B efore you listen to a song, before you find yourself
grooving to its rhythm, long before you post it on YouTube, ping your friends
about it, and tweet your love for it, before you unspool the song to live
inside it, before you start to feel a little of your life story in the
song—long before all of that, there is an act of writing.
In other words, the words.
After the song swallows you whole, after you live inside it for a brief period of time, long after you post it and tweet it and ping it and groove to it—long after all of that, there is a residue of feeling.
In other words, beyond words.
In between words and beyond words, a song is created.
Charanam 1 (Stanza 1)
t’s late morning. Telugu lyricist Bhaskarabhatla Ravikumar is working on a song at his home in Hyderabad. The previous day’s discussions on a new song have him mulling; a refrain is forming in his head and he is listening to the cadence of words. His songwriting room is minimal: an audio system and a computer, chairs for him and his assistant. It looks bigger than it is. A photograph of Sri Sri, one of the most celebrated Telugu poets and lyricists, hangs in the room. “I love him,” Bhaskarabhatla says.
Since his entry into the industry in 2000, the 39-year-old writer has been tapping into the existential concerns of youth, writing often on subjects such as falling in love and cutting capers: the stuff their lives are made of and filled with. Music and songs have always been his companions. “I had this dream of becoming a scientist, but songs tugged at me more insistently. If you had asked me what I would become, I would have said ‘songwriter’, and nothing else.” Inspired by what he listened to, Bhaskarabhatla wrote songs even during his childhood.
A song can start with an image, an idea, a snatch of phrase, an event, or a conversation. It could flash in a dream. Words often come unbidden. Mysterious are the ways of association of thought, image and word.
In days of yore, songwriters wrote songs, and then composers wrote the tune. The composer had to work through the writer’s song, navigating it like an all-terrain vehicle, tuning for highs and lows and inflections.
Now, the composer gives a tune and the writer has to find meaningful sentences for it. Exceptions are rare. Cinema songs start off this way, with the writer setting sentences into the tune given by the composer. Either way, the writer’s approach is the same. The essential difference is that in the former, the composers have to work hard to understand the bhava of the writer and compose a tune for it while in the latter, the writer has to intuit the pulse of the tune, and write within the framework of the tune.
Like any other lyricist, Bhaskarabhatla starts off with the tune given by the composer. He listens to it on an endless loop, rewinding it and forwarding it on his system and noting it down on a sheet of paper, until it becomes a sensation within him. Thoughts, images, words and sentences have a way of disappearing, like when you’re walking and somebody moves into your peripheral vision and vanishes in the next moment. “When I sit there on the porch, suddenly a stream of sentences flows, and I dictate and my assistant gets it written down.
“It’s difficult to understand the tune. We have to get its pulse. It may take half a day, or more; it may take 10 minutes. Once you get the feel of the tune and feel it inside, you can put the sheet of paper away. Composers from other languages give the tune in their own language. First, we have to Telugu-ise the tune and start writing the song.”
The director explains the scene from the movie to the songwriter to give context.“You get a lot of material out of it; for example, the scene, the larger picture, why the song is slated there. I write a rough lyric, and start working on it.”
Most songwriters are night owls. Bhaskarabhatla often gets up in the middle of the night—if he sleeps at all during that time—to jot down a word or two for a tune that is still playing in his head. “I read books, old literature. I listen to songs of old master songwriters. I listen to my own songs. How did they do it? How did I do it then? I read papers and quotations.” His songs can be topical; he once wrote a song on the recession. “I read a lot about recession in newspapers. I love technology and gadgets.”
As tunes play in his head, he composes sentences, choosing expressions.
For example, “there can be a list of words to describe a lover. But they might not suit for some songs, and new expressions then need to be invented. That’s where your work lies. Metaphors and similes come in handy. A lover becomes ‘a mosquito wrapped in the bed sheet’.”
Writing songs is not about filling words and sentences in a tune. “You have to understand and grasp the soul of tune, words and sentences, grasp the soul of the song. Only then does it come alive.
Sometimes, repetition of a phoneme can better capture the
character of the tune. Somehow, somewhere down the line, lyric and tune unite,
like an apt key turning in the lock and opening it.
