Wednesday, April 6, 2016

P. Susheela : Her greatness is in the record, not in Guinness


P. Susheela is in high spirits. A musical finale not easily replicable has been played out as a culmination of her eventful career. Her prolific musical output has been documented in a way that has got her into the Guinness Book of World Records. The event has warmed the cockles of the hearts of her myriad admirers. Heroines of yesteryear have flocked to her residence to express their joy.   

A cultural icon of the Tamils and the Telugus, Susheela is also appreciated for her contribution to Malayalam and Kannada film song. Though she is a Telugu and her film songs in her mother tongue handsomely outnumber her Tamil songs, she is undoubtedly the main female figure of the golden age of Tamil film music. The most prolific lyric writer Vali made his debut writing for her (Nilavum thaaraiyum in Azhagar Malaikalvan)  while SPB of a thousand duets sang his first with her (Aayiram Nilave Vaa).

But it’s more the quality of her numbers than the quantity that has earned her the love of music lovers. The sheer melody, lyrical significance, musical excellence and popularity of many of her songs have made an iconic singer of South India. Many of the jewels of Kannadasan, Tamil cinema’s lyricist par excellence, are framed in Susheela’s inimitable voice. While carving a niche for herself in the film world dominated by men, she retained her dignity and self-respect as a tremendously gifted and resourceful songstress. A winner of many national and regional awards, she is also the recipient of the Padma Bhushan.

Hailing from a musically inclined family in the princely state of Vizianagaram,  Susheela acquired a diploma from the music college in her home town and came to Chennai for further studies.  Her got her first singing chance easily enough with Pendyala Nageswara Rao choosing her for a duet with A.M.Raja in Petrathaai (Kannathalli).

Initially Susheela was a staff singer of AVM studios. The positive side of her years in AVM was the honing of her Tamil diction as well as the professionalism she brought to her career. Though she speaks Tamil with a strong Telugu accent despite her 63 years in Chennai, her Tamil singing sets the benchmark for excellence in Tamil pronunciation. That’s why Susheela was chosen along with T.M. Sounderarajan to render the State song of the Tamil Nadu government in 1970 (Neeraarum Kadaluduthu). Earlier, she had rendered Bharatidasan’s paean to Tamil, ‘Tamizhukkum Amudhendru Paer’ in the sweetest of strains.

The fifties were competitive times with many female singers in the field and Susheela had to fight her way up. That she progressed steadily can be seen from the fact that a musical genius like G.Ramanathan trusted her with great numbers like ‘Mullai Malar Mele’ and ‘Inbam Pongum Vennila’.  She was often fancied for dulcet duets with A.M.Raja with the latter himself opting to sing with her in the enormously successful Kalyana Parisu (Vaadikkai Marandhadhu Yeno, Aasaiyinaale Manam). Viswanathan-Ramamurthy came up with ‘Thangathile Oru Kurai Irandhaalum’ which lit up a million hearts. 

Paava Mannippu (March 1961) set the stage for a new musical phase that would crown Susheela as the queen of Tamil film song.   There was an upsurge of innovation, melody, meaning and orchestral colour. As Susheela’s art shone in dainty songs like ‘Paalirukkum Pazhamirukkum’, it was clear that the golden key to the kingdom was in her voice. Master composers like Viswanathan Ramamurthy and K.V.Mahadevan would henceforth make it the measure of their melodies. V. Kumar and others would follow suit.

It’s significant that Chief Minister Jayalalitha has recalled that Susheela sang for her mother Sandhya.  The classic images of some of the most charismatic heroines like Devika (Sonnadhu Nee Dhaana), Saroja Devi (Unnai Ondru Kaetpaen), Savithri (Malarndhu Malaraadha), Sowcar Janaki (Maalai Pozhudhin Mayakkathile), Padmini (Mannavan Vandhaanadi), Kanchana (Enna Paarvai), K.R. Vijaya (Athai Madi Methaiyadi) and Jayalalitha (Unnai naan sandhithaen) mirror a greater charisma because of Susheela’s song. The actresses knew that the fragile moments of their fleeting beauty were sculpted for life in the evergreen melodies that flowed from Susheela.

