Thursday, March 5, 2015

Satyamurthi's correspondence - a treasure trove of vistas on the freedom struggle

Satyamurthiyin Kadithangal – Paagam 1, 2 ; Oru Desabhaktharin Paarvaiyil Sudhandhira Poaraatta Varalaaru – Vikadan Prasuram : Thoguppu K. V. Ramanathan, Thamizhil – Charukesi

In our neighbourhood of Abhiramapuram in Chennai, Charukesi is a spare and wizened figure who can be seen flitting across the streets at a speed phenomenal for his age, perhaps dashing off to a cutcheri venue or to some appointment occasioned by one of his public spirited works like keeping alive the memory of the late and lamented Devan. I have known him as a journalist ever on the move contributing to an array of popular magazines and newspapers.  He wields a bright and forceful pen in Tamil but is forthright in expressing himself without frills in English too.

Sometimes he has time only for a suggestion of a greeting while passing me along the street, but a few weeks ago we buttonholed each other and exchanged notes on our respective writing careers.  It was then that I heard more of Charukesi’s contribution, significant I should say, in translating the letters of the freedom fighter and pioneering parliamentarian S. Satyamurthi. I decided to learn more about it and paid a visit to Charukesi’s quiet apartment  one languid afternoon.

Charukesi’s translation is of a two-volume anthology titled ‘The Satyamurthi Letters’, selected and put together by K.V. Ramanathan, former bureaucrat who was Resident Editor in Indian Express’s Madras edition for a few years in the eighties. There are about 400 letters written and received by Satyamurthi spanning a time frame between 1908-1942, momentous years in the history of India. It also has articles and open letters he wrote in periodicals and the texts of speeches he made in public forums.  To present all this in Tamil that is as lucid as clear flowing water is a tough task. Charukesi has been up to it and in this rendered real service to Tamil readers.

I gather from Charukesi that Satyamurthi was an inveterate letter writer who also insisted in getting replies for his missives. Translating many of the letters Satyamurthi fired to British administrators, Charukesi is astounded by the patriotism, eloquence and logical thinking of Satyamurthi and adds jocularly, ‘‘I began to feel that the British left just to spare themselves the trouble of replying to the iron-clad arguments advanced by Satyamurthi!’’ Satyamurthi had been a lawyer before he took to full time politics, and the clear thinking and logical reasoning that he brought to his patriotic fervour made him a formidable crusader for his fellowmen and a great communicator on their behalf, a real ‘Dheerar’ in the service of the country.

The letters and responses to them give us an idea of the tempestuous times. For those with an intimate knowledge of the crisscrossing political forces working out in the Independence movement, they would provide added vistas.

The personal equations, rivalries and differences of opinion among leaders of the movement come to the fore too. For example, Sarat Chandra Bose,  Subash Bose’s elder brother mentions his differences with Dr. B. C. Roy in his letter to Satyamurthi, finding fault with Dr. Roy for being  closely allied with some people who were responsible for the undoing of ‘many honourable Bengali families’.  (Page 188, Volume 1). After India's Independence, Sarat Bose, who led his brother Subash’s Forward Bloc and formed the Socialist Republican Party, advocating a socialist system for Bengal and India,  died in 1950 in Calcutta while B.C.Roy went on to become West Bengal’s second Chief Minister and remained in power for a record 14 years until his death in 1962.

Another poignant letter received by Satyamurthi, is that of ‘Deshbandhu’ Chitharanjan  Das. The latter was a founder of the Swarajist party that advocated going to the legislatures to break the British from within, and Satyamurthi was its prominent leader in the Madras Presidency. In his letter to Satyamurthi dated April 19, 1925, the fellow Swarajist openly speaks of his bad health and confesses that he cannot take any more setbacks. This from a man who had given up all luxury – at one time his clothes were tailored and washed in Paris and he maintained a permanent laundry in Paris to ship  his clothes to Calcutta – and  made great sacrifices for the nation. He ends his letter with the tearful parting, ‘‘My dear friend Satyamurthy, I am shattered. My services have come to an end. Somebody keeps calling me from afar. I now want to give up all agitations and strivings and seek solitude alone. Must I not give up at least my last years to God’’.  In the event, C.R. Das survives only for two more months. One can only imagine Satyamurthi’s deep distress and agony at the passing of such a great friend and patriot under tragic circumstances.

