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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sharath - The Musical Enigma - Part 1

Idol 7 - Sharath - The Musical Enigma - Part 1

Impressions of an Amateur Musician
- Murali Venkatraman (

1. Introduction

Time and again, Indian film music comes across people who break the shackles and monotony of the musical boundaries. They may be composers, singers or arrangers. For example, in singers Mohammed Rafi, Asha, and Janaki brought a revolution in the way the songs had to be sung emphasizing the emotional content. Naushad, the composer, was responsible for envisioning such emotional delivery and proper enunciation, who even the venerable and versatile MSV considers his guru. Until then, the songs were just songs, however after the stellar contribution from defining artists, songs became a part of the hearts of million people irrespective of whether they were musically literate or illiterate. Similarly in the arrangers, many like Louis Banks have left an indelible impact on the music scene

However there are some artists, who are so innovative that initial appreciation of their work would be extremely difficult. Their work may seem extremely complicated, difficult and may even appear pointless. Mathematics is replete with geniuses like these and to mention two of them - Georg Cantor (who compared infinite sets) and Gregory Galois (who was responsible for some advanced group theory principles). In fact, when Cantor came up with the idea to measure infinite sets, he was categorically discouraged and ridiculed by mathematicians and theologians alike. Poincare and Weyl dismissed his ideas as grave disease whereas Christians were worried about the non-uniqueness of infinity that Cantor was proposing (which would imply the ultimate infinity (oxymoron) which was 'God').

In western classical music, Debussy was one such innovator. His adherence to non-formal resolutions of harmonies and chord progressions earned him the wrath of many peers. But now, long after his death, his work is hailed as the transition period.

In Indian film music too, occasionally one comes across a person who embodies the defining qualities of a revolutionary. And it is even rarer to find somebody who dons multiple roles of composer, singer and arranger and excels in each of it. Harder even, to find that he/ she would also possess the ability to create new musical forms which are unheard before and/or can go sit at the traditional desk and come up with creations that reflect the classical purity of the earlier (music) generation. When this artist attempts creations which break the boundaries, he is hardly understood by both the learned and the lay. However, in a sheer fit of obsessive and irrepressible intellectual compulsion, he goes ahead and pursues his art with an unsurpassed vigour. He knows, by such indulgence, he would be be inviting criticisms for bringing groundbreaking changes in the musical structures which test the age old conceptions, however, his compelling inspiration for creative output just overpowers his sensitivities. He would be well-versed in the idioms of the classical structures and be extremely comfortable in scoring using them, but opts for a cavalier disregard for them, since his love for creating unprecedented musical forms supersedes anything else.

Welcome to the world of Sharath - the distinguished composer from Kerala, in whose compositions you find the afore-said musical innovations. Mind it, this is not a page providing a biographic or discographic account of Sharath or any other composer but one where I express my admiration for my 7 musical idols and the way I enjoy their music. The reader will also find some non-intrusive references on how I (an amateur composer) allow these masters to influence me in my own compositions as I climb a steep learning curve

2. Sudha Mantram and the Floating Shadjam (Sa)

My first tryst with Sharath's composition was way back in 1997 when I was still in CECRI in my undergrad days. I had been an active music troupe leader at CECRI and one of my friends Vivek MakaraBooshanam (Kumba!) who played mrudangam and tabla for the troupe informed me one day that he had an invite from one of the movie companies who had come with their crew to shoot a malayalam movie. The movie was Devadasy and Vivek was asked to pretend playing tabla for a song on screen. I had no idea about the song for which he was inducted for, but on return he told me that it was a very difficult hindustani number.

The movie was a disaster at the box office but the songs were aired in television. Since the movie had a sleazy theme (or so we were told) featuring Sethu-fame-Abitha and it was a norm in college to congregate for all midnight masala songs in every channel irrespective of the language (no regionalism!) , I got to see the song. The song was a jawbreaker and the all the guys awaiting some masala show due to the surge of hormones found it extremely displeasing and incompatible with their midnight expectations. There were no vulgar hip moves or any part of feminine body that the guys wanted to feast their eyes upon. In stead, it featured a bald and stone-faced Gopi singing the song for an intolerable classical dance by Abitha, but we cheered for Kumba when he was shown in the song. As expected, the song did not make any impact on the anybody except one.