Musical instruments acquired their signature passages in her songs. Mangalamurthy’s superb accordion accompaniment in Susheela’s entrancing melody ‘Athaan En Athaan’ drew attention to the instrument.  Satyam’s soaring notes on the Shehnai in ‘Aalayamaniyin Osaiyai’ masterfully underscored the serene atmosphere of the song. Hanumatha Rao’s consummate tabla playing lent ‘Maalai soodum mananaal’ an ineffable grace.   ‘Enna Enna Vaarthaigalo’ in which Susheela’s voice and the keys of the piano frolic together shed light on Joseph Krishna’s mastery over the instrument. Nanjappa’s honeyed phrases on the bamboo shimmered in ecstatic hues around Susheela’s vocals in ‘Kannukku Kulamedhu’. 

Susheela was extremely receptive to musical ideas and fast in grasping them. She was also uncannily sensitive to microphone positions and the needs of sound engineers to get a recording right. The later decades of her career saw a great deal of competition emerging and singer-music composer politics playing out to her detriment, but she kept on doggedly. She wisely patched up with Ilaiyaraja after some initial misunderstanding. She is a woman of much poise and reserve but can be scorchingly sarcastic in private. She has a piquant sense of humour too. She once remarked about raagas in the general run of film songs – ‘’One can say they represent an all-India raaga. Even if you search all over India, you won’t be able to find the raaga!’’  At eighty plus, Susheela  still rocks

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and has authored many books on the subject)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Our Light and Delight

''When anyone writes about me, all the hair on my head stands up. Don't think I am merely being modest. I know where I come from and who I am. But it is the truth that is important.  Stress on the Person seems so much to narrow it''.
This is what Mother told me when I was on a visit to Pondicherry from Bombay. It referred to an article I had written on her in a Bombay newspaper. (Amal Kiran)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

V. S. Raghavan – A Life-long Daddy

He stepped into the dad mode in Tamil cinema when just 29 and might have continued as grand dad till 92 if he hadn’t had to call it a day after a short illness a year ago. Playing daddy to a range of worthies including Sivaji, MGR, Rajinikanth and Kamalahasan, not to speak of heavy weight heroines (no pun intended) like K. R. Vijaya, he proved that he was cut out for the job – a Very Sure of himself Raghavan. One can see this for example, in his portrayal of Banker Masilamani in the full length comedy, Galatta Kalyanam. Glowering menacingly at his son (Sivaji), he fumes, ‘‘I don’t like your activities. If you come to me finally relating some tale of your romance, I will simply kill you.’’ Playing Vijaya’s father in ‘Enna Mudalaali Sowkiyama’, he exudes a parental affection that’s almost tangible.

R.S.Manohar and V.S. Raghavan in Vairamalai, the latter's debut film
He liked to expand his initials V(embakkam) S(rinivasan) variously as Very Strict Raghavan in that he expected conformity to discipline, Very Simple Raghavan in not standing by formalities, and even ‘Vengaaya Sambar’ Raghavan to indicate his love for tasty food. It is another matter that in the initial years of his film career in the fifties, (and sometimes even later), he was merely Raghavan even in film titles, without the possibility of any foothold on slippery celluloid.

What finally gave him an edge was his dignified presence as well as his strong voice and excellent Tamil diction. Curiously, he had made his acting debut in short Hindi plays staged as part of the language courses of the Hindi Prachaar Sabha. He was cued to the printed word, having worked as a sub editor for three years in the Tamil journal Malathi, under noted humourist Thumilan (Ramasamy), and as supervisor in a busy press for six years. 

When he formed his own theatre group, Indian National Artistes (INA), in the mid fifties, one of his noted plays was Chathurangam, based on ‘Someone Waiting’, a gripping whodunnit of the prolific Welsh author Emlyn Williams. Mounted on a single set, the play was a theatrical feat of the time. Raghavan is reputed to have run his troupe like a headmaster, meticulously planning every move and placement of light and mike. Sometimes, the dramatic sparks that flew when recalcitrant staff in certain theatre halls failed to meet his standards, proved as interesting as the staged play itself, if not more!

