Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 3


Carnot Engines are efficient and ideal. And unreal. The rest including the now dead steam engines are real and inefficient. Likewise, ‘translation engines’ are observed to be non-Carnot with inevitable finite informational entropy generated during their operation.

We are aware of the near impossibility of exact translation from one language to another perhaps since the times we realized two distinct languages – like human speech and a bird’s song. It is only natural then to lament the futility of translating creative expression in one art form (music, song) into another (visuals), without an associated loss of information and joy. Nevertheless, in the hoary culture that Tamilians are familiar with, we have documented successful synergy between nAtiyam (dance) and isai (music) or even iyal (theatre) and isai (music).

When modern Tamil music has its composers and loadstones well connected to the roots and worthy of that hoary culture, it is a shame to prematurely pose our hands heavenwards with an abhinayam expressing exasperation and epitomizing the incapacity in Tamil movies (or theatre or simply visual arts) to translate music into meaningful visuals.

Several reasons can be cited for bad translation of Tamil movie music into visual form. The chief one is inherent in the configuration of a Tamil movie song. Lyricists, music composers, artists, singers, actors, dance masters, choreographers, characters singing the song, situation in the movie and so on – each of this salient note of a Tamil movie song is populated necessarily by different individual or group. That they combine to give something tangible to our senses is already a feat.

On many occasions (exceptions exist) the music composer proposes a tune for which the lyricist pens a song. With minor modifications in both tune and lyrics for a tolerance fit, the song is composed, sung and recorded. Often, as it had happened for Ilaiyaraja during early decades of his career, two things happen: The lyrics is more a poem than a song and the music is richer than the lyrics.

We shall leave the debate of what constitutes bad and good lyrics and when a lyrics is a poem to another series of essays. Let us take it for granted there is a song composed and recorded and ready to be visualized. While visualizing this song, the obvious temptation is to attempt visualizing the lyrics and not the music. And give a thought to the music only when our imagination fails suitable visuals for the lyrics. A subjective observation you may think and could even cite counter examples. I shall do this myself in later parts, but I am not off mark if you take the already cited examples in Part 1 and Part 2.

For instance, the pallavi of the thanikAttu rAjA song goes

sandhana_kaatre – Audio


santhana kAtrE, senthamizh UtrAE, santhOsha pAtAE vA vA
kAthOdu thAn nI pAdum Osai, ah, ah, nIngAtha Asai ah, ah

A straight-face, possible translation is:

Sandalwood Breeze, Clarified Tamil Spring, Oh Happy Song, Come on
Upon the ear, sound of your singing, ah, ah, indelible desire, ah, ah

The first line of praise-thy-girlfriend-thusly is possible only in poetic reality while the second is possible in mine – including the ah, ah. When trying to visualize the song, if you attempt to visualize the above lyrics, you are stumped. To the extent you forget the lilting accompanying music that originally made the lyricist (poet?) churn such catchy uncapturables.

The stumped you kick starts your translation engine to show sandalwood trees waving, then, possibly a spring gushing centrally from a meadow with the white saree clad heroine’s body behind it or preferably drenched under it, and then show the hero nearby, shaking all over in metronomic epilepsy to symbolize a happy song.

For the second line, you make the hero hold the drenched heroine’s hips from the back and sing in high pitch near the heroine’s ear, while in the jump-cut close-up shot that follows, her pleasant face with one deaf ear portrays erotic expressions and so on.

If your imagination is bereft of even such creative dregs, your translation engine sputters and stutters and coddles visualization traducing music. The white or yellow saree clad heroine prances about with intermittent jumping, all the while mouthing the above lyrics, the hero walks in garish three piece under the hot sun in a grove and then in a meadow. And suddenly you remember the lyrics in the second line to add the inspired visuals of heroine singing high pitch lyrics in the hero’s ears.

Such has been the function and capacity of modern Tamil movie music-to-visual translation engine.

The music of Ilaiyaraja, while often raising us to magnificence if we dare to remain alone with it, has also inadvertently served to reveal our creative paucity and mental depravity in the visual medium.

