"Pollavinayaen" which is the one I was desperately looking. Please do write for the entire verses of all the six compositions IR's Thiruvasagam at your leisure time.
BTW I am Prabhudas from the TFMforum.

8:04 AM  
Blogger sivakumar said...

very nice to see your blog.. if you can have this in tamil it will be very nice.. I plan to study the entire thiruvasagam.. can you please suggest one good book (in tamil) to start with..


7:28 PM  

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