Monday, January 21, 2008

Four Songs::Compared

I am attempting what is obviously a very difficult task, but to make a very difficult point. First I'll make that point, so you can decide straightaway if you'd want to read along.

There's nothing like home, and nothing like home-brewed music.

Nothing to really holler about, but to me it is significant because I realise it now, after perhaps 20 years of wandering. (I began drifting off from 1986.) So I'll subject your nerves to the test: compare four songs, or rather, place them side-by-side, take them apart in my own way, and try to make the point.

First up, here are some video links for those who'd like to watch and listen. That's the main thing to do, anyway:

  1. [ Saradindu malardeepa ]
  2. [ Innumente kannuneeril ]
  3. [ Ae dil-e-naadaan | same, with an overture]
  4. [ Who Wants to Live Forever | Official Queen video ]

Have you ever listened to music of another language and felt it to be sweet? Undoubtedly, music has nothing in common with language. (Some songs are beautifully arranged to musical accompaniment. Some novels are made into wonderful films.) Even when we do not understand a word of an opera (which is an extreme example to Indians, we nearly flee from fright from a full-blooded soprano in spate), we can somehow train our ears and eyes and make something out of it. We can easily appreciate the overpowering rhythms of African music (though this particular example has other reasons in support for it). Whatever the reason - we can cite ever so many reasons as to why music transcends language - but it is a fallacy like any other. (We do not, for example, remember that sculpture, painting, and the arts in general transcend language - it is a 'design feature' of art, fine art, in general.) Music is not in any way privileged, but sound - a human voice - is tactile, and hence more immediate, and moving.


I have selected the following four songs.1 (this blog is meant for Malayalis.) And of course, it helps if you have listened to the songs closely (if not, there are the youtube links above. But do come back after watching!):

  1. Saradindu malardeepa naalam neetti
    Film Ulkkadal (1979)
    Lyric ONV Kurup
    Music MB Srinivasan
    (I'd rate this one lowest, of course)
  2. Innumente kannuneeril
    Yuvajanotsavam (1986)
    Lyric Sreekumaran Thampi
    Music Raveendran
    (I rate this one above all the others)
  3. Ae dil-e-naadaan
    Film Razia Sultan (1983)
    Lyric Jaan Nissar Akhtar
    Music Khaiyyam
    (Comes second)
  4. Who Wants to Live Forever
    From Highlander OST (1987)
    Lyric Brian May
    Music Queen
    (Joint first with #2)
Over and above everything, I'd request you to forgive me for my childish points-based ranking of the songs. The first two are Malayalam songs. The first, by ONV Kurup, is often cited as the best-loved song in Malayalam. Undoubtedly it is the most popular Malayalam film song, probably every Malayali knows it, most know it by heart. (I recall it from the 1980s, I loved it then, even though the song is pretty close to meaningless). It has... its qualities, which we shall see shortly. I will attempt a rough translation of it, without risking ONV's reputation as a vernacular poet par excellence.

The second is untranslatable. I will not attempt it. (I shall however footnote it, and simply assume that the reader knows Malayalam.) Both these songs are simple, except that the second is nuanced. The first is just words, the second is sophisticated, masculine. It is easily the best lyric among the four.

The third song is a celebrated love song (reflective) from the movie Razia Sultan, which is considered one of the biggest box-office failures in the history of Indian cinema (took 15 crore rupees to film it in 1983 - 24 years ago). The lyric by Jaan Nissar Akhtar lets you inside the protagonist's mind - and you are face to face with her problems, and by the time the song finishes, you identify with her situation completely, and know perfectly well that you're doomed for life. This song I have selected because it expresses, in very simple and riveting terms that are close to the heart, what exactly the issue is. The song gives top marks for the evocation of a mood in the primal sense, directly, without any artificial incitations.

