CD Review: Ilaiyaraaja / Thiruvasagam

Ilaiyaraaja – Thiruvasagam (c) 2005

English lyrics:    Stephen Schwartz
Richard King :    Sound Engineer

Lászlo Kovacs : Conductor
Budapest Symphony Orchestra & Choir

Singers: Ilaiyaraaja, Roy Harcourt, Madhu Balakrishnan, Vijay Yesudas

Collection of classical hymns on Lord Shiva written by poet sage Manickavasagar. Recreated as the first Indian Oratorio by music maestro Ilaiyaraaja.

Names like Stephen Schwartz and Lászlo Kovacs are known to music lovers all over the world but I have a feeling that Ilaiyaraaja, the composer of this oratorio, is not so well known outside South India. His Tamil compatriot A.R. Rahman has broken into public awareness far better with his breakthrough film soundtracks like Slumdog Millionaire. But both are regarded equally illustrious composers here in South India, some even taking the side of Ilaiyaraaja as the foremost Tamil composer and contender for the title of Mozart of the East; possibly a silly title but one that reveals the affection both enjoy in their native land nonetheless.

Ilaiyaraaja being twenty years senior, launched his career a few decades before A.R. Rahman, who in fact started off as a keyboard player in the formers orchestra at the age of 11. I could go on about how loved and respected Ilaiyaraaja is in his home state of Tamil Nadu, but I will leave that to you to discuss with the next Tamil person you happen to meet. A wonderful topic of conversation over coffee. No need to thank me.

On first impression I’m reminded of some early 20th century vocal symphony except with the chorus and soloist singing in Tamil instead of German or Italian. The first movement (Poovar Senni Mannan) lays out a pleasant sonic landscape that is waltz-like and carefree, yet the next moment we are sidetracked towards a slightly darker slightly Stravinskian rite of some denomination,  Ilaiyaraaja himself singing the main theme of the poem in Tamil while the massive chorus echoes an ominous motif behind him. The stage is set for worship of an ancient deity. The pilgrim starts his progress.

The second movement (Sivapuranam)  is the heartpiece of this work both musically and as far as the devotional drama is concerned. A rather romantic feel ensues invoking visions of Tchaikovsky and early Sibelius. Roy Harcourt joins in at this stage delivering the first English lines of the oratorio his voice blending seamlessly with the whole. There are a few fleeting moments here which remind me of a Broadway musical rather than an oratorio in the classical sense but I don’t mean that in a bad way. Especially for Indian audiences who have not all acquired a taste for western classical singing this is probably a good choice and surely intentional of Ilaiyaraaja. A certain amount of popular elements have probably helped to endear this oratorio to a wider audience than would otherwise be the case. Hopefully this will help to some extent to cross the bridge dividing western classical and Indian art music.

There have been other more serious works in this line too, notably in recent times by L. Subramaniam and especially Eero Hämeenniemi from Finland (click here for my review of his CD ‘Unmatched’). Some decades ago Ravi Shankar also composed his Concertos for Sitar and orchestra, which are certainly worth a listen, as are the orchestral works of Amjad Ali Khan.

The choral passages are impressive and the sacred mantras of Shiva sound quite breathtaking. This movement is the one that will win the audiences over east and west. There are moments that make me feel I’m witnessing a spectacle alá Cecil B. DeMille, which I mean in a good way, as it invokes a feeling of grandeur and solemness.

The third movement (Pooerukunum Purantharanum) is shorter and lighter giving the listener somewhat of a breather with it’s carefree mood and danceable qualities. But before soon we enter a more sombre fourth movement in which the pilgrim seems to be taken over by melancholia if not even slight despair. A very moving piece of music that brings shivers to my spine. I almost want to dash out of the door to find the nearest Shiva temple and propitiate the ancient god of the ascetics; lord of creation, preservation and destruction.

The fourth movement is among my favorite moments of this magnificent work and shows the deep understanding Ilaiyaraajaji has of western classical traditions and how seamlessly he blends them with Tamil sensibilities is nothing short of wonderful. The whole movement gives the impression of a long orchestral prayer as the pilgrim appeals to the deity of his choice as given voice by Ilaiyaraaja.

The fifth movement (Muthu Natramam)) brings celebration back into the pilgrims heart as if Pongal (Tamil harvest festival) had just begun. This movement is mostly sung by a chorus of female voices in Tamil with male voices joining in towards the end.

The sixth and last movement (Putril Vaazh) is a happy and certainly somewhat tongue-in-cheek with the Ilaiyaraaja playfully engaging the orchestra by chattering a bit (please, someone Tamil speaking tell me what!) and then continuing to sing a lullaby-like theme of almost childlike simplicity. The feeling prevails that the pilgrim has reached his destination and calm contentment has possessed his mind. Shiva resides in his heart now. Rather than ending in fireworks the piece ends calmly and almost abruptly leaving the listener humming away the last movements infectious theme for the rest of the day.

One evening while sitting for dinner at a restaurant here in Chennai, I perked my ears as I heard the familiar tunes of the oratorio blending with the cozy atmosphere of the eatery. I smiled and felt happy that even in these days of short attention spans (mine is like that of a humming bird) and even shorter pop songs (nothing wrong with them) people are still willing to listen to and appreciate art music.

This composition and international collaboration is a cultural deed to say the least.

The Tamils are rightly proud of their revered Ilaiyaraaja as they are of their great poet sages like Manickavasagar and Thirumular. Here an ancient yet alive and vibrant culture finds new ways to manifest and speak to the people of our age. I have always loved the sound of the Tamil language and as great world language it has finally been done justice by Ilaiyaraaja in this oratorio.

I think it would be redundant to say that Kovacs and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra sound marvelous as always.

You can listen to the second movement here: 2nd movement – Polla Vinaiyen (Sivapuranam).