His notable film breaks came from director Sridhar. Whether as a bearded patient bringing a sliver of optimism amidst the enshrouding gloom of a nursing home in Nenjil Oar Aalayam or as the businessman father of one of the protagonists in the musical comedy Kadhalikka Neramillai, Raghavan came across with ringing clarity. As the gruff if goodhearted house owner and father of the heroine in Nenjirukkum Varai, he cuts an unforgettable cameo finally eliciting, ‘Appa, Appa, Appa’ from Sivaji’s Raghuraman. It’s a rare scene which has the latter exclaiming, ‘‘Many may live life with majesty. But nobody can die with such majesty as your father’’. Uncanny how the lines fitted Raghavan’s life and passing!

K. Balachander, a younger contemporary of Raghavan in the latter’s plays, successfully sought to add detail, dimension and nuance to Raghavan’s father roles in his films as in Iru Kodugal (vengeful father), Nootrukku Nooru (angry old Anglo Indian parent) and Punnagai (alcoholic father who demeans his own daughter).  K.S. Gopalakrishnan, another prolific director, set much store on dialogue and used Raghavan’s oral proficiency to the hilt. KSG was given to changing and honing his copious lines on the floor and needed artistes who could weather the verbal storm. Raghavan was one of those who fitted the bill with ease in enormously successful films like Panama Pasama. MGR handpicked Raghavan for supporting roles, however minor, in his films in the seventies right up to Maduraiyai Meetta Sundarapandian, released after he became Chief Minister. (He also extended patronage to Raghavan in little ways during his regime).

All this made Raghavan eminently busy in the 60s and 70s. The prominent TV and stage actor Delhi Kumar who acted with Raghavan in ‘Onne Onnu Kanne Kannu’ in 1974, recalls finding the latter catching up on sleep quietly curled up in one corner of the shooting spot. Raghavan had married Thangam just about a decade back in 1964 and his sons Sreenivasan and Krishna grew up when he was the busiest.

During these times, and later in the evening of his life, Raghavan found a chum in Nagesh, who like him had risen in the sixties, and unlike him, struck gold as a star. In the nineties and after, they were war-worn veterans looking nostalgically at their shared past. Nagesh would turn up at Raghavan’s home nearby, thirsty for the steaming coffee that Raghavan’s daughter-in-law Janaki served with relish.  It might even have come to the old-timers sometimes crying over each other’s shoulder over the issues they had with an insensitive world though it did occasionally laud their eventful innings with awards and evenings.  

Raghavan switched over easily to the small screen when the need arose. He figured in friend KB’s popular serials and produced a few himself. The new millennium also tended, amidst maelstromic changes, to cast occasional glances at the past. Raghavan then figured in a handful of films, providing for example the preamble that led to the iconic ‘Prayer’ song in Idhurkku thaane Aasaipattaay Balakumara as well as the ‘historic’ underpinnings of Cowboypatti in Irumbukottai Murattu Singam. The parody has Raghavan tracing Irumbukottai’s hoary roots to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood!

 He mingled freely with New Age directors as with his grandson Satish Kumar, taking him to tennis classes and reciting the Vishnu Sahasranamam with him during devout evenings. When Satish studied aerospace engineering in Dubai, he sent his daughter- in-law packing to look after him, bravely ploughing a lonely furrow in his late eighties. He was a long distance runner and could take loneliness in his stride, even if Nagesh too had left by then. He was Very Smart Raghavan who knew how to look after himself all by himself.

(A version of this article appeared in Times of India, Chennai)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Biography of K.V. Mahadevan

When Producer N. Krishnaswami informed Sivaji Ganesan, the star of his film Padikkaadha Medhai that he was signing K. V. Mahadevan to score the music of the film, Sivaji immediately responded with, ‘‘Latch on to him..We are sure to get beautiful melodies’’.
And true to the star’s estimation, Mahadeven went on to give unforgettable melodies in the film like ‘Oru Oru Oorile’ and ‘Engirundho Vandhaan’. While the former song encapsulates a heartwarming story about gratitude, the latter, based on Mahakavi Bharati’s famous Kannan poems (Kannan is a Tamil equivalent of Krishna), scales great heights as ecstatic poetry set to evergreen melody.