The book is of course rife with letters from and to C. Rajagopalachari, Satyamurthy’s arch rival in the politics of the Congress in the Madras Presidency. We have Rajagopalachari berating Satyamurthi about a Congress resolution that called for total prohibition in 20 years.  ‘‘This depresses me a lot. I think you must not have agreed to this. It is not right of you to have accepted this. It will be misunderstood. Things will go awry. Please get this reversed’’. The tone is gratingly critical. In our conversation, Charukesi too wonders about the Rajaji-Satyamurthy relationship. There seems to have been something that didn’t jell, some point that rankled, but it’s difficult to see what exactly it was! Not that the elder leader is all the time unsparing when it comes to the younger….In another response to Satyamurthi, Rajagopalachari admits to having hurt him with sharp criticism and apologises for it.

In another letter, we have Mahatma Gandhi pulling up Satyamurthy publicly and in a letter to him, for unpatriotic behavior during the conduct of the All India Congress Committee Meeting. In his reply, while being extremely respectful to the Mahatma,  Satyamurthy begs to differ from him. After mulling over the incidents mentioned by Gandhiji, Satyamurthy says that his actions were impelled by patriotism and were absolutely necessary! He goes on to accuse the Mahatma himself, saying that the actions of removing M. S. Iyengar and Subash Chandra Bose from the CWC were unpatriotic and against national interest! This amounts to respectfully showing the Mahatma his place! While crossing swords with the Mahatma, Satyamurthi expresses the belief that perhaps they can continue to be friends even while differing politically. This is the extent Satyamurthi could go to fearlessly express his dissent without being openly inimical.

These letters and articles are a mine-house of historical material seen through the prism of the letters and writings of one of the greatest freedom fighters of Tamil Nadu.

 Though beset by numerous ailments and more numerous incarcerations and political setbacks, Satyamurthi plodded on in the cause of his country, as his correspondence reveals. Like the Poondi reservoir that he planned as a water source for Madras city during his tenure as Mayor – though he did not live to see its commissioning in 1944 – his life and letters will continue to be a source of great inspiration for generations to come. 

Both K. V. Ramanathan who collected the letters and Charukesi who has given us a readable version in Tamil – a language that Satyamurthi himself loved – deserve our kudos for their efforts. Ananda Vikatan has added one more feather to its cap with this Tamil version of Satyamurthi’s correspondence.  Students need to be introduced to these letters with a clear explanation of the contexts in which they were written. That way we will sow the seeds of patriotism in young minds.

Friday, February 6, 2015

V. Dakshinamurthi - Telling melodies for cinema


For the film world, success, money, glamour and perhaps make up are god. So it’s rather ironic that it should revere as ‘Saami’ an old man of over ninety ! But as it is, the south Indian film industry, especially its music circles learnt to salute this man who walked barebodied most of the time and didn’t even own a car! With over 100 films in Malayalam and a dozen films in Tamil, he had not been a star achiever ever in his life. But the way this acknowledged master of Carnatic song hitched the classical wagon to the needs of cinema and the simplicity and character that shone through his long life made the Malayalam film fraternity and music lovers flock to his simple flat near Sanskrit College a few weeks ago to pay their final homage to ‘Malayalam’ V. Dakshinamurthi. He had been slowly humming a song a few moments before he passed away peacefully at home. He had wanted to fade like a flower ; his wish seems to have been fulfilled.

Dakshinamurthi’s forefathers belonged to Kallidaikurichi and had settled in Kerala. He was born in Alleppey. His maternal grandfather, mother and maternal uncles were all musically talented. He claims to have learnt 27 Thyagaraja kritis before the age of six by just listening to his mother sing. At Tiruvananthapuram, he learnt classical music from Venkatachalam Pothi who taught his sister. Dakshinamurthi was 13 when he sang at his first cutcheri at a Krishna temple in Alleppey.  Among those who chanced to hear him sing then were M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.D.Subbulakshmi and Tiruvavadu Rajarathinam Pillai. They marvelled at the boy’s musical knowledge and foresaw a great future for him. It seems Dakshinamurthi’s guru himself arranged many cutcheris for him.

