This festive season, my thoughts have turned to the overload of cheerful greetings and social media chatter. On television channels, there is a surfeit of programming on the latest film releases, but, strangely enough, there have been few classical or devotional music tributes, as is de rigeur.
A sign of the changing times? Or have popular music producers moved beyond the classical?
While searching for answers to this question, I came up with many examples to the contrary. Further, the thing about classical music and its influence on popular culture is, it seeps in when you least expect it to, drenching your mind like a walk through a sudden downpour.
Still, this is as good an opportunity as any to review five film songs from the past five years that have used Carnatic music as their primary reference points, vivifying the spirit of some ragas. Each of these songs is by a different composer, and that in itself says a lot.
While enjoying the festive season, I do urge you to listen to these songs. They are delightful. They provide a window to a few Carnatic ragas, if you have not been exposed to them before.
Kannukkul Pothi Vaipen (I will lock you in my eyes)
Thirumanam Ennum Nikkah (2013, Tamil)
A light, bubbly melody, loosely based on Raga Mukhari, which is a janya (derivative) of the Carnatic raga Kharaharapriya. The film’s script deals with interfaith romance, and is shot in a way that can be enjoyed across the Subcontinent.
Mukhari is an interesting choice for the song composed by Mohammad Ghibran. In the popular imagination, it is associated with sadness, though it can be used effectively to convey devotion too. It is a raga with a sense of moving calm. Always evocative, it induces the listener to pause and reflect.
Mukhari is closely allied with the Carnatic Bhairavi. Its use in this composition is, therefore, surprising, especially since it works so well. Watch out for the shift to another raga, Saranga, in the stanzas, another distinctly Carnatic touch.
Unnai Kanaadhu Naan/Main Radha Tu Shaam
Vishwaroopam/Vishwaroop (2013, Tamil/Hindi)
This song by the famous trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy became immensely popular throughout the country. The ragas include Mishra Piloo (from the Hindustani), the Carnatic Kapi (closely allied with Piloo), and some strains of Dwijavanthi (based on the Hindustani Jaijawanti). True to the bilingual nature of the film, this Kathak sequence in the spy thriller uses a pan-Indian classical template.
Azhage Azhage (Beauty)
Saivam (2014, Tamil)
Sung by wunderkind Uthara Unnikrishnan, this lovely melody, describing the world as a template of beauty, is set loosely on Raga Kanada. Kanada is usually associated with a more languorous, detailed rendition, but here it is contextualised to fit a song sung by a child in the film. The composer G V Prakash himself is a young maestro, known for tremendous variety in his ouevre.
Malargal Ketten (I asked for flowers)
OK Kanmani (2015, Tamil and multilingual releases)
After a long time, this was an AR Rahman original in his old style, combining the best lyrical, musical and vocal talent to bring something incredible to the fore. The composition, sung by the inimitable KS Chithra, is loosely based on the beautiful raga, Behag. Similar to the Hindustani Bihag, this raga is light, evocative of romance, and found in many traditional Bharatanatyam dance compositions.
Acham Enbadhu Madamaiayda (2016, Fear is Foolishness, Tamil)
This track is a composition with a modern vocabulary. It has a lyricism that is more associated with free verse, and is very progressive in its compositional style. What completely stuns you is the interlude. The grandeur of the Navaragamalika Varnam (a traditional varnam in nine ragas composed by 19th century composer Patnam Subramania Iyer) is presented intact. It is as if radio frequencies suddenly switched, and we went from one era and context to another. And being Rahman, he plucks and combines it with aplomb.
The writer is a well-known pianist and music educator based in Chennai.