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Music is the mood, the muse and the meaning

Music is the mood, the muse and the meaning
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First Published: Fri, Jan 23 2009. 09 29 PM IST

Natural: Ilayaraja has a sure grasp of Carnatic ragams. Photo: The Hindu
Natural: Ilayaraja has a sure grasp of Carnatic ragams. Photo: The Hindu
Updated: Fri, Jan 23 2009. 09 29 PM IST
I’ve spent the last month steeped in a Carnatic music ragam called Hamsanandhi (we in the south say ragam, while the north Indians call it raga. In deference to Mint’s broader distribution in north India, I will use raga here). Hamsanandhi is—what can I tell you—beautiful, soul-stirring, sublime, divine. Every word seems inadequate; every adjective useless. No single phrase or idiom does it justice.
Natural: Ilayaraja has a sure grasp of Carnatic ragams. Photo: The Hindu
As a writer, one way to experience the utter futility of words is to write about music. Words touch the mind. Visual images, be they sculptures, photographs, fashion, or a great piece of furniture, touch the heart. But music? My god! Music tunnels deep into the inner recesses of your soul. It affects nerve points that you didn’t know existed. If you are open, if you allow it, music can affect and energize. Not all music for all people, but certain types for certain people. In this regard, music is both opium and champagne, both drugging and elevating.
As an amateur aficionado of Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic, one of the things that fascinates me is why certain songs or ragas appeal to me at certain times. I am not unusual in this. We all become obsessed with certain music at certain times, be it Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Rabbi Shergill’s Bulla ki, Rihanna’s Umbrella, or in my case, the raga Hamsanandhi. We listen to them over and over again till they become forever part of us.
I knew Hamsanandhi, of course, but ours was a nodding acquaintance. I admired her—the seductive Sohini, as she is called in Hindustani—from afar. But then, I admired many others like her. Seductive ragas are a dime a dozen. Madhuvanti, for instance, could give Hamsanandhi a run for her money, as could the pretty Ranjani or the Andolika. It was because I was caught in a specific place and time that I was drawn to Hamsanandhi. She soothed me like no other raga could.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I found myself in a daze, listening to one maudlin song after another. Surfing from one song to another, I came upon one old Tamil song by A.M. Raja, whose sorrowful voice I don’t particularly like. But the song Kalaiyum neeye caught my attention. I had heard it before but paid scant heed as it is a rather mournful song. In this instance, it suited my mood so I listened to it several times. The song, set to Hamsanandhi (some say Sunada Vinodhini, but I am not knowledgeable enough to know the difference) was the beginning of my reacquaintance with this pathos-laden night raga.
After that, it was a short hop to Sohini. Purists will prefer a CD in which Ustad Rashid Khan does a fabulous dhrupad in Sohini. My own preference is for a richly laced thumri by Nirmala Devi (mother of actor Govinda) called Prem na jane rasiya. The lilting high notes in Nirmala Devi’s rounded voice bring out the longing implicit in this raga. However, if you want to experience Sohini in her fullest bloom, you have to listen to a yesteryear film song. Not from Mughal-e-Azam in which Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sings a Sohini as Tansen. My favourite is the more popular Kuhu kuhu bole koyeliya, and it is this song playing in the background as I write this. The song composed by Adi Narayana Rao, a Telugu composer, moves easily from Sohini to Basant Bahar to Jaunpuri and…I forget the final raga.
Tamil films, as well as Telugu and Malayalam films, have featured Hamsanandhi. A particularly lovely one is in a movie called Salangai Oli, or Sagara Sangamam in Telugu, which features Kamal Haasan as a Bharatanatyam dancer and now member of Parliament Jaya Prada as his lovely muse. The song, Vedham, sung by S.P. Balasubramaniam, begins with three swaras, Ga Ma Ri, but the way it is done will make your hair stand on end. The rest of the song isn’t as good as the beginning but for north Indians who want to experience Hamsanandhi in a few seconds, just google Salangai Oli and click on the song Vedham anuvilum. You should find it easily enough on Musicindiaonline.com.
Music composer Ilayaraja has created several songs in Hamsanandhi for Tamil movies. In fact, music connoisseurs in Chennai dismiss A.R. Rahman’s music for the tunes composed by the older Ilayaraja. They say Rahman is a master-copier but ‘Raja’, as he is called, is the real McCoy—an earthy genius with an intuitive but sure grasp of Carnatic ragas and their subtle orchestrations. One gentleman with the wonderfully Tamilian name of Lakshminarayan Srirangam Ramakrishnan has written an exhaustive treatise of all the Carnatic ragas that appear in Ilayaraja’s songs. Every now and then, I read and re-read his writing for pure pleasure. This “music daad” is a doctor in Norman, Oklahoma, US. Or so I hear. I’ve never met him even though I—like many others on the Internet—am his fan.
In Carnatic music, there are several lovely renderings of Hamsanandhi including Madhava maya, Srinivasa and Pahi jagatjanani. My favourite is Pavana guru, which was made famous by the late great Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and later by his disciple, Yesudas. Chembai sings Hamsanandhi, with almost offhanded restraint. But he gets the gamakas (lilting shifts) right and goes easy on the briga (lightning fast transitions up and down a scale, a la taan in Hindustani)—this raga doesn’t require them anyway. Hamsanandhi or Sohini is a dream raga for evening riyaz (practice) because you can drink its nectar simply from straight notes that slide from one to the next.
So why am I drawn to Hamsanandhi now? Just listen to it in the evenfall when the birds are flying back to their nests. I would wager that you will be seduced by this beautiful raga too.
Shoba Narayan hopes to sing Pavana Guru in Hamsanandhi ragam by the end of 2009. Write to Shoba at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 23 2009. 09 29 PM IST