The situation is not completely defeatist and cynical. Ways have been invented with will, to improve the efficiency of such music-to-visual translation engines. Some have been adopted by sympathizing Tamil movie directors and actors. Particularly, in the later part of Ilaiyaraja’s career.

The most obvious way of translating music and lyrics to visuals is not to do it at all. Accept unconditional defeat, touch the LP record by the finger tips and re-touch the finger tips on onto our eyes, and leave it untainted as a background score in the movie. But shoot competent visuals with equally likable events and or artistic visuals, without (or consciously not) attempting to connect them to the lyrics. This technique is often attempted by maverick directors like Mahendran, Manirathnam and actor/directors like Kamal Hassan.

Here is one early attempt from panIr pushpangal for the song pUnthalir Ada.

poonthalir – Audio

And the video

Right from the seeming two-note chord slide that starts the song (guitarists will love to do this slide), the modulated percussion, the bass support, and the build-up to a peak punctuated with a free-fall pause before the nonchalant rhythm sweeps you mid-air safely into a musical flight. Another of the innumerable instances where voice (chorus) is used as instrument to provide the counterpoint fillers, here between verses of the pallavi. The song has all the nuggets and nuances of trademark ilaiyarAjA of this era. The western classical structure discussed in Part 1 is also evident.

Contrastingly, the visuals don’t bother to translate the music or lyrics. Except for brief instances, early in the song. The stick traversing over the steel railings of the railway station could indeed provide the modulated percussion sound at the start, but the synchronization is off. But the passable visualization of events saves the music and lyrics from any blatant dishonor.

Here is another example from early 1990s: Song is valay Osai kala kala kala vena from the movie sathyA starring Kamal Hassan and Amala:

valayosai – Audio

The video

Listen to the song once, you can immediately recognize its grandeur. Listen again and you will observe the western classical structure we discussed in Part 1. Listen again and you will realize the singing is almost always in the middle or lower octave for the entire song. The reason – female singer, and her abused shrieker voice in the upper octave; effect of singing there for several decades elsewhere in the north – reveals another aspect of Ilaiyaraja’s musical mastery. SP Balasubramaniam, the male singer, revealed later that the song was one of his toughest musical assays.

With such nuances in place inside a catchy layered tune, visualizing the song can get treacherous. The director and Kamal accede defeat and safely proceed to keep the mood and situation of the song intact and picturize events that are enjoyable and realistic by themselves and sync them with the song and hope it clicks. It clicked for me.

But beware. This technique of unconditional surrender when taken to the extreme can lead to bizarre sequences of creation, as an otherwise competent director Mahendran showed us in this example from the movie Metti:

metti__oli – Audio

And the video (skip the initial minute in the following video to reach the song)

The most obvious question that is with me then and now is: Why have a male (Ilaiyaraja, with his tender, till then untested voice) sing it, while visualize only with females? One also wonders what has a song with lyrics and mood alluding to the standard lovers pine got to do with the daily jabbing of three ladies – mother and daughters.

The only place the ladies in the sequence attempt to notice the music is when one tries to mimic the playing of the violin in the first interlude. Never mind she does similar out of sync hand movements for both the solo and the group movement. The rest of the sequences seems to be shot carefully to ignore the music and lyrics, rhythm and soul, in toto. The saving grace is the lyrics are cryptic enough to imagine mother’s love or sister’s love, but only in hindsight.

Now, what if you don’t accede unconditional defeat like the above examples, but use the translation engine with courage?

[Part 4]

Earlier parts [ Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 1Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 2]



[*] Ilaiyaraja has composed music for more than a thousand movies. It is impossible to write a single article that does justice to the entire musical phenomenon, introducing and saluting his music while also satisfying the expectations of his fans. Hopefully this essay series serves as an introduction to those who are yet to explore his music.

A much more elaborate attempt was already made by my Srirangam friend Lakshminarayanan a decade back in the internet. Titled Classical Ilaiyaraja, the fifteen part essay among other places is also preserved at the unofficial Ilaiyaraja home-site.

[**] The songs and music used here are only for illustration purpose. There is no download link provided.

[***] Thanks to Vijay @scanman, Prakash @icarusprakash, Ganesh @goodganesh and Balaji @snapjudge (all via Twitter) for locating the songs and videos.