Ninnukori Varanam: Ilayaraja’s musical genius at work

If you were a Tamilian born before the 90’s, you probably remember the glory days of Ilayaraja when every other movie that came out featured his music and went on to become a musical superhit. You would also remember the combo of Manirathnam and Ilayaraja that produced masterpieces like Mouna Ragam, Dalapathi, Nayagan and Agni Nakshatram. Arguably, Mani’s collaboration with Rahman produced equally awesome soundtracks from Roja to Alaipayuthey but that is beyond the scope of this post. I wanted to dwell briefly on one specific composition of Ilayaraja for Manirathnam‘s Agni Nakshatram, namely “Ninnukori Varanam”.

For those with exposure to Carnatic music, “Ninnukori Varanam” is a very popular Varanam composed by R.S.Iyengar in the Raga Mohanam. Not one student of carnatic music has made his/her way to krithis before learning and enjoying the varanam and the fun to render Raga. I used to wait for my music teacher to pick Mohanam for that day’s Varanam warm up before moving to krithis. The only other that I enjoyed more was the Navaragamalika varanam, Valachi. Ninnukori is so popular with students because the Raga and the song make it easy on a novice to learn and eventually gain command of. Plus it has a pretty upbeat nature to it. 

Manirathnam’s “Agni Nakshatram” was a major hit when it released in 1988. It featured not one but two debonair heroes in Karthik and Prabhu and remarkable cinematography by P.C. Sreeram whose visual experiments in the movie would go on to spawn a whole gamut of imitations. Who can forget the scenes at the hospital in the climax the camera sensually teasing a young and sexy Nirosha. But what elevated the movie to becoming a legend was its soundtrack. Ilayaraja at the peak of his powers produced a varied offering that pleased everyone from the party hopper (“Raja Rajathi”) to the utterly sensual (“Oru poongavanam”) and even the lover of Carnatic inspired compositions (the underrated but brilliant “Thoongadha Vizhigal rendu” in Raga AmrithaVarshini). While I am hard pressed to pick a favorite, what to me symbolizes Ilayaraja’s true genius is Ninnukori Varanam

I would recommend that you see the song soon after you read the post <Youtube video> to understand where I am coming from. The protagonist, Anjali, played by the vivacious Amala is a rebel. A girl who is bold, beautiful, knows what she wants and more importantly, knows how to get it. In this song, Manirathnam and Ilayaraja is introducing the viewer to her character. Raja picks the wonderful “Ninnukori” Varanam and gives it a disco feel. A tune that stays very true to the Mohanam it heavily borrows from (and retains the starting words of the song) yet gives it a dose of Anjali that the viewer wants to see. Synthesizers were just making their way into mainstream Tamil cinema and Raja uses it just right to give it the disco feel while retaining the nativiting of the tune. The wonderfully mellifluous Chitra sings the song with the right amount of innocence and sensuality Anjali exudes. As one hears (and sees the song), you are at one struck by the genius of the music director at taking an old and popular Carnatic piece and giving it a liberal dash of youth and a feeling of infectious joy that is hard to escape from. P.C.Sreeram and Mani work their magic to make the video trippy and utterly unique. I could listen (and watch) to the song again and again and never once fail to get carried away by its charm. And Amala as Anjali makes the visuals just as fantastic. 

In a time when Carnatic music in cinema is relegated to very rare and insignificant appearances and at a time when the voice is not quite as important as the electronic instrumentation, it is a joy to hearken back to this bygone era and enjoy one of Raja’s masterful creations. 

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