In his award-winning Telugu musical drama Rudraveena (1988), K Balachander posed poignant questions that remain relevant. Do Brahmins have a monopoly over the classical arts? Should classical music and dance be confined to designated sacred spaces? What happens if they are taken out of these spaces, into the wild and to the people?

Rudraveena tells the story of a conflict between Carnatic musician Bilahari Ganapathy Sastry (Gemini Ganesan) and his son Surya (Chiranjeevi). Surya reveres his father’s music and aspires to match up to him, but has radically different ideas about the purpose of art and the role of the artist.

A devout Brahmin, Sastry’s worldview is firmly entrenched in his caste. He believes that Carnatic music is too sacred to be sung anywhere and everywhere and belongs to the upper castes, and that artists must dedicate their lives to towards perfecting their skills. For Surya, music or any art is something that lives in, borrows from and responds to society. He is drawn to Lalitha (Shobhana), a Dalit woman who practises Bharatanatyam on a hill when she is refused entry into the temple because of her caste. Surya’s association with Lalitha further alienates Sastry.

A scene that best lays out the conflict is the one in which they are rehearsing for a concert. Sastry sings the refrain of Evari Maata Vinna and asks Surya to repeat after him. In the original tune, the composer Tyagaraja beseeches his god Rama to grant him an appearance. Just as Surya begins to sing, a beggar comes to their house. Sastry fumes when he sees Surya’s concentration waver, but Surya finds it hard to ignore the hungry beggar.

The scene is one of several instances in which Balachander uses music to heighten and highlight the tussle between father and son. All songs in Ilaiyaraaja’s brilliant soundtrack reflect on the central themes of Rudraveena. The track Chuttu Pakkala wonders whether artists can live in a cocoon. In Maanava Seva Drohama, Surya asks the question openly at a concert. But the song that delves deep into the themes is the soothing Tarali Raada Thane Vasantham.

While cycling in the woods, Surya sees a bunch of wood cutters slaving away even as their bodies are giving up on them. Surya runs to an old woodcutter and takes the axe from him. The woodcutters recognise Surya, and request him to sing for them. Surya begins with a traditional Carnatic alapana in Hamsadhwani raga, but finds that the woodcutters are standing around him looking clueless. “Can you sing a good song?” a woodcutter asks innocently.

Ilaiyaraaja begins Tarali Raada with the sound of the axe hitting the tree, then juxtaposes this sound with two axes clashing with each other to create an opening rhythm. The woodcutters pitch in too as Surya sings.

The lyrics, by Sirivennela Seetha Ramasasthry, argue that music cannot solely belong to one community or caste: “Don’t the clouds send rain to the earth when the waves cannot reach the skies; the breeze doesn’t discriminate as it blows; we don’t own anything; if we forget to share what we know, the world will perish.” Tarali Raada allows Surya to take his music to the people and thereby set it free. As he sings aloud, revelling in the beauty of nature, the song liberates him too.

Sastry confronts Surya at the end of the song. “Do you know the raaga of the song you were singing in the woods?” he asks. “Hamsadhwani,” Surya replies. “What you were singing was not Hamsadhwani but Himsadhwani,” Sastry grumbles.

Rudraveena (1988).