 With bated breath, Dakshinamurthi would tell you how one day he heard  about the glory of Vaikkathappan, the Shiva deity in the temple of Vaikkom, and how Vaikkathappan has looked after him all these days. It began with a cutcheri offer on a midnight of heavy rain…after which it was one long journey in which, Vaikkathappan, it would seem, booked all his tickets and looked after all his journeys. Having to live as a performer and music teacher, Dakshinamurthi taught none less than Vasanthakokilam and even directed music for a few gramophone songs of T.V. Ratnam – then a budding singer – before returning to Vaikkom to be near his deity. Till about 1948, for a few years, Dakshinamurthi lived a life of piety, having darshan of the deity, singing all night, teaching when he was asked to. And when he got the call to come to Madras, it was with the feeling that he was leaving his treasure at Vaikkom. When he tuned his first song for the Malayalam film Nallathanka (1950), he had the feeling that Vaikkathappan was opening doors for him.

Dakshinamurthi’s success as a music director was as much due to his knowledge of Carnatic music and his capacity to put it to the service of cinema, as to his gift of empathising with different situations. When the Tamil novelist Sandilyan was drafted to write the Tamil version of the Malayalam film, Amma (1952), producer Vasu laid the condition that Dakshinamurthi, who had wept uncontrollably while listening to the climax of the Malayalam version, should do so for the Tamil script too. That was the sign that it would pass muster! Sandilyan saw to it that Dakshinamurthi wept, and the producers smiled all the way to the bank !

Sami’s music and its nearness to the land and its traditions came out soon enough in a lovely lullaby in ‘Sneha Seema’ (1954), ‘Kannum Pootti Uranguka’ sung by P.Leela and A.M.Raja. For another cradle song he enlisted P. Sushila for the first time in Malayalam cinema to come up with another winner, ‘Paattu Paadi Urakkaam Njaan’ . In ‘Paadunnu Puzha’, the same refrain occurs in three disparately different settings, a challenge to a composer to reflect different situations. But as Dakshinamurthi was clear about film song as ‘telling’ something in a musical way rather than mere singing, he could match the varying moods of the film in variegated melody. The combination of Dakshinamurthi with poet Srikumaran Thampi and Yesudas makes a very ordinary situation in the film luminous through the song, ‘Hridaya Sarisile Pranaya Pushpame’.

 We have a very rare occurrence in cinema of a romantic air of great beauty begun in Begada in the film ‘Stree’ (Innale Neeyoru), and tapering off in Amir Kalyani! The imperceptible shifting of gears between Kamboji and Shanmukhapriya in ‘Kaattile Paazhmulam’ is capped rather dramatically with a plaintive Manoloyam (Vilaikku Vaangiya Veena). Dakshinamurthi could easily distill fragrant melodies from multifarious ragas that the sixties and seventies demanded (for example, Ponveyil Manikacha in Velaiikku Vaangiya Veena based on Sankarabharanam, and  ‘Uttaraa Swayamvaram Kathakali Kaanuvaan’ in ‘Danger Biscuit’). When it comes to Mahakavi G. Sankara Kurup’s suggestion-laden poetry in ‘Abhayam’ (Sraantham Ambaram), it gets the mounting, as it were, of Vedic hymns resounding to the rumble of monsoon clouds. The sombre and awesome metre and melody to which ‘an extended sky burning in a rush of fiery dreams’ flows like an Upanishadic incantation is possible only when literature is expressed by a musical oracle like Dakshinamurthi. Those who have listened to Dakshinamurthi reciting his own Tamil hymns like one possessed  can understand that basically he was translating into musical terms an inner state of worship and adoration going back to his Vaikkom days. (Dakshinamurthi published his outpourings, titled ‘Aatma Deepam’ under the pseudonym, ‘Sivanadithondar’).

‘Kaavya Mela’, which is about the tragedy that shadows a poet (and what greater tragedy can there be for a writer than plagiarism!), itself borrows freely from ‘Pyaasa’! The songs by Dakshinamurthi are thankfully original. They were a hit in Malayalam, and when the film was made in Tamil as ‘Devi’, the Tamil songs too made an impact though the film failed. One very interesting song in the Malayalam version, ‘Swapnangal’, has five singers and music directors singing on stage. They are P.Leela, P.B.Srinivos, Yesudas, M.B.Srinivasan and Dakshinamurthi himself! Sahana flows like a breeze in the refrain ‘Swapnangal Swapnangal’. The song features as a paean to the Tamil language in the Tamil version (‘Thithikkum Muttamizhe’ sung by T. M. Sounderarajan and P. Sushila). Once the late TMS remembered Dakshinamurthi to this writer, exclaiming, ‘‘He had the talent to make good melodies in classical ragas’’.