The fourth song, adopted for the film Highlander, is truly a remarkable song from Queen. What is remarkable is that a band noted for its noisiness achieves its best musical high with the aid of considerable chunks of silence. In the space of ten seconds, Brian May evokes a simple guitar riff that makes an ordinary song an immortal classic. It supports Freddie Mercury's incantation that without the permanence of life, even immortality is worthless. It just takes May three seconds to do it. The song evokes a huge, immense expanse of pathos, turning you to rubble, to dust, and then leaves you peace. The song does it through a lot of technique - Brian May's expertise with the guitar, May's own (redoubtable) lyrics, Mercury's simple, but supercharged rendition, and Michael Kamen's immense string arrangement that takes advantage of the "fallout" of an orchestra - the chords dying away.

We see four songs - which we take as representatives of the musical tradition of a particular set of people. These are immensely popular songs; popularity has been a main reason for their selection. We see four songs take on the issues of the world at large, and on a personal place, we see how they grapple with the issues and how they fare. We see the particular artifices employed by each.

saradindu » Moon at springtime

A very suspicious reference to an unknown shepherd—possibly Ramanan— one of the many jokes in this
stupid song (must have rung many bells then, in 1979)

A lot of words which make as much sense as a recipe book. This simply isn't poetry; merely the arrangement of beautiful words. There is no feeling, just a pretext...a formula song which became a big hit later on with Shobha's .

It is an unforgettable song, because of it is so imperfectly sung, and the female lead (Shobha) is just such a fragmented character: simple, sensitive, and completely blue.

Contrasts in the metaphor:
tears » wet clouds;
memories » rainbow.

Repeated use of the 'flower' is noteworthy

[I've added the Malayalam lyrics, which makes most of this stuff redundant!]

Oh, I do feel proud to be a Malayali! Any translation will only destroy it!
Ae dil-e-naadaan
Ae dil-e-naadaan
Aarzoo kya hai
Justujoo kya hai
Ae dil-e-naadaan...

Hum bhatakte hain
Kyu bhatakte hain
Dasht-o-sehraa mein
Aisa lagta hai
Mauj pyaasi hai
Apne dariya mein
Kaisi uljhan hai

Kyu ye uljhan hai
Ek saaya sa
Roobaroo kya hai
Ae dil-e-naadan...

Kya qayamat hai
Kya museebat hai
Kehe nahi sakte
Kis ka armaan hai
Zindgi jaise
khoi khoi hai
Hairan hairan hai
Ye zameen chhup hai
Aasma chuup hai
Phir ye dhadkan si
Chaar zoo kya hai
Ae dil-e-naadan...

Aisi raaho mein
kitne kaante hain
Aarzo'on ne
Harkisi dil ko

Dard baate hain
Kitne ghaayal hai
Kitne bismil hai
Is khudaai mein
Ek tu kya hai
Ek tu kya hai..?
Ae dil-e-naadan
Ae dil-e-naadan...
dil-e-naadan: heart of the innocent (splits as naadan-ke-dil)
aarzoo hope
justujoo desire

dasht ruins
dasht-o-sehraa oceanlike waste (of the desert)
mauj fish
dariya sea, lake
uljhan confusion
saaya shadow

museebat bother
armaan wish
hairaan amazed

chaar zoo
four sides

ghaayal wounded
bismil lover, dead one
khudaai existence, as in "the human condition"

The metonymy captures the whole story, and the condition of Razia: the fish is thirsty in its own lake. Razia desires the one man she cannot have, because she is the empress, and he an outcast, a slave.2

Does some danger lie in wait, for the ground is quiet, the sky is quiet, but the four sides thump like an anxious heart? (Raziya is killed while fleeing enemy forces).

Note the beautiful wordplay. Also used by Mukesh in one of his early songs, in a more explicit way: Bismil ko bismil aur bana (Here the first bismil means lover and the second means dead.)
There's no time for us
There's no place for us
What is this thing that fills our dreams
Yet slips away from us
Who wants to live forver

There's no chance for us
It's all decided for us
This world has only one
Sweet moment
Set aside for us
Who wants to live forver

Who wants to live forever...Who
Who dares to love forever
Oh, when love must die!

