ARR's 'Veera Raja Veera' For PS-2 Acknowledges Dhrupad Inspiration: Varaha Roopam Effect?
When it comes to using classical ragas and tunes in film songs, when does 'inspiration' turn into blatant 'copying'?
A few days back the second song from the much-anticipated Ponniyin Selvan part 2 arrived to much approbation from fans and lay listeners.
Set to tune by the double Grammy- and Oscar-winner, AR Rahman, the song , across languages, seems to be an instant hit going by the sheer number of views on YouTube.
The main singers of the songs in Tamil are Shankar Mahadevan, KS Chitra, Harini.
And there is a virtual cricket team of singers who have been credited with 'additional vocals': Haricharan, Nakul Abhyankar, Ravi G, Bharat Sundar, Sreekanth Hariharan, Vasudha Ravi, Keerthana Vaidyanathan , Niranjana Ramanan, Maalavika Sundar, Srivardhani and Sireesha Bhagavatula. Why does a song need 11 additional vocalists? Well, that is a story for another day.
But what has caught the curiosity of many is the official credit given to the fact that the song is based/inspired on traditional Dhrupad composition.
As every one by now knows, the song is closely tuned to Raga Adana which itself is similar to the Raga Darbari Kanada.
Quite specifically, it has been pointed out that the song Veera Raja Veera is similar in structure to the popular song rendered in Dhrupad style.
Now, a top film music director officially giving credit to a classical composition as the source of his inspiration is indeed welcome, especially in a country where copyright laws in such matters are a bit of a joke. Good thing that Rahman has taken the lead in such a matter.
Dhrupad tune for Cholas: Creativity or desperation?
On the flipside though, the thought that this might be a straight fallout of the unseemly brouhaha surrounding the song in the Kannada film Kantara is inescapable.
Though based on the traditional Carnatic raga Todi, the song's composers, B Ajaneesh Loknath and Sai Vignesh, were accused of plagiarism by the Kerala-based fusion music troupe Thaikkudam Bridge.
The troupe alleged that Varaha Roopam had copied portions from its song . The matter reached the courts, and the film, when it released on the OTT platform, was stopped from carrying the Varaha Roopam song.
After such a high profile case, perhaps the makers of Ponniyin Selvan, which is backed by Lyca Productions and directed by Mani Ratnam, did not want any bad publicity to its prestigious film and song.
It is a smart and sensible move as any charge of 'copy' from Dhrupad style in this case would stick as Rahman has worked with a bunch of Dhrupad singers along with . Also, the Amazon Prime Video series Harmony with A.R. Rahman featured Ustad Mohi Baha’un-din Dagar from Maharashtra, who comes from an eight generation-long lineage of musicians and plays the Rudra Veena in Dhrupad style.
So having collaborated so extensively with Dhrupad practitioners, Rahman could not have gotten away easily with a song in that quintessential style, which actually dates back to Swami Haridas, who is believed to be guru to the likes of Tansen and Baiju Bawra.
And in this era when film music is basically a collation of bits, loops and instrumental portions from different sources (as opposed to being one organic flow), attribution is must and underlines integrity.
Of course, it is a moot point as to why a music director should fuse a Hindustani tune to a song in a film that is all about South Indian Chola ethos. Is it the height of musical inventiveness or desperation born out of creative lacuna? There are no easy answers.
Does the use of the same raga amount to plagiarism?
And there can be no easy replies to the larger question: Will using classical ragas and tunes in film songs amount to copying?
If the answer is an unambiguous 'yes', literally thousands and thousands of film songs across various Indian languages would attract the dubious charge of being products of plagiarism. And that would obviously be a monumental travesty.
After all, songs in Indian films, especially in southern India, took off on the runaway of classical music. Why stop with film offerings, Carnatic music itself is filled with songs and tunes that can be called a replica of another.
Musical historians point to several Thyagarajar compositions that carry shades of songs from composers like Bhadrachala Ramadasar and Purandaradasa.
But such comparisons can be made only from a Chatbot GPT-like unthinking academic perspective, and not any artistic deep-dive. After all, if songs are made on the same raga, which have to strictly adhere to the predetermined swara patterns, there is bound to be inevitable sameness.
In the Carnatic classical system there is something called 'varnamettu', which is essentially the fundamental tune for a raga. And save for artistic improvisations within the flow, the raga is impossible to render sidestepping its compositional core.
So, similarity is built into it.
But there is plenty of room for artistic freedom and originality. And not all similarity is copying, is the message that we get from Carnatic music.
And it is the same yardstick we need to use for film music too. Rahman himself beautifully fitted an identifiable riff from Patnam Subramania Iyer's Navaragamalika varnam in the song in the 2016 film Acham Enbathu Madamaiyada. Nobody batted an eyelid in opprobrium then. For it had a natural flow to it.
Creative inspiration and casual copying
The point is, how a raga is fused in a song will eventually decide how it is judged.
For example, take this popular song , composed by Ghanam Krishna Iyer and set to the Ratipatipriya raga.
This tune was reprised in an obscure 1982 film Raga Bandhangal for the song (brilliantly sung by KJ Yesudas). But one listen to the song you will understand that the music composer Kunnakudi Vaidyanthan has not brought anything new or original to the composition and has merely copy-pasted the Tamil lyrics on Jagajjanani.
A more recent example can be the number from the 1998 Telugu film Choodalani Vundi to being an unabashed replica of the Patnam Subramania Iyer kriti in Kathanakuthuhalam raga.
But ragas and old Carnatic krithis are like flowing rivers anybody can dip into and come up with anything they choose to. Many imaginative musical directors have come up with remarkably inspired offerings.
In Hindi, Naushad Ali and Madan Mohan were known for adroitly putting to use classical ragas for film songs.
In southern India, there is a preponderance of classical Carnatic musical motifs in films. The Tamil film musical world in particular was the domain of Carnatic musicians. And to this day, almost all music directors tend to fall back on a raga or two for their tunes.
The most prominent in southern India have been G Ramanathan, C R Subbaraman, K V Mahadevan, Dakshinamoorthy Swamigal, Johnson, Vijaya Bhaskar.
Of course, there is none to better the one and only Ilaiyaraaja. His use of Carnatic ragas in films is in itself a study for scholars. If anything, the ingenious ways he chooses to utilise ragas and their phrases has been an inspiration for Carnatic musicians to use the same in their kutcheris.
The singer Sikkil Gurucharan for one has used a few of Raja's resourceful raga improvisations in his concerts. Ditto with the duo Ranjani-Gayathri.
In general, it takes special talent to pick an existing raga and krithi and create out of it something that sounds new or fresh.
G Ramanathan's in 1956 hit Madurai Veeran, it is said, was chiseled out of Thyagaraja's Charukesi beauty . But both have different feel and fervour. That is the hallmark of greatness.
Or take the rambunctious song - a typical kuthu number - from the 1981 film Ellam Inba Mayam. In it resides the classical Bilahari swarajathi . This is impish brilliance at its best.
Yet, what is exhilarating creativity and what is just mundane duplication is a subjective matter of sensibility and sensitivity. And there can be no final word on it. Just as well. Otherwise, there would be little difference between exciting art and exact science.
For the moment, enjoy the verve and lilt of Veera Raja Veera. You don't need to be a connoisseur of Dhrupad for that.
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