Make no mistake of my intention to be there. I was there solely because I wanted to watch sleazy numbers and NOT to discover musical gems in the mid-night (lest I should appear holier than my college-mates, to the blog-reader). However, I was completely stunned to hear such a song in Malayalam. It was only a year back that I had started venturing into Mallu semi-classicals like Devasabathalam and others like sangeethame amara sallapame and was familiarizing myself with classical nuances. But this song just devastated any little hope that I could sing classical some day. In fact, it made me think if I should ever sing at all since I was clearly a pretender. Unfortunately I could not get any information on the movie and also could not see the movie till I went to USA. In USA, I did manage to get the video cassette of the movie from a dingy shop in New York and realized it was a colossal waste. But the song just kept ringing in my ears (only the first line, coz the other lines were too difficult to remember).

The song was Divaa swapnam - the song which Unnikrishnan admitted in one of the interviews to be the most difficult song that he has ever sung. He also alluded that it is probably the toughest ever recorded for Indian films (Well..may be..there is one composition by Raveendra Jain for the shelved film Tansen which comes close. The movie was never released and Yesudas sings this song in all concerts as a tribute to Raveendra Jain who had a nervous breakdown after composing this song.) . Later I came to know that the same song had another version for lyrics sung by Unni himself : Sudhaa mantram

Listen to Sudhamantram

Listen to Divaa swapnam

When the song starts the new listener has only a minimal clue about what is awaiting to hit him. The first line of aalaap seems to make the listener think it is starting with some hindhoLam sound-alike ragam which stands shattered by the end of the first line itself. He senses a complete concoction (or confusion, may be from the listener's perspective) of anya swaras (notes which do not find a regular place in the defined scale or ragam). He is confused. But he is ok with the first line. The second and third line offer similar windings and he seems to be ok. But in the final line of the aalaap he senses that there are some notes which cannot be mapped to the keyboard. This is where his frightening journey begins.

Since Sharath has the unusual knack of leaving the listener in a lurch in the search for Shadjam of the song, for the rest of the article on sudha mantram, I place the "g3" on the word "su" of Sudha Mantram and go ahead with the notations. Just as Newton requires a reference frame for the observer to measure the velocity of other moving objects, I need to place Shadjam (which comes later in the song) somewhere in the song to go ahead with the discussion.

Why did I choose this ? Because in the song, when the swara phrases later come in, Sharath clearly tells us where he has placed the "Sa" (for a change, he was kind to us, unlike "niLaiyude maaril" song from Chaitra GeethangaL which I shall take up later in this article).

Some readers may wonder why I am making such a fuss over "finding" the Shadjam of a song. As an aside, I have had some interesting conversations in this aspect of finding the "sa" of a song, with Sheela (Listen to her Charukeshi here) and Sindhuja about this. Once Sheela and I were engaged in an enchanting discussion about the song "Sumam prati sumam sumam" - a telugu movie song sung by SPB Janaki in the Film Maharshi and composed by IR. Sheela insisted that the swarams of the first line were:

su mam prati su mam su mam
g mada mada ga ma ga sa

and declared it was in the ragam

sallapam (surya) - s g3 m1 d1 n2 s

(I shall come back to this ragam in the article that is to follow about IR.) To her annoyance she found me refuting it saying it was in ragam

shrotasvini - s g2 m p n3 s

where I would notate the song as:

su mam prati su mam su mam
n saga saga ni sa ni pa

We both could not convince each other for a while but finally, we ended up agreeing on it being Shrotasvini after getting convinced partially that the "feel" is more of Shrotasvini.

This happens due to what is called a Shruti Bhedam (Please refer to Appendix B for some interesting and important info on ShruthBhedam provided by Sindhuja) or the shift in the root note (Sa). Unlike Western music, Indian music uses notes which are relative to each other (equivalent to Do Re Me). Hence, when the singer sings an aalaap and not swarams, the listener’s mind which yearns for a pattern recognition tries to fit it in a scale or a ragam. For example,

sallapam (surya) - s g3 m1 d1 n2 s
shrotasvini - p n3 s g2 m1

i.e. what I perceived as shadjam of shrotasvini was perceived as madhyamam of sallapam by Sheela. Reason ? Sallapam is indeed shrotasvini when it is played from m1 to M1. This is called Shruthi Bhedam. In fact if one plays the keyboard he can identify some ShruthibhEdams pretty easily. Let us start with Mohanam in scale C, i.e. Sa = C:

s r2 g3 p d2 s - Mohanam

Now play :

D E G A C D = s r2 m1 p n2 s = madhyamavathy with Sa= D
E G A C D E = s g2 m1 d n2 s = hindholam with Sa = E
G A C D E G = s r2 m1 p d2 s = shuddha saaveri with Sa = G
A C D E G A = s g2 m1 p n2 s = shuddha dhanyaasi with Sa = A

Uff ! So, all these ragas are intricately connected to each other through the shift of root note. Thus if you “wrongly” place the Shadjam you will “wrongly” infer the ragam in some songs.