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16 Responses to CD Review: Ilaiyaraaja / Thiruvasagam

  1. San says:

    //I have always loved the sound of the Tamil language and as great world language it has finally been done justice by Ilaiyaraaja in this oratorio.//

    Wov that is amazing. I am seriously proud as a Ilayaraja fanatatic and tamil as well.

    // The fifth and last movement (Muthu Natramam) //

    What? did not u listen the sixth one called ‘Putril Vaazh’.?

    BTW Where u are in Chennai?

  2. Aleksi Lausti says:

    Thanks for the comment Sanjeev. My apologies, I entered the names and sequence of the movements last and got the numbering wrong :) It’s corrected now. At the moment I am living in R.A. Puram in Chennai.

  3. sharankay says:

    Thanks for this glowing review about one of the finest musical pieces composed by Ilaiyaraaja. I would just wish to point out that the singer in all the songs are Dr.Ilaiyaraaja himself apart from ‘MuthuNatramam’. Please correct them in review :-)

  4. Aleksi Lausti says:

    Thanks for the correction :)

  5. dagalti says:

    Glad to know you enjoyed it.

    Btw in most places what you identify the voice of Madhu Balakrishnan is that of Ilayaraja himself !

    Most notably in the 4th track (umbargatkarasE) which you like best. He has a unique and excellent voice that somehow stirs up an unease in the lay listener.

    In final track it is Ilayaraja who is talking.

    //(please, someone Tamil speaking tell me what!) //
    Essentially he is pretending to get introduced to the sounds of the ‘symphony orcherstra’ and choosing the appropriate lines from Thiruvasagam that best fit a tune he has in mind. He first picks and discards one and then settles on “putril vaazh aravum” – giving us the impression of seeing it as the songs comes to life.

  6. Aleksi Lausti says:

    thanks for that translation, it’s a fun moment in the piece. the case of the misidentified singer has been rectified :)

  7. C.S.RAMASAMI says:

    Dear Mr Aleksi Lausti,

    Excellent piece of writings putting your honest feelings on the musical by Ilaiyaraaja.

    Hope the musician within you has helped to identify this unique venture of Ilaiyaraaja.

    Hope you had/will have the opportunity to listen to his other albums like “How to Name It” and “Nothing But Wind” also.

    Like you have seen and felt the India here now, he has felt and presented the oneness of all forms of music with the Tamil/Indian music base.

    With Best Regards,
    CSRamasami

    ( ramasamis@yahoo.co.in)

    ( Just in case you are interested to read my feel on Thiruvasagam by IR, please visit my blog,

    http://csr-ir-thiruvasagam.blogspot.com/ )

  8. Twig says:

    Hi Aleksi,

    It’s not just Tamils, We Telugus are also really lucky
    to listen to his highly individualistic and uplifting music.
    Considering ilayaraja came from a remote place and born
    as a Lower Caste, his achievements are something no one
    can dream off.

    Do check out, “how to name it”, or the score for the movie
    “Hey Ram!”.

  9. Ramesh says:

    Am a deep fan of Illayaraja sir’s Thiruvasagam,

    Its almost 6 years over, still it is fresh and young

    and I am for the past 6 yrs listening Thiruvasagam.

    Great Great Music, through out life time, I will

    continue to listen this album

    Expecting same as Thirugavasagam and more,

    Ramesh

  10. Aleksi Lausti says:

    Always nice to read comments and feelings on Ilaiyaraaja and his music. Thanks to everyone for the suggestions and links. Keep them coming. I am still exploring his music myself.

  11. shiva padmanaban says:

    Hi Aleksi Lausti, pls pls explore his fine works, he writes music in scoresheet in fraction of minutes, for every piece he compose he writes note first and composes it, usually no one in India does this..people worked with him says “”no one can write music as fast as he writes, flawlessly ”

    for a movie song, he listens the situation given by director, in a fraction of seconds he starts composing tunes for that situation, no man usually does it ..very instantaneous..

    for a BGM of movie, he sees the seen once, starts givin notes to orchestra peoples. never asks for time to compose music.
    god i envy this man..i always admired him .. his soul stirring songs..music…

    i worship him, he is more than any one in this world to me..

    He (ilayaraja) always says,”music should b something that should take you to the next level(probably something takes your soul to the higher level)”

    waitin for your comments, Eagerly

  12. Aleksi Lausti says:

    Thank you for your comment Shiva! Ilaiyaraaja is indeed unique among composers and i feel i have a lifetime ahead exploring his music. I hope to write more about him in the future and, if higher powers will, even interview him personally. All the best to you my friend.

  13. shiva padmanaban says:

    thank you friend…Ilayarajas next movie album”Neethaane En Ponvasantham” launching in September 1st ..music score written by raja, played by “london symphony orchestra(101 piece ) ” and i think conducted by “Laszlo Kovacs” of Hungary(same thiruvasagam conductor)…Eagerly waiting for your review..Its something different when some one from other culture like you speaks about people here(Raja)..cheers…

  14. dhana says:

    Really grace feel…

  15. Priyamvatha says:

    Thanks for the wonderful review. One can feel the divinity flowing on hearing this music and of course the lyrics too. My personal favourite number is polla vinaiyen which I hear daily. One of my ambitions in my life is to learn by heart all thiruvasagam songs. I ve started my work 15 days back after I went to thirupparaaithurai shiva temple and sought the blessings from the statue of manickavasagar to begin with. Now I ve learnt till 205 lines of that wonderful book. Still going on..way to go. But I hope I’ll finish it by lord shiva’s grace.

  16. Aleksi Lausti says:

    Thank you for sharing with us! May you have the grace of Lord Shiva to successfully memorize all of the lines. Let us know when you have accomplished that.

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