It is not often that a single song comes off as worthy of a full review, at least not in the last 10 years or so. The last review-worthy IR song was Om Sivoham from Naan Kadavul.
Also, sometimes I feel conscious that I don’t track film songs closely enough to identify the occasional gems — but the truth is, good songs make it to you, even when you don’t try. There are many such songs that I have just “bumped into” or people have referred to me.
Well, the latest entrant in the gem category and the candidate for this review is the song Sri Rama Lera Rama. As if to support my previous point, this song is from a Telugu movie, where I wouldn’t have looked anyways.
It is my opinion that Ilayaraja is one of the few music directors, a vast majority of whose songs remain consistent to a specific melodic scale (a.k.a. raga). It is important to realize what this means — especially for the non-raga-inclined listeners. Whether you recognize/ like/ understand it or not — a raga has a certain characteristic and it hits your brain in a pre-conceivable way. So single-raga-songs (where every line in the song conforms to the same raga) generally have more impact than raga-agnostic songs. Raga-agnostic songs are not to be confused with multi-raga-songs. It actually takes more skills to create multi-raga-songs, because it requires understanding of each of the ragas, how they relate to each other and how the intended impact is achieved and preserved through the transition.
It should be no surprise that Ilayaraja knows his ragas really well. In fact, I have heard that he makes phone calls to Dr. Balamuralikrishna (who he considers one of his mentors) when he ends up in uncharted territories, looking for advice and help. I have always wondered what the song creation process would feel like — because the creator has lot of knowledge and on a certain level, the knowledge itself becomes a barrier for him. Because in music (and several other domains), knowledge means structure, structure means protocols and protocols mean rules. A creator has to be liberated from what he knows — in order to create something new.
Sri Rama Lera Rama is a very impactful song in that it does the job of mood-transfer really well. What is the mood it has tried to communicate? Hopefully the movie made good use of the song — because it conveys romance, pain, lust, joy and many other subtler feelings. If you are a Ilayaraja regular, this song should have reminded you of several songs released throughout the 80s and 90s — Thoongadha Vizhigal Rendu (Agni Natchathiram), Putham Pudhu Poo (Thalapathi), Rathiriyil Poothirukkum (Thanga Magan), Rojavai Thaalaattum (Ninaivellam Nithya), Pirayae Pirayae (Pithamagan) and some non-Ilayaraja songs as well — Vandanam En Vandanam (Vaazhve Maayam, Gangai Amaran), Minsara Kanna (Padaiyappa, AR Rehman).
For the carnatically oriented, this song is a good identify-the-raga quiz. I am not discussing ragas here, because I don’t want technicalities to come in the way of a good review. However, what you see immediately below is the SoundCloud version with comments within the song (wherever you see those little pictures of mine). Its fun when you also start making comments to it.
The next question is how do creators pick singers? Is it based on the output of the most recent interaction with the person? Is it based on some fixed judgment they have (such as certain singers for certain types of songs)? Is it based on cost? Is it based on availability of the person?
Ilayaraja chose Shreya Ghoshal (the choice which he can never possibly be wrong about) and Ramu (who is Ramu?) for this song. In my opinion, both of them have done a commendable job, but the truth is the song cannot be spoiled, as long as the singers played by the rules. I doubt if SPB can deliver a song like this. However, there are certain sections of this song where I thought Shrinivas would have made a better choice. But Ramu is no less.
Lastly, it is unknown to me in general, how music directors choose instruments for a particular song. Every song has the primary instruments (sounds which are distinctly identifiable when you listen to it), secondary instruments (which are part of a harmony or a grand orchestra) and the special effects instruments.
This song has all of it, but in my opinion, Ilayaraja has made very powerful use of cello — especially at the second interlude.
All in all — a beautiful song that is unparalleled to anything I have heard in the last several years. All this without understanding the lyrics or context or the movie itself. Says something about IR, doesn’t it?