On the occasion of the legendary Tamil musician Ilaiyaraaja being awarded the Padma Vibushan, one might want to recall the daring and sublime musical paths that he has sought to traverse.

Some years ago, Ilaiyaraaja released an album titled Thiruvasagam, comprising six songs from the great bhakthi corpus of the medieval Saivite poet Manickavasagar. Sung by Ilaiyaraaja, accompanied by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, this impressive and curious album has since enthused and disturbed his acolytes and left his detractors – amongst whom could be counted a fair sprinkling of Tamil Brahmin Saivites – bewildered, though admiring.

This is, of course, not the first time that Ilaiyaraaja has done so. Years ago, when he dared to embed a famed classical varnam within the genre of a romantic duet, he caused a stir. Likewise, when strains of Bach gave way to the ritual chanting of the thevaram, many wondered at this instance of musical subversion, its meaning and relevance to the film sequence in question. Yet, on both occasions, the sheer novelty and daring of his music won the day.

But with the Thirvasagam, the subversion appears to have crossed all limits, mixing and matching musical styles and genres in a cross-cultural conversation that seems an exercise in creative civilisational dissonance. For here is a collection of six poetic songs – achingly poignant in their mediation on mortality – housed in a grandiloquent musical structure that does not quite allow them a habitation. It is this unease, though, that makes this album memorable.


The Sivapuram that is invoked in the songs as the ultimate dwelling place for the realised mortal soul is present here as arch and nave. In other words, Manickavasagar’s lyrics are given a Gothic home, made to speak to the high solemnity of medieval Christian architecture. This is especially evident in the second song, when the erring mortal soul achieves its moment of surrender and stands back to intone a hymn of praise. The music rises to a crescendo, echoing, it seems, off vaulted ceilings, tall walls and imposing pillars.

The music and the lyrics then do contrary things, though one is left wondering why, at one level, it does appear there is a logic to the songs and to the movement of the music. The six songs, except for one, are arranged simply as stages in a mortal person’s journey towards his maker. (The person is clearly male, since the entanglements of the world that tie him to suffering include women, their bodies and the desire they exude.)

The first song is rendered as a low-pitched resolute chant, self-consciously reminiscent of Gregorian chanting, that states that it is time to journey, to renounce this body, this world and seek Him who is worthy of surrender and whose grace alone shall redeem mortal life from its essential lowness.


Song Two picks up the theme of lowness and dwells on it: the first part of this song is a confessional lament that dwells in detail on the horror of birth, on the wretchedness of being consigned to a cycle of re-birth so that one is now grass and shrub, stone and tree, ghost and king, saint and angel – the Tamil lyrics, sung soulfully by Raja, are echoed by English lyrics that paraphrase the Tamil lines. This grants a peculiar emphasis to the latter, so that they cease being expressions of conventional bhakthi rhetoric and instead register a particular historical sorrow, known before to Nandan or Chokhamela.

These lines in alterity prepare us for the second part of the song – confession gives way to praise and the music rises and rolls, as if calling the soul to march along a difficult terrain – clearly marking a pilgrim’s progress to the city beautiful, and finally we have prayer, calm and confident. Songs Three and Four are exultant and self-consciously meditative.

Song Five is a formal hymn of praise – the chorus is both solemn and joyful, with male and female voices alternating. Song Six affirms that to die is to merely shed one’s mortal body – it is a prelude to a greater birth, in one’s beloved God - and so one need not fear either Lord Death or the seductions that persuade one to live on.

Surrender and confession

While there does appear to be a musical and mystical logic at work here, there are, nevertheless, disjunctions. The soul lamenting its own condition confesses and here the chorus takes over, and as English alternates with Tamil, personal piety is accorded a choric utterance and support. But as piety achieves its moment of reckoning, it turns exultant, and the chorus retreats, leaving the freed soul light and easy, and at home in meditative play. With Song Five, though, the chorus returns, to affirm and praise. As the music moves in and out of a choric space, one also gets the sense that the structure that is being so assiduously sought out is also something that, at times, needs to be cast off – and at those moments of freedom we hear the music that Ilaiyaraaja is best known for, folk swing and blues, so to speak.

What we have here then is a musical fable of conversion, in fact of multiple conversions: born into one faith, the musician adopts another; his music moves along diverse forms and traditions, creating tantalising hybrids along the way, recovering in the process a ‘folk Tamilness’ that makes him vastly beloved; taking on the persona of a renouncer he looks to a music tradition that once was home to the great choric Church music of medieval times. He chooses a set of lyrics that encapsulate the horror of birth – a fit theme to both mesmerise and trouble caste society – and goes on to claim redemption in and through a musical structure that insists on a collective orchestration of theme, song and resolution.

Drawing on a tradition of Saivite piety, the musician affirms his faith through a characteristically Christian endeavour: striving, suffering and abiding by the Lord, in a spirit of surrender and confession. A lone lyrical voice finds a choric resolution. But the voice retains own integrity, until the very end and fittingly enough the last song in the album affirms one’s right to a freedom from fear of all kinds.

Conversion, in this sense, could be a parable for our times: the point perhaps is the journey that could yet be undertaken between faiths and cultures, and the moral appears to be one that believes in inhabiting the road rather than the various houses of God.