Mahadevan, hailing from the remote village of Krishnankoil in present-day Nagercoil district (but part of the Travancore princely state when Mahadeven was born in 1918), started out as a boy actor and went on to become a prolific composer of popular melodies both in Tamil and Telugu cinema. His musical range from folk to light music and classical melody is wide and stunning as is the length of his career from the early forties to the late eighties.

Mahadevan’s light melodies like ‘Poayum Poayum’ and ‘Sirithu Sirithu’ were on my lips when as a lad of just eight or nine, I used to return from the neighbourhood cinema in Mandaveli after seeing MGR films like Thai Sollai Thattadhe and Thaayai Kaatha Thanayan. I can still remember the boy next door, when I lived with my grandma in a house on St Mary’s Road, grandiloquently belting out, ‘Iravinil Aattam’, Sivaji Ganesan’s song in his nine-role tour de force, Navarathri.

Mahadevan’s melodies thus reached even the young and untutored in music on the one hand, while on the other, in the grand Tamil hit, Tiruvilaiyaadal, his stirring melodies brought out the best from veteran artistes soaked in the classical and dramatic idiom like K.B. Sundarambal and T. R. Mahalingam. His music for the Telugu film, Sankarabharanam, which received nation-wide acclaim represented the apogee of his career.

It would be putting it mildly to say that Mahadevan was a man of few words. He was more than spartan in speech. I have met him while I covered films when I was in the Indian Express but he was not the type to keep journalists happy with roundly packaged dollops of the past or make them privy to behind the scenes information. Attending his recordings, one witnessed his unassuming style of getting work done with minimum effort…Most of the toiling was done by Mahadevan’s Man Friday Pugalendhi and his assistants.

 Pugalendhi  became a friend and well-wisher, and wrote the foreward to my works like Thirai Isai Alaigal, and even composed the music for a title song that I had written for a TV serial. He attended the book release function of Thirai Isai Alagal II and also opened up his heart to me. I renewed my acquaintance with KVM because of Pugalendhi, and received the master composer’s blessings.

I had collected material from a variety of sources for a life of Mahadevan, of course with greater emphasis on his music and those connected with it directly. Professor Sharma of Nagercoil, a family friend of the Mahadevans, had requested me to write Mahadevan’s biography. I had also met Mahadevan’s son Venkatachallam and his good wife.  Somehow things didn’t take off.

But it happened in the end of 2015. I put together the bagful of details I had collected from various people. I reached 300 pages narrating Mahadevan’s life and career up to 1960, and as I wanted the book to be easy on the pocket of book lovers decided to end the first part there. I am working on Volume II.

The printed copy of ‘Mannavan Vandhaanadi’ as Mahadeven's biography is named, reached me through the publishers, Manivachagar Padhippagam (044-25361039), when I was at the Rajah Annamalai Mandram, where I was trying to gather information I needed for a series I am doing for the daily, Dinamalar.

Going through my book as a third person, even as participants on stage discussed Thevaram music vis-à-vis tradition and modernity, I found that the book brings hitherto unknown facts about Mahadevan. As is my wont, I have narrated the life like a story, while also dwelling on the songs of his films in the forties and fifties. I have also strived to present the narrative with interesting visuals appropriate to the text.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Why this Kolaveri over Beep Song


What’s a refrain in a song? Something that you refrain from singing clearly, or beep parts of, in the interests of (in)decency! With such an approach to his heartbreak song that begins with a four letter word referring to women’s anatomy derogatorily, film star Silambarasan has stepped into a full scale row. The song has taken the rampant commodification of women’s body in films to the level of outright vilification.

Even as the claim is made of a theft and supposed leak, the song itself has an in-built caveat on the hysteria against the other sex --- there are lines saying that a man must not blame girls, he must blame himself. This belies the claim that the song was meant only to be a cathartic experience in a private jam session. It perhaps is a failed attempt at another 'viral' Kolaveri though the Kolaveri is now on the part of an enraged public!