Sindhuja is another person who hears ragams much more differently from the way Sheela or I do. Many times when she is given a new song, either a composition of mine or some other film song that she is unfamiliar with, she would come up with the raga which happens to be the shruthi Bhedam of the ragam the composer has intended. I believe that for monophonic minded persons, who are overly familiar with Indian classical and semi-classical music, it becomes an uncontrollable and natural desire/habit to search for/find the Shadjam of a song. If there is a potential conflict between 2 ragas being probable candidates, people tend to favor that raga's name which they "feel" is more appropriate. (come is not just about notation ! ). The "feel" part may be argued as being substantially unscientific (one of the most interesting discussions with Sindhuja ) , which I have no intention of elaborating here.

Moving on to the first line of the song : The Shadjam of this song coincides with "D" scale on Keyboard. Sudha Mantram would be notated as "g3ma ma;ma". The swaras for the pallavi are given below as I hear it (It may not be exact given my limited decoding ability):

Su dhaa man tram
g ma maa maa

ni ve
g gmd mdn dnn3 nn3dmga mmd mdmgsn da

di tam
ni ri

hrudu man..gala yaam
rm dnSGMSnd maa ri

(I am out of steam)

ujwalate jo
sass sa sa (shift1)

nirbhara varade
n3n3n3ri d2d2p m2d2p m2r2s n2


sata tam
r2r2 da ma2 (and then comes a winding down aalap which is in a totally different scale which I am not able to decode) (shift3)

Shift1 is actually mohanam in scale G. But I see no pattern or ragam in the shifts 2 and 3. May be there is and I am blind.

Thus in a pallavi, we have got three root-note shifts ! And there are incredible gamakams and clear swarasthanams in it without any note being "averaged out" by the singer - a crystal clear rendition. This can happen only if the composer and the singer are absolutely confident about swarasthaanams. A song like this is impossible to be composed or rendered by somebody who is unfamiliar with the rigors of classical music.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire song goes through so many variations and two particular swara phrases caught my attention:

s g m d n
s g m p n

Try saying these two lines in succession fast with a shift in Shadjam. It will be very difficult. Reason "p" and d are only half note away and both form the aarohanams of 2 different ragams the "feel" of which are entirely different.

In other words, the monophonic mind which is comfortably resting on one ragam, that is, a certain musical/psychological plane, finds itself jolted and offers a considerable resistance to be pushed onto another plane. I find this amusing since I always get reminded of a parallel in physics.

Consider the ball in a bowl A adjoining which there is another bowl of different dimension B. The ball is in stable equilibrium with the A. The force F applied on the ball, if small, will cause a small displacement and under damped (frictional) conditions and the ball returns to the same equilibrium point. However if F is large, it will push the ball from bowl A into B where the ball is once again in equilibrium, but a different equilibrium. The ball can happily be in equilibrium independently in each bowl but what happens when there n number of bowls of smaller and smaller radii and the force F randomly assigned a value. The situation becomes difficult to predict since chaos sets in and it will be impossible to calculate where the ball is going to be at any given instant of time. (For better examples on chaotic phenomena, the blog reader is urged to read The Cosmic Blueprint by Paul Davies).

Sharath does something similar in the songs except that he (and only he) knows exactly where the ball is. While the listener’s mind (ball) is comfortably resting on a single ragam (bowl) viewing mild fluctuations (F) as deviations (anya swaras) from Shadjam (the current equilibrium position which is the lowest point of the bowl), he suddenly changes the scale in such a way and in such short times that the ball gets confused as to where it is at a given instant of time. Sharath explains this case of shifting Shadjam here .

I have no idea how many takes did Unnikrishnan go for before finalizing this song. But one must step up and congratulate him for rendering two lyrical versions of the same song !! That is some talent and bravery which certainly deserved a national recognition but did not get any.

Taking to a Sharath's song without training is akin to going to a battle field without armour. One must have courage and skill, or else perish. And you can see how a contestant Arun gopan struggled to sing this song. (If I were him, I would not even have thought about singing that song and that too in Sharath’s presence . And for that sheer courageous effort and reasonably good output Arun – hats off ! )

Disclaimer : The low quality music clips featured here are only to highlight the artist’s music in the form of a tribute.

© - 2008

Part 1 :
Part 2 :
Part 3 :
Part 4 :