SJ – the Raja orchestral vocal instrument

Most Indian film composers exploit the voices of talented female artists very well. Given the range of the female voice, many of them have done one thing consistently in the last 70 years – humming. Lataji, Ashaji, Susheela, or Janaki have been used by several composers for their fantastic ability to hum and carry the song with aplomb. The current crop of composers have used Chithra and Shreya continuing with the tradition. One thing you will notice is the way Raja composes music involving Lata or Asha. He will somehow bring in a humming element into it as that is language independent.

 Let’s begin with some beautifully haunting humming by female vocalists:
In the 60s, the Lata solo of ‘Naina Barse Rim Jhim’ in ‘Woh Kaun Thi’ by Madan Mohan was a rage.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9w5iETwBs2o

During the same time, the Susheela humming of ‘Nenjam Marapathillai’ for MSV-TKR from the movie with the same name was equally a big rage. 

 In the 70s, RD Burman exploited Lata’s humming capabilities with his famous Sivaranjani based song, ‘Maire Naina Saawan’ from Mehbooba. 

Raja did use Lata in his 80s work, but never had a song which began with the haunting humming, his predecessors had taken advantage of. He did use Janaki’s (will be called SJ going forward) voice for its haunting humming capability in several compositions. Some top of mind examples:

  1. Annakili Unnai Thedudhe from Annnakili (1976) 
  2. Kandaen Engum from Kaatrinile Varum Geetham (1978) 
  3. Kaatril Endhan Geetham from Johnny (1980) 
  4. Dhoorathil Naan Kanda from Nizhalgal (1980) 
  5. Mouna Ragam manaveenai from Kolangal (1995) 
  6. Paadavaa Un Paadalai from Naan Paadum Paadal (1984) 
  7. Ponnil Vaanam Thoovuthu from Villu Paatukaraen (1992) 
  8. Puththam Pudhu Kaalai from Alaigal Oiyvathillai (1981) 
  9. Raasaave Unnai from Aranmanai Kili (1992) 
  10. Vaa Vennila from Mella thirandhadhu Kadhavu (1986) 


Having said that, few composers before Raja have also attempted to blend musical instruments with female voices as they come close with some instruments such as flute. The 60s song of SJ, ‘Singara Velane Deva’ exploited her voice being on a very close timbre match with the nadaswaram instrument. That will not be our focus in this series of posts. We will focus on Raja’s use of SJ’s voice as an orchestral instrument. In this situation, it does not matter, if it is an electric guitar, or a bamboo flute, a synthesizer or even a saxophone. She was his debut singer in 1976 and sang for Raja for 23 years till 1999. In my view, there is no parallel to the way Raja exploited SJ’s voice as an orchestral instrument in Indian film music. 

It will be a delight to explore how the composer exploited her instrument timbre voice and how she performed as a vocal artist, in ways unknown, before their collaboration.

What exactly is the difference between humming and the female voice being used as an orchestral element? Most humming are great fillers and composers have always kept it separate from the orchestral elements. The only orchestral element that plays along the humming, at times, are rhythms. The rest of the orchestra takes a back seat. 

When a female voice is used as an integral orchestral element, it must actively engage with the orchestra and also do its part when called for, by the composer. It is surrounded by the orchestral instruments that dominate the section – the female voice just adds color to the otherwise instrument composition.

No wonder, Raja always mentioned SJ as the most intelligent singer he worked with. To sing a composer’s composition is one thing; to become part of a composer’s orchestra is another. She was able to effortlessly blend with Raja’s intricate Western compositions though she had no formal training with Western music.


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