Not that the film world is new to charges of vulgarity and obscenity in song, gesture, dance or scene. As a mass medium which is inherently voyeuristic, even Tamil cinema’s first sound film had its incipient star T.P.Rajalakshmi miming erotic feelings with ‘Manmatha Baanamada, Maarinil Paayudhada’ (Cupid’s dart is piercing my heart). It has been a motif of Tamil cinema to have the heroine pining for intimacy at some point of the film. Nearer our times, brilliant playback singer S. Janaki added her peppy moans and shrieks  to such erotic acts by actresses which only became more and more explicit with the times (‘Ponmeni Urugudhe’, ‘Nilaa kaayudhe’…).

The club song or cabaret song came into Tamil films as early as 1936. American filmmaker Ellis Dungan is said to have introduced a club song in Sathi Leelavathi, his debut film as a director, though the cabaret song came into its own from the late sixties with generous assistance from Hollywood and Hindi films. It was an element of the storyline to show the husband going astray or a villainous gang in action. L. R. Eswari, who later was identified with Amman devotionals, specialized in cabaret numbers churned out by the likes of Kannadasan and Vali and their worthy successors. But there was no vilification involved in all this, at least through cuss words, only an enticement to sexuality and invitation for celebration.  
The emphasis during British rule was mainly on censoring nationalistic sentiment in films. (The British were also apparently worried that the American films that Indians got to see did not present a good idea of the white race to the 'natives'). Films like Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) and Matrubhoomi (1939) were banned. But filmmakers got away celebrating ribaldry and debauchery (Savukkadi Chandrakantha, for example - 1936) and exposing the female body (K.R. Chellam in Vanaraja Karzan 1938, a jungle film).The act was repeated in Vanamohini in 1941, with the dare bare Ceylon actress Thavamani Devi  proving more than obliging.

The screws tightened after Independence on such ‘profanity’ with new rules and regulations, but then it was an avalanche of DMK propagandist fare that rained through films. Even the steel frame of severe censorship could not thwart the abrasive demagoguery of films like Parasakthi seeping into the public domain. The prominent comedian N. S. Krishnan took to barely concealed double entendre to back the DMK through his song, ‘Theenaa, Moonaa, Kaana’ which could be taken to refer to the DMK but which he expanded as ‘Thirukkural Munnani Kazhagam’! This was taken to be a good enough camouflage for the censor to put aside his scissors! C. N. Annadurai’s ‘Sorgavaasal’ (1954), had a song, ‘Raajaadhi Raajan Namma Raaja’ in which Congress leader K. Kamaraj was named in a demeaning manner. The lines were chopped.

Kannadasan believed in the liberating power of sex and worked out the metaphor of sexual union through various poetic devices in a multiplicity of ways and moods in his songs (‘Katti Thangam Vetti Eduthu’,  ‘Ennirundu 16 Vayadhu’). Sometimes he managed to keep it lyrical, for he was one of the mainsprings of the musically fecund romantic era in film music, but even he could not avoid being gross and insensitive. There are songs suggestive of lesbian encounters in Tamil cinema, but as the classic and favoured approach goes, it’s all in the time honoured ‘ilai marai kaay’ style, couched in a suggestive and hidden manner.

The sixties and seventies saw MGR honing songs in his films for building his image and that of his party on the one hand, and for keeping his female admirers happy through erotic jousts oftentimes framed as dream songs. The archetypal, ‘Aaayiram Nileve Vaa’, from the pen of Pulamai Pithan, is rampant with erotic ideas which are veiled by the flowery literary style employed (the picturisation of ‘en uyirile unnai ezhudha, pon meni thaaraayo’ explicates the meaning, though).

With cinema-in-theatre gradually losing out family audiences to 24x7 cable channels and the internet, filmmakers have become more explicit in trying to attract younger audiences. Some find it difficult to avoid the temptation of exploiting the media and the internet to go viral on their ‘sensational’ song. But seeking cheap popularity is likely to be rather harmful both to morale and to lasting results.

