• Julian Karikalan

English Lyrics with a Tamil Touch - Another Speciality of 'Am I in Love?' by Maestro Ilaiyar

As you might know, 'Am I in Love?' from our movie “Love and Love Only” is the first English song that Maestro Ilaiyaraaja has composed for an English film. Apart from that, there is something special about the lyrics, which I myself realised only after writing the lyrics, through further research. This is an English song written with elements of Tamil poetry. I am sure that many other languages would have these elements too. But I wouldn't comment about languages that I am not familiar with. So I stick to Tamil for the sake of explanation.

Before sitting for composing, Ilaiyaraaja sir gave me the option to bring the lyrics first, for which he would compose a tune. But I was so adamant that I wanted to narrate the situation and get the tune from him, and write lyrics to fit that, and made one request that the tune should have his signature style in it. As I narrated the situation, he instantly came up with the tune, and I wanted to use it as such without any alterations from my side.

When I gave the tune to various poets who were well versed in English poetry and songs, they came up with lines that would match the syllables of the tune, but still would sound like a mismatch when sung, for some reason that I didn't understand at that time. I just knew it wasn't right. Sometimes, I would bring the lyrics to Raaja sir, and he would say “It is nice. But it is missing something”. And when I ask him what was missing, he would say “That's something we should feel. It can't be said”. I would go back to try again.

Some lyrics were extremely good, but did not fit the situation or the character I have created. So, I started writing my own version as a reference to the lyricists, especially for the situation and the character. But to my surprise, my lyrics perfectly matched the tune as well. So, I took it to Raaja sir and showed it... actually, sang it to him :) to see if he got that feel that he was after! Despite my terrible singing, his face bloomed like a lotus and he said “Fits perfectly to my tune. This is it.” and that's how I became the songwriter, and the reference verses became the song itself.

But how? When highly poetic lyrics, written by native English speaking songwriters did not work, what makes mine work? How could they not see that their wonderful lyrics had some mismatch with the tune? This is what made me do some online research, which led me to learn a major difference between Tamil and English poetry, especially in the metre.

Metre is the basic rhythmic structure of the lines in a verse. Poetic metre could be classified as Qualitative Metre and Quantitative Metre. The common type of metre in English poetry is called Qualitative Metre with stressed syllables coming at regular intervals. But Tamil being a classical language follows the Quantitative Metre, where patterns are based on syllable weight rather than stress. It was no wonder native English speakers could only read his tune based on syllable stress, and would give me words that perfectly matched those syllable counts.

But being a Tamil speaker, I didn't read the tune that way, and that's why I wasn't happy with those word choices. To me, “NaNa' and 'NaaNa' are not the same, though they are both two syllables. For example, the Tamil word 'Kalai' would fit the former, and 'Kaalai' would fit the latter, which are two different words that have totally unrelated meanings, though the only difference is the weight of the first alphabet. It takes longer to pronounce 'Kaa' than 'Ka', and that's what is meant by syllable weight. While 'Kalai' means 'art', 'Kaalai' means 'morning' or 'bullock' based on the 'La' used. Yes, there are three variations of 'La' in Tamil.

Similarly, there are some features in English that are not present in Tamil. As a huge fan of Ilaiyaraaja sir, I am quite familiar with most of his Tamil songs. In one of the songs 'Putril vaazh aravam anjaen' in his Symphonic oratorio 'Thiruvaasagam', he first sings another verse for the tune and comments that the words are split, and then he chooses a different song that perfectly flows with the tune without getting split. This had given me the understanding that he doesn't like splitting words to fit the tune. So I made sure that I wouldn't do that.

Rachael Leahcar, the singer who performed the song, and a very close friend of mine now, commented that it was allowed in English songs, and that I need not be too meticulous about it. But that mismatch gave me an unease. And to be precise, it is this discussion with Rachael that made me explore further about why I felt uneasy about the other lyrics.

When I looked back at my lyrics, I realised that I had painstakingly chosen English words that would exactly fit the syllable weights of his tune (and not just syllable stress and count), without even knowing about this difference. Though this process narrowed down the word choices considerably, there are English words that naturally have that quantitative flow, and that's what I picked and played with, to match the tune, as well as to suit the situation in the movie. I am sure anyone who understands Dravidian languages would now figure out that this song 'Am I in Love?' has the natural flow of Tamil and many other classical languages that follow the quantitative metre.

When some contemporary composers of Tamil cinema try to make their tunes sound like English songs, we have attempted the reverse. This unique flow is well appreciated by English speaking listeners as well. Though they don't understand why, they comment that the tune and the words have a different feel to what they are used to, and thoroughly enjoy it. While some like the peppy feel of 'Am I in Love?', others prefer the completely different feel of 'The First Song', which is the first track in the complete album.

For those who haven't listened to the album yet, there are two different songs in the album. Both use the same lyrics and tune, but have completely different music tracks. This being Raaja sir's first song for an English movie, my first song as a lyricist, and Rachael's first song for films, we easily named it 'The First Song'. Raaja sir completed the backing tracks of both versions during the same morning session, before breaking for lunch.

Please visit our homepage for a FREE download of the lyrics video, if you would like a copy.

You can also visit our 'Music Store' tab in Facebook to hear samples of all 21 tracks.

Note: While I was doing all this in India, highly experienced Australian songwriter Denny Burgess was polishing the whole lyrics for me, based on my reference verses. I took three lines from the middle, from his polished version, and kept the other lines from my reference version as such. But I have to say here that his verses were definitely more poetic than mine. While mine are in no way the best verses ever written, they flow with the tune, and suit the situation/character in the movie, and I gave preference to that. Denny was happy about it, and in fact, he didn't charge me a cent for the gig, and told me that he was happy to do it for Ilaiyaraaja sir and for the personal effort I had put into this project. I thank him again for that.

#ilaiyaraaja #music #filmmusic

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