Is it tune or sentence? It’s both, and something bigger than both. It becomes a floating narrative, experienced by scores of people, pouring into their ears through headphones, radios and television sets. It lingers like perfume.
here are different types of songs: cinema, social, folk, historical and mythological. Suddala Ashok Teja writes all of them. Born in Nalgonda district in Telangana in 1954, he writes songs that have become common lore throughout Andhra Pradesh for their depth and earthy simplicity. His father, Suddala Hanumanthu, was a freedom fighter and revolutionary poet. “I have got songs in my blood.”
Ashok Teja has read everything, from ancient writers like Nannayya to modern writers, in both prose and poetry. “When a director explains the scene, I see many variations and sentences in my mind’s eye. The ways and variations in how old writers responded to the situation play out. Words and sentences naturally pop up.”
Writing songs is not about filling words and sentences in a tune, though. “You have to understand and grasp the soul of tune, words and sentences. Writer, composer and singer have to grasp the soul of the song. Only then does it come alive.”
A national award-winner for his lyrics in the movie Tagore in 2003, Ashok Teja relates events and incidents that he heard which eventually became songs. An old man once told him, “I don’t know what I experienced in the womb of my mother; but since I fell to the earth, it’s has been pain and sorrow all the way.”
“Since mother gave birth to us
We haven’t ever eaten our fill any day.
We haven’t slept well till today.”
There was also the story of how Lambadi mothers would feed toddy to their children to keep them asleep, so that the children wouldn’t require breastfeeding while their mothers were away working.
“Alo alo alo jo jo alo
My child, you’re not born to a bird
The bird mother would have fed you;
My child, you’re not born to a cow
The cow mother would have fed you milk;
Why are you born to this Lambadi mother
Now, it’s your fate to drink milk with toddy.”
Just after recording a song in a music studio in Hyderabad, Ashok Teja explains how sound and sense unite. He tells the story of how Nannayya wrote about inviting a snake for a yajna. As he recites the snippet, he channels how the ancient poet would have recited the poem. You can hear the snake as it slithers, hisses and shushes to the venue of yajna. “Onomatopoeia brings sound and sense closer.”
Everything is grist to a writer’s mill. Twenty-odd years ago, Ashok Teja read an article by a gynaecologist which said labour pains felt like simultaneously breaking 23 bones. He used the point in his songs.
For folk songs, the “work itself gives rise to the songs”.
Farmers sowing seeds, labourers loading and unloading stocks, fishermen
chanteys: the work drives the form that the song takes.
In whatever form, the writer is the most important one. In a letter written to Richard Woodhouse on October 27, 1818, John Keats alludes to this:
“As to the poetical character itself … it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated … A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's Creatures [sic].”
Bhaskarabhatla and Ashok Teja, like all writers, crave for the felicitious space when the “soul of the tune and sentences unite”. Opening lines are the most difficult to pull off. Previous songs would have dealt with the same situation; the same words might have been used. If the writer uses the same expressions—although his own—they fall flat and the audience tunes out.
Bhaskarabhatla paces the room. He plays the beginning of a song, turn it off, sings, sings again. “Once you get pallavi, the rest writes itself.” In pallavi, the writer zooms out the content of the song. “I keep a hook in the pallavi; for example, love. What’s your content? Falling in love. In the first charanam, you could say why you love her; what she means to you. In the second charanam, you could speak about how life would feel without her, without that love.”
He also experiments with starting off with something negative—“I don’t like”—and turning it into something positive—“I don’t like to be separated from you.”
Is that so easy—not the love—but writing about it? “You build it up,” he says. “You build up the intensity of it. You start your first line softly, then the next a bit more intense, and the next still more, like how small waves add up to a tsunami.”
Songwriting involves writing and rewriting, leads that go nowhere, and places for which no maps exist. Then, at a propitious time, magic happens. Sound turns into song.
Bhaskarabhatla starts off with words and images for
“pathetic and tragic songs”. One day, when he was a child in Class 4 in
Rajahmundry, he was on his way to coaching class at 4 a.m. He saw a young girl
on the railway track, her body mutilated and people milling around it. The
image haunted him, and became a song more than 25 years later. “Our mind keeps
folders of what happened in our childhood, in our families, in society,
relationships and bondage.”