(A version of this article appeared in Times of India,Chennai)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Dilip Kumar's Chennai connection

PaigamA sensitive actor known for his close involvement with the characters he portrayed, Dilip Kumar has expressed sadness at the flood calamity that has struck Chennai, the city in which he worked in films like Azad (1955), Paigam (1959), Ram Aur Shyaam (1967) and Aadmi (1968).  Ironically, the tragedy that hit Chennai which he once considered making his second home, originated from the Chembarambakkam lake around which Dilip Saab used to take long evening walks in the sixties while mulling over the script, scenes and histrionics of the films he was involved in. No wonder Chennai’s flood of tears has shocked the thespian to the extent of scrapping celebrations on his birthday on December 11.

A lively break from the dark tragedies he was used to and against which his psychiatrist had recommended, came with Azad, made in Coimbatore and Chennai by noted studio owner and producer Sriramulu Naidu. Based on a novel written by the nationalist poet Ramalingam Pillai,  Azad was special for Dilip Kumar  not only because of its phenomenal success but also due to the producer’s accommodation in accepting all the ideas he suggested in generous measure. As the actor has reminisced, so enriching were his experiences at this phase of his career that he even found a latent flair for both Tamil and Telugu.

With Chennai’s own Bharatanatyam diva and celluloid star Vyjayanthimala figuring in hit after hit of Dilip Kumar starting with Devadas and including Madhumathi, Paigam, Naya Daur and Ganga Jumna,  there was no shortage of gossip about a liaison between them. But perhaps what Dilip Kumar felt for Vyjayanthimala was more of appreciation and admiration for the way she worked hard under his guidance to graduate from being a beautiful dancer in films to becoming a good actress.  Vyjayanthimala has expressed in no uncertain terms her gratitude to Dilip Kumar in this matter.

But principally it was the movie moghul S. S. Vasan of Gemini Studio who made Dilip Kumar take a liking to Chennai and think of settling there. Dilip Kumar found Vasan genial and unassuming and bursting with delight at his involvement in their Paigam.  Vasan and Dilip Kumar had become close friends and travelled over a great part of the state (Madras as it was called then).

The first trigger for Dilip Kumar thinking of settling in Madras came, self confessedly, when the producers in Bombay moved to restrict the independence of actors by forcing them to work only in one film at a time. Though Dilip Kumar agreed with the principle he viewed the move as encroaching on the rights of actors.  His work for southern producer Nagi Reddy (Ram aur Shyam 1967) and producer-actor P. S. Veerappa (Aadmi 1968) required his presence in the city and so he said goodbye to Bombay for the time.

As the late writer Valampuri Somanathan, who was involved in Aadmi, related to me, Dilip Kumar was then put up in a rich Muslim gentleman’s bungalow in Valasarawakkam, then a quiet suburb adjacent to the Kodambakkam studios. He would take interest in the marriage of poor Muslim girls and fund their expenses. A few years hence, married to Saira Banu 20 years younger to him, Dilip Kumar starred in Gopi (1970) directed by Bhim Singh. He has related that it was a delightful experience for him and Saira, an extended honeymoon in which they were so romantically lodged by the producers in a sort of independent cottage in Kodambakkam. No wonder with so many wonderful memories of the city, Dilip Saab feels deeply shaken by the barrage that hit Chennai. The city needs the good wishes of many more like him.

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and has authored many works on Tamil cinema)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pithukuli, A Melody in Madness


As one sat beside him a year ago, there was the uncanny feeling of not being with an individual but with somebody, or even something, that simply is without making claims for itself or demands on others. Those around him refer to him as Muruga, the vocative form of Murugan mostly used by devotees to address the deity, adding to the feeling of a shift in vision that is reinforced by his own references to himself in the third person as ‘evan’ (this man).

‘Evan’ that the world knew by those unmistakable dark glasses that hid a lifelong odyssey with vision problems, saffron bandana,  trimmed beard, and of course that magnetically melodious voice shimmering to the nuanced oscillations of the keys of the harmonium, has apparently set off on yet another voyage to the other shore quietly in his sleep. This culminates a marathon 97 years and wanderings twice over across the Indian sub continent and manifold sojourns across the globe.