But touch my tears
With your lips
Touch my world
With your fingertips
We can have forever
And we can love forever
Forever is our today...

Who wants to live forver
Who waits forever anyway...?

This song, from Queen's album, A Kind of Magic, was later adopted for the film Highlander starring Christopher Lambert in the title role.

The song was written by Brian May in the boot of his car and set to tune by Queen in a matter of hours. The studio version, to the accompaniment of a full-blooded orchestra arranged by Michael Kamen, is monumental in its structuring of strings and Brian May's guitar.

The context of the song in the film is when the highlander realises how cruel his destiny is: he will neither grow old nor die, but his beloved will. He feels this song when she is dying of old age. He realises that to meaningfully live, and to feel love, one must grow old, and one must die. Loving means not only living together and sharing, but dying as well.

Freddie Mercury died of AIDS complications, much in the way this song is sung by him. He had kept his illness a closely guarded secret. This song is a fitting memorial.

1 Why four? Why not three, since you wanted a vernacular, distant, and alien language?
Well, because the first song was included only because of its popularity. Its intrinsic worth lies in the recital - especially that of the female lead - which is fragile and completely in keeping with the character portrayed. A very desirable side-effect, because Selma George is not a good speaker of the Malayalam language (but a native of Kottayam, Bobby says). So it was not a very conscious recital that yielded the result. But a wondrous result anyhow. It somehow sends the perfectly justified tone for the poem: the woman, unsure, without stays, not caring how to go about it, and the man, fearing for their doomed futures, wanting to lay out discipline and a solid foundation. They are both hippies (the novel and the film being definitive hippie works, the novel appearing before the film, which appeared in 1979). The ending of the film leaves much to be desired (this a feature common to even celebrated hippie films, such as Antonioni's Zabriskie Point). It is a fitting ending: an innocent, straightforward girl finds refuge in her complicated, but harmless boy. This song is one of the highlights of the film, where the couple weave a fantasy which connects all those things which connect them: the church, the lyrical poet and his love, the shepherd. (Song seems to have been shot in Kottayam.)

The second song is the Malayalam representative in the lot. It is a perfect song. In all respects, it is perfect: rendition, lyric, and music, and evocation of the mood. Above all, the lyric towers over all other aspects. It is set to msusic wonderfully by our beloved music director, the late 'Raveendranmaash' (died 2005). This song gives competition to the Brian May jewel and outstrips it in many departments (pure lyrical quality, for one).

2 Razia's father himself had been a slave, and he would have approved of her attraction for Yakut, but this happens after Altamash has died.

On a personal note, the first three songs were supplied by my BiL (formerly Scientist, RnH, now emplyed in some managerial post at DuPont). He has a musical sensibility that is essentially escapist (=music as relaxation) but obviously sophisticated (I can think of no other word to describe someone who likes Jagjit Singh (of all narcotics) as well as all these songs given above). He plays the guitar, and has probably sorted out some scheme whereby the correlation between eastern classical and the western can be made. (I find none whatever, but I am not musically trained.) When we first met, I was already fairly deep in Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Sibelius, but he made brilliant and important supplies (Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Brahms, more Mozart, more Beethoven and some more Beethoven::Kreutzer and Apassionata). We haven't really talked about music or anything else in particular; we don't usually talk about anything at all. This blog wouldn't exist if not for his supplies - especially the Razia Sultan song, something which I'd watched maybe five or six times twenty years ago on Chitrahaar (Wednesdays and Fridays at 20:00, DDK Delhi). I rediscovered the song recently (three days ago, on youtube), and it's given me a piece of my childhood (I was ten).

I came across the Brian May song on the Princess of Diana tribute album, in which it was perhaps second best to Miss Sarajevo by The Passengers (U2, Eno and Pavarotti), which was more appropriate to the "Princess Diana" moniker, and significantly more personal (like all U2 songs post Achtung Baby).

This blog originally written Dec 09, 2007. Video links added April 7, 2012.

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