Everything is grist to a writer’s mill. Even some scientific factoids make it into songs. Twenty-odd years ago, Ashok Teja read an article by a gynaecologist which said that labour pains felt like simultaneously breaking 23 bones. He also had heard that at the onset of labour, the pain starts at the back—at the base of spine—and radiates around to the front.
He used them both in his songs. “These help you write realistically, and your imagination tries to grasps the unknown.”
he songwriting process involves writing and rewriting, leads that go nowhere, and places for which no maps exist. It involves false starts and square pegs in round holes. Contrary to the notion that writers need high-impact events to move them, they often achieve breakthroughs from seemingly mundane things: everyday conversations of family and friends, someone’s tone of voice, how a child plays with a toy. They don’t have the luxury of a breakdown before a deadline.
Then, at a propitious time, magic happens. Sound turns into song.
Bhaskarabhatla strives for it.”It’s very difficult get both the sound and sense. If it happens, the song comes alive.”
Deadlines are tight. Sometimes, writers are given a night to write a song; sometimes, they’re given three or four days. In 1999, Ashok Teja wrote eight songs for three movies in a single night.
. V. Rama Rao is a 74-year-old cine historian. Ask him about movies and songs, and he bounds across his house, pulling out cinema literature and its artefacts. In that vast collection, 12 books, six movie scripts, and more than 1,000 articles are his alone. All the plaques and shields—and other tokens and totems of innumerable felicitations—lie stacked and secure in his attic. Like an old song that’s soft on the ears, he has a quaint charm. He tells the tales of songs, like how lyricist Sri Sri wrote 16 songs in a single night.
He also tells the story of lyricist Athreya, who is called manasu kavi: the seer of the heart. He was notorious for driving producers into fits of frenzy. Once, hoping to get something out of him, a producer took him to Ooty. While driving through Ooty in a car, Athreya saw a boy and a girl walking hand in hand. Just then, it started drizzling, and the couple ran into the shade of a huge tree. Witnessing that, Athreya wrote a Telugu song which became one of his all-time hits.
Rama Rao has seen how songs changed over the years. “In old songs, you had wonderful literature. Later on it became dhum dhum dhada dhada. But again, sense is making a comeback. We have wonderful writers, writing some really meaningful songs.”
Ramajogayya Sastry is one of those, and he’s matter-of-fact about the work he does. “Whether you write a devotional song or an item number, you have your own value system. At the thought level, you’re sincere and love what you do. I have decided there should be no vulgar words in songs. For reaching the maximum audience, you have to use simple words. The purpose of a song is to provide entertainment. We can do that. If a song gives a message, that’s well and good. In that sense, a song has a social responsibility.”
Times change; tastes change. The industry reflects that sentiment. Mythological themes dominated for a certain period, then social themes, and romantic films seem to have a longer run.
Chandala Kesava Dasu was the first songwriter for the first Telugu film Bhaktha Prahlada which released on September 15, 1931. Today, digital technology has wrought many changes: in shooting films, composing music, and sharing them.
Bhaskarabhatla’s twitter feed is a testimony to how the discerning young audience receives a meaningful song, and how phrases and lines that resonate are tweeted.
For a song to succeed and remain with people for a long time,
songwriter, composer and singer have to work in sync. A song is built for
movement. These writers are master craftsmen of that movement. Some songs also
succeed in bringing in the sense of smell, taste and touch. Lyricist Sitarama
Sastry’s first movie, Sirivennela, features a blind character, and
Sastry brought in the element of space and touch in all the movie’s songs.
Songwriter Chandra Bose is also a master at interpreting one sensory experience
through another sense; for example, the sense of visual beauty in terms of
Other songwriters Jonnavithula, Goreti Venkanna (a Telangana folk singer and writer), and—the youngest of all—Anantha Sriram also try to do this in their own way. These wordsmiths, image-carvers, and melody-makers speak of a zone where all the words you need are there: a sensation of words passing through you. Ashok Teja, like others, experiences it. “You feel as if somebody is dictating, and you’re just taking it down.”
He tells the story of Dhanvantari, the god of physicians. Dhanvanatri would go into his garden of herbs. The precise herb would know what Dhanvantari wanted, and would undulate to tell him, “pick me up”, and he would.
Something similar happens when you’re writing, between words and beyond words.