A cultural crossover

Print edition : July 29, 2005

Ilaiyaraaja at his residence in Chennai, on June 13. - SHAJU JOHN

Ilaiyaraaja's orchestration of select verses from the eighth century Tamil poet Manickavasagar's Thiruvasagam in the form of an oratorio, the first such rendering of an Indian literary work, evokes wide appreciation.

MUSIC maestro Ilaiyaraaja has added one more `first' to his credit by composing and orchestrating select verses from Thiruvasagam, the immortal contribution of the eighth century Saivite sage-poet Manickavasagar to Tamil devotional literature, in the form of an oratorio. The celebrated collection of Tamil hymns of great emotional appeal and outstanding poetic merit (see box) becomes the first Indian literary work to get this kind of musical treatment.

If news of the Chennai-based composer's first work of symphony - which he wrote at the invitation of the renowned Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London, 12 years ago - delighted thousands of his fans across the country, his Thiruvasagam in oratorio appears to have evoked considerable interest among not only his music fans but also lovers of Tamil literature. Audio compact discs of the production were released at public functions held in Chennai on June 30 and Dallas in Texas (United States) on July 2.

The first indication of the instant success of the venture came when the entire audience at the Chennai function, representing a cross-section of music lovers, listened to a 20-minute song from the oratorio CD played specially for the occasion with rapt attention in absolute silence and gave the maestro and his team a round of applause followed by a standing ovation.

Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting S. Jaipal Reddy, who released the oratorio, congratulated Ilaiyaraaja on his "outstanding composition", which once again proved his creative skill and versatility. He said that the oratorio, by presenting an old Tamil poem in contemporary English text, had established itself as "a cultural crossover," which, in his perception, "is the unifying theme of the 21st century".

Veteran Carnatic musician M. Balamuralikrishna, who received the first copy of the CD, said he was "immensely moved" by the oratorio. The Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu and Frontline, N. Ram, said the bold undertaking has crossed the barriers of language, nationality and ethnicity.

Ilaiyaraja hit upon the concept of producing a symphony orchestra package on Thiruvasagam while at Thiruvannamalai, his favourite pilgrim town, 150 km from Chennai, in 2000. It began to take shape as a massive project three years later with the support of Tamil Maiyam, a non-profit cultural organisation that came up in Chennai in 2002 at the initiative of Reverend Jagath Gaspar Raj to promote Tamil art and literature.

Ilaiyaraaja chose the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, one of the world's best orchestra groups.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

It took more than two years to complete the project at a total cost of around Rs.1 crore, 75 per cent of which was raised as loans, mostly from the maestro's fans (see interview).

The grand project was executed by a high-profile team of around 300 artists and engineers, Indian and foreign, headed by Ilaiyaraaja, in about 70 sittings at various centres such as New York City, Budapest, Mumbai and Chennai. Presented by Tamil Maiyam and Ilaiyaraaja Traditional Music Art and Cultural Trust, "Thiruvasagam - Ilaiyaraaja, a classical cross-over" has been composed and orchestrated by Ilaiyaraaja and conducted by the Hungary-born musician, Laszlo Kovacs, with the only professional orchestra of Hungary, the 100-year-old Budapest Symphony Orchestra (all its 84 players are graduates from music academies) and 160 singers, who include, besides Ilaiyaraaja, Unnikrishnan, Bavatharini, Madhu Balakrishnan, Vijay Jesudas and Ray Harcourt (U.S.).

Prominent among the other major participants were Richard King, a sound engineer who has several Grammy Awards to his credit, and the Broadway playwright Stephen Schwartz who wrote the English lyrics for the oratorio.

Schwartz was perhaps the first to predict, weeks before the Chennai audience could indicate, that the oratorio was bound to be a good treat. The international celebrity wrote to the Tamil Maiyam: "I had the pleasure of hearing the almost finished mix of Ilayaraaja's amazing work. It is unlike anything I have ever heard before, a stunning blend of Indian and Western music and instruments. I asked Mr. Raja if this was something different for him too, and he said he had never done anything like this before. I don't know if anyone has. So I believe those of you looking forward to this are in for a great treat."

Rev. Jagath Gasper Raj, the founder of the non-profit cultural organisation Tamil Maiyam which supported Ilaiyaraaja's project.-V. GANESAN

He concluded: "The section to which I contributed English words is about twenty minutes long and dovetails back and forth between Mr. Raja singing in Tamil and an American singer singing in English, plus there is a large and beautifully produced chorus. Mr. Raja's orchestrations are superb, and the recording engineer, Richard King, has done a spectacular job sonically. I felt so very proud to be a small part of this project."

`Sivapuranam', translated into English as "Sivan's ways of the old" by G.U. Pope (see box), is the only section selected in full by Ilaiyaraaja for the oratorio, although the verses have been rearranged. Besides, the CD has 34 verses that come under five heads. These have been selected by the maestro from the total 659 verses under 51 heads in Thiruvasagam. Explaining the significance of the poems selected, Tamil scholar Sirpi Balasubramaniam said: "Sivapuranam is all about the soul in search of the Lord. It represents a devotee's poetic expression of the spiritual ecstasy and agony of a soul."

The agony of "being born again and again" has been well brought out by repeating the word piranthilaithen ("So many forms I must wear/ So many lives I must bear") and the poet's ecstasy at getting a darshan (sight) of God, despite his being "meaner than even dog" ("To this man - so Blind and base! To him you granted - a glimpse of grace - a Glimpse of grace!"). "Piditha Pathu" (The Decade of the `Tenacious Grasp'), from which the fourth song has been selected, is, according to Pope, one of the poems, most characteristic of Manickavasagar's lyrics. It speaks of the "final emancipation, and mystic, ineffable, eternal union with Sivan." All the verses end with: "I have seized and hold Thee fast! Henceforth, ah, whither grace imparting would'st Thou rise?"

Balasubramaniam said Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven could, perhaps in a limited sense, be an interesting study in contrast.

It will not be surprising if Ilayaraaja's oratorio generates interest among the youth in ancient Tamil literary works such as Thiruvasagam. That, in fact, is one of the stated objectives of the promoters of the maestro's massive musical effort.

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