A post by @techrsr
The music of Duet came as a breath of fresh air in the early 1990s. Tamil film music welcomed the fresh tunes of A R Rahman, who is now widely regarded as a musical genius, but at the time, he was in the early stages of his career as a music director. The genius of Ilayaraja had dotted the decades past. From the many years at the peak of his career till the late 1980s, Ilayaraja had assimilated musical influences from around the world into Tamil film music. Despite Ilayaraja’s novelty, Rahman’s polish and use of high fidelity audio enthralled audiences and his early album Roja became very popular. The apprentice could hold a candle to the master it seemed, but to most critics, Rahman was just a flash in the pan. His mellifluous tunes in Pudhiya Mugam, notably Azhagu, July Madham won hearts, but wasn’t as popular as Roja’s iconic numbers. Gentleman, one of his most popular early albums, signaled a heyday of activity at Panchathan Inn, Rahman’s Chennai studio. It was the music of Thiruda Thiruda and Duet, which came after these early albums that established A R Rahman as a force to reckon with alongside Ilayaraja. To me, Ilayaraja will remain the greatest contemporary composer that Tamil Cinema has produced because of the vast scope of his music, but these albums are two of Rahman’s best and will favour him in any assessment of his contributions to Tamil film music. I will focus on Duet in this post, because it is an album that is especially close to my heart.
My most enduring memory of Duet will be of Kadri Gopalnath’s saxophone performances. Upon first listen, I fell in love with the bittersweet Duet Theme (Sax Lullaby) earlier than I liked any other track. Set to the sounds of waves lashing against rocks and a beating heart, the saxophone expressed better here than words and voices could. The song seemed to connect a heartfelt longing, heart-rending memories and a heady romance. The staccato pauses in the ambient sounds of tides, hums, choruses and the saxophone seemed to highlight the only constant in the song, the regular beats. The musician and the ambient sounds seem to work in concert, with the warbling tide receding even as the saxophone launches into an impromptu rant, as if to channel every bit of vested emotion through that brass pipe. My more recent musical expeditions have made me dissect the song, but the wonder of such music is more apparent when you don’t wish to separate the notes and when you see the song as a whole.
Gopalnath’s saxophone virtuosity continues into Anjali, which was an eminent hit at the time the movie was released and which continues to be the most popular song in the album, fifteen years after its release. Featuring a lissome Meenakshi Seshadri, an overweight saxophone-wielding Prabhu Ganesan and a wiry Ramesh Aravind (complete with outdated spectacle frames), the video confirms a long-held belief that most of Rahman’s songs stand out in singular excellence against the videos they’re used in. (There are exceptions to this rule, too.) The song itself is a showcase of SPB’s ( SP Balasubrahmanyam’s) an Chitra’s mellifluous voices; I have hummed along with “Kadalile mazhai vizhunda pin…” and “Azhagiye unai polave… kanmani nee illaye kavithaigal illaye” more times than I can count. Rahman’s use of the flute towards the end of the song is perfection itself.
Kadri’s classical saxophone continues into Mettu Podu, a bright, folksy number. Starting from a prayer to the Sixty-Four Arts (arts taught by the mythical sage Saandepani to Sri Krishna) the song breaks into a brisk rhythm, with SPB leading what is essentially a paean to the Tamil language. With effervescent saxophone, mated with a few veena notes and the a unique mridangam-drums combination that Rahman has since come to use in different forms in many of his later compositions, the song truly has its moments.
Music, like art, is a reflection of life – and it wouldn’t be an altogether good reflection if there weren’t songs like En Kadhale. To me, it is the one song in the entire album that expresses the sadness of rejection well, and the album wouldn’t be what it is, without this song. There are two versions of this song and the one that I identify most with is SPB’s version. The setting itself was of some importance – the musical duo are on stage even as the shared romantic interest is in the audience. Rahman’s ability to weave the words and the instruments between poignant piano notes and the ironic use of happy musical modes (the major scale with an accidental) for conveying sadness are two aspects of this song that illustrate Rahman’s genius. There is plenty of lyrical profundity in the song – “Amudhenbadha, vishamenbadha illai amudhavishamenbadha” comes to mind as one defining lyric of the song, as also, “killuvadhai killi vittu yen thalli nindru paakkiraai”. The song features some great improvisational saxophone, with the deviant, happy tune of Anjali, Anjali providing a sort of playful respite from the choking sentimentality, and finishing off the song when the lyrics cannot. A classy number, the song seems to be a sort of prototype of sorts for some of Rahman’s fantastic music in future albums like Kadhal Desam. In an associated celebration of poetry, Prabhu reads out some of Vairamuthu’s poetry in Kavithaikku Porul Thandha, memorable for those of you who have listened to the complete album. A second track, Sathathathinaal shows off some more of Vairamuthu’s poetry.
The line that connects the dots between the blissful infatuation portrayed Anjali and the reflective and hurt mood of En Kadhale, is the hopeless intoxication portrayed in Vennilavin Theril. The song features the redoubtable K J Yesudas and the poetry of Vairamuthu, which is replete with every sane and insane lust that a poet could muster in decent admiration of the woman he is infatuated by. There are no saxophones here to shake you into blissful relaxation or push you off cliffs of self-pity – only violins that seem to channel every power inside the poet’s mind into his obsession, into thoughts of she who is verily the poet’s zahir. With lines like “Mugamkandu mugamkanda nesam konden / Aval nizhalkandu nizhalkandae naan paasam konden” and “Maanamulla oomai pola dhaanam kaetka koosi nindreney”, this song was my favourite on the album for long.
Naan Padum Sandham is for the poet whose muse has returned after the crests and pitfalls of a creative journey. A happy, uplifting track that moves from delightful piano notes to saxophone that dominates most of the song, this is definitely the hidden gem in the album. Those of you who haven’t got the full album should, for the teasing sax notes that are at once surprising and playful.
The two remaining songs on the album, Kathirikka and Kulicha Kutralam are essentially filler. They’d be considered catchy or peppy in a modern non-Rahman Bollywood parlance but aren’t comparable to the classy music that form the rest of the album.
Here are a few links to songs from the album on YouTube, and one jam session on SoundCloud:
p; Anjali Anjali
And here is a jam session on SoundCloud by @hariflute.
Duet is, in my view, one of Rahman’s best albums to date and one of the best uses of the saxophone in popular Indian film music. Those of you who haven’t heard the songs too well – I hope I have rekindled your interest, and those of you who haven’t – I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did on first listen and grow to love it.