Said to have been, along with K. B. Sundarambal, the first to perform stage programmes of devotional music, ‘Pithukuli’ Murugadas made a mark on the psyche of the Tamils mainly through his live concerts in temples and gramophone discs and music albums. He sang a single film song, appearing in the 1972 film Deivam with ‘Naadariyum Nooru Malai’ on his lips. The song was a hit, but he desisted from singing again in films as he believed he had transgressed and been punished for the transgression. Pride and egotism were qualities he was disallowed, and the success of his life was that despite all the adulation he received, the song and the deity to which it was addressed, and never the singer, took precedence in his mind.

As such, he was a cultural and religious phenomenon among the Tamils, especially in the Tamil diaspora communities in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Seychelles, Mauritius and later in Europe, US, Canada and Australia. No wonder, Nelson Mandela, who doted upon him during the World Hindu Conference in Durban in 1995, affectionately remarked that Murugadas was more popular than him in South Africa!  MGR, who was an admirer Murugadas, took particular interest in conferring the Kalaimamani award on him in a special function in 1984. The Sangeet Natak Akademi award was conferred on him in 1997.

Born in 1918 in Coimbatore to C. S. Sundaram Iyer and Alamelu on a Thai Poosam day sacred to the deity Murugan, he was appropriately named Balasubramanian. A blinding wound in the left eye when he was seven, as well as a rejection by his father were traumatic childhoold events, but the meeting with a wandering saint, Brahmananda Paradesi, who branded him a ‘Pithukuli’ – divinely mad - proved life changing. The word which became his epithet sums up the script which he lived up to all his life -  a singer inspiring god love through his song.  

As a teenager, the freedom struggle inspired him into action that led to his incarceration. Soon, his restless spirit got the better of him and made him journey across the land with a song on his lips and an ektara in his hand. What ultimately turned out to be an episodic 18,000 mile criss-crossing of the land mostly on foot  brought him into close contact with spiritual stalwarts like Swami Ramdas, Matha Krishnabai, Ramana Maharishi and Swami Sivananda. His journeys also gave him a tremendous physique. A close associate and singer, Delhi Prakash remarks on the resounding power of Murugadas’s whistle which the latter used while trekking through forests to keep wild animals at bay. Murugadas also practiced yoga and gave instructions in it from a centre in Ranganthan street.

Self-taught on the harmonium, Murugadas was a lyric writer and poet himself. He had learnt the Tiruppugazh from Vallimalai Swamigal.  ‘Paada Vaaithaay Naan Paadugiraen’, ‘Kandasamiye Engal Sondha Saamiye‘, ‘Devi Kanyakumari’ are among the simple lyrics that he made famous himself. He also drew liberally on the compositions of Oothukaadu (Alaipaayudhe, Paalvadiyum Mugam, Swagatham Krishna) and Mahakavi Bharati (Kaakkai chiraginile, Om Shakti Om).

The footloose singer who lugged his heavy harmonium, his only constant companion, everywhere and sang with the instrument on his lap, finally acquired a permanent address when Devi Saroja, a 38-year-old younger sibling of G. K. Ponnamma, musician and harmonist, wooed him. It was not an easy decision for the 60-year-old peripatetic singer – even his admirers were more or less divided on the issue – but he eventually took Devi’s hand. There was only one visible change that came with the change of marital status.  Devi joined Murugadas in his concerts and her entire family became his followers, but only after ensuring that he had vouchsafed his belongings to public causes.  

Murugadas’s stirring song as well as his spiritual outlook which he put into action by routing the proceeds of his successful singing career to laudable causes, have touched others and transformed their lives. Those who came as admirers became followers. But Murugadas went on as before, hitching the one thing that he did best, singing, to the Supreme. His passing on a Kanda Shashti day marked by the Soora Samharam festival is bound to add to the mystique of the minstrel of Muruga.

In a state that is polarized between the classical Carnatic and the plebian cinematic, Murugadas was one of the few who with his unique voice and style practised the devotional music genre with remarkable success. His dedication in achieving his iconic status as a bhakti singer makes him a role model waiting to be emulated.

(Article appeared in Times of India, Chennai on Nov.25, 2015)