-The Literature, The philosophy and My musings-
It’s my turn to contribute to the symphony reviewers’ world. The sudden burst of interest in trying to understand what a symphony is, what an orchestra means (with an obvious extension “What is Budapest Symphony Orchestra?”) and most importantly what Thiruvasagam is – can all be attributed to one person. Ilaiyaraja.
Ilaiyaraja – The man known by many south Indians but only by a handful of North Indians. Of course, it is pointless to try to figure out how many non-Indians would have heard of this genius, because if people on the other side of the Vindhyas* cannot associate with him or understand & appreciate his music, then to the International audience to whom Indian movies and music mean “Bollywood” and Bollywood only, the concept of movies and music in any language other than Hindi will totally be strange. This is a topic by itself and may be I will save it for another time. Without digressing, let us try to understand why there is a surge of symphony reviews in the cyber world – especially in the kingdom to which I belong – “Blogdom”.
Ilaiyaraja had been the king of Tamil film music for more than a decade – starting in early 80s, his commercial reign lasted until early 90s. He still produces music but to his defence, he is caught in his own creative web and is trying to prove he can still match the new generation musicians, hence to the old Raja fans, the new Raja music is not his best. Composing a symphony, writing the complete score for it and getting it arranged & played by a reputed Orchestra and most importantly having the compositions mastered, recorded and distributed to the music loving population around the would be any true musician’s dream. He being no exception to that, Ilaiyaraja had been dreaming about it for more than 20 years.
A couple of years ago, Rev. Jegath Gasper Raj approached Ilaiyaraja with this idea and what I have in CD form is a result of many people’s hard work in the last two years. Agreed, it is a commercial venture – but there is a noble cause behind this, that is to popularize & preserve some old Tamil literary works, which may help the next generation to carry forward some of the language in its pure form not just to keep the language alive but also to show the rest of the world, how rich Tamil language is. This project, thanks to the internet, spread its purpose and message throughout the world mainly among the Tamil community. This prompted many donors to volunteer their time and money to this project. Finally by word of mouth and perseverance on many people’s part the project has seen the light at the end of the tunnel. True achievement. Because of the amount of stir this project created among many music lovers’ minds and many language lovers’ minds, seeing the completion meant a lot of relief and jubilation. This may explain why a project that mainly found a channel of survival through internet would evoke such a high amount of eagerness among the bloggers.
Thiruvasagam – I guess I will be too embarrassed to even talk about the greatness of this epic. But to know a thing or two about of this Tamil literary work, one must understand the background. Here is a quote that may help one understand where Thiruvasagam falls.
“The following works of art and literature are among the most remarkable contributions of the Tamil creative of the Tamil creative genius to the world’s cultural treasure and should be familiar to the whole world and admired and beloved by all in the same way as the poems of Homer, the dramas of Shakespeare, the pictures of Rembrandt, the cathedrals of France and the sculptures of Greece:….The school of Bhakti … Saiva, which is one of those most sincere and passionate efforts of man to grasp the Absolute; and its supreme literary expression in the works of Manikkavasagar, Tirugnana Sambandar…. The philosophical system of Saiva Sidhdhantha, a system, which may be ranked among the most perfect and cleverest systems of human thought”
– Czech Professor Dr. Kamil Zvelebil in 1956 –
The work that is being quoted there is called the “Twelve Thirumurai(s)”. A collection of Twelve books essentially consisting of poems & literature praising Lord Shiva, a Hindu “God Almighty”, the light & hope for Saivites. All these poems were written by 63 leading Saivite saints** spanning approximately over 600 years.
Thiruvasagam along with Thiruvempavai and Thirukkovaiyaar belong to the Eighth Thirumurai written by Saint Manickavasagar. He was a minister in the Pandya kingdom in the early 9th century AD, who led his life by his faith and devoted its entirety to Lord Shiva. It is said that one who does not get moved by Thiruvasagam will not be moved by anything else. This collection has 51 poems, each one a gem and needing you to spend a long time to understand the nuances.
If we can keep religion aside for a while and read this literary masterpiece, (of course you have to master Tamil before you can appreciate the work), you would understand the depth and the lingual aura that makes this work a rare treasure. Many had come and many had tried to learn this work. Noted among them was Rev. G.U. Pope a scholar from England. His translation of Thiruvasagam is by far the most popular English Translation work available for Thiruvasagam.
I have been listening to the CD the last couple of days. I should admit that I need much more time to really make any sense out of it. The entire album is absolutely a crossover attempt and hence it is taking a very long time for me to even understand the structure of each composition. Well, to begin with, I do not understand symphony. I just pretend to. The melody in the album is so characteristic of Ilaiyaraja and I would be lying if I didn’t mention that most of the melodies have a “heard before” feeling. Nevertheless, all the melodies are haunting – again so very characteristic of Ilaiyaraja. The arrangements are spellbinding. Right now my favorite piece of the album is “Putril Vazha”. This may be an unusual choice because from what I have read, most reviewers like “Polla Vinayaen”. I think that piece is a little too long for me to connect all the broken parts together and appreciate it as one single work. But the vocal fusion of Ilaiyaraja’s classical Tamil, Ray Harcourt’s Operatic English and the symphonic chorus make that number (Polla Vinayaen) a brave & an innovative attempt. A twenty minute composition with so many variations – C’mon I need more time to assimilate it!
I may just get better at “pretending” after a few more hearings of this album.
Some useful links:
G.U. Pope – http://www.tamilnation.org/literature/pope.htm
Pope’s translation work – http://siddhanta.shaivam.org/thivapop.htm
The Thiruvasagam Symphony Project – http://www.tis-usa.com/
*The Vindhya mountains cut right across the country, from West to East, and form the boundary between North and South India.
**63 Nayanmars – “Saiva Siddhanta” is southern saivism. These 63 saints who lived by this philosophy are considered as gurus of this philosophy.