 Being a natural singer himself, Dakshinamurthi tuned songs mainly by singing them. ‘‘Other composers use the harmonium for composing. But this – pointing to his voice – is the only reed I use. And I don’t believe in making tunes and having songs written for them. I invariably tune lyrics which are written for the situation. This helps me bring out the feelings that must be expressed. And generally, it is the tune that strikes me first that proves to be the best’’. Dakshinamurthi’s handful of films in Tamil were marked by winsome melodies but opportunities shrunk because the films didn’t succeed. One of the crowning glories of his career was his work for ‘Jagatguru Adi Sankarar’ (1977), which was made in Malayalam and dubbed in Tamil as well. His ‘Bhaja Govindam’ and ‘Sankara Digvijayam’ are unforgettable songs in this musically rich film.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

T. M. Sounderarajan -- An unforgettable voice in Tamil cinema

By Vamanan

One of the lifelong disappointments of T.M.Sounderarajan was that he had not been able to become a Carnatic musician proper. ‘‘My days have passed without my being able to make a mark as a respected Carnatic Vidwan,’’ , the famous playback singer would say in a tone of half-lament (‘‘Lakshanamaaga Karnaataka Sangeeta Vidwaan endru peredukka mudiyaamaleye en Kaalam Kazindhu Vittadhu…’’ )

The obvious answer is that if you plant sugarcane you cannot harvest samba paddy. But the context of the remark of Sounderarajan, who passed away last May at the ripe age of 91, was his Carnatic tutelage under Karaikkudi Rajamani Iyengar, a nephew and disciple of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, the redoubtable musician, composer and scholar. TMS was very conscious of the fact that his teacher’s gurubhai, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar had fired the imagination of a whole generation of Carnatic listeners.

While Ariyakudi’s example of shining success is indeed something that can make an aspiring singer turn Carnatic-ward, TMS, as he was famously known would also shudder at the obscurity and anonymity that wooing the Carnatic muse might have brought upon him!  He had seen a  classical singer shuffle past his compound one day, and rightly or wrongly got a sense of  what might have happened to him too. In the bargain, TMS earned a million fans for his cinema songs – it was a sight to see some of them following the funeral cortege with ‘Ulagam Piradhadhu Enakkaaga’ (the world was made for me to conquer)—but lost out on the quintessential classical genre. Of course, he could give a sufficient account of himself in classically oriented film songs, but in such songs it’s not sampradaya but celluloid and its sangathis that get priority.

The son of a poor hereditary temple priest of the Saurashtra community in Madurai, Sounderarajan’s tryst with music began in the thirties when he was studying in the St. Mary’s School and Saurashtra School in Madurai. Tamil cinema’s first decade had begun and it was a musical chapter in which bhagavathars trooped in to studios as the criterion for donning greasepaint was the ability to sing. It was a time when a 23-year-old GNB could get before the camera as Narada and belt out Thyagaraja’s ‘Koti Nadulu Dhanushkodilo’ while Maharajapuram Krishnamurthy’s Krishna joined him in a jugalbandhi of swara singing! In his late teens, Sounderarajan reacted to this musical mileau with glee, and would burst into song a la the actors of the decade. His school recognized him as the prayer singer. One of the songs he would remember years later was, ‘Thaniyaai Ennai Vidhuthaai’ , a verse expressing Shiva’s angst at Sathi’s leaving for her father Daksha’s yaaga despite being forbidden to do so. It’s a stirring Kalyani projection that has survived to this day, delivered trenchantly by V.A. Chellappa, a nephew of S.G. Kittappa whose voice summed up all the magic of the stage.

But it was the voice of heartthrob M,K,Thyagaraja Bhagavathar that Sounderarajan took as his role model. Such was the passion with which Sounderarajan imitated the singing star that he gravitated towards his inner circle and had a near escape from becoming a personal lackey! The alternative was between becoming a ‘raja’ on his own or becoming a ‘kooja’ (hanger on) of MKT. Sounderarajan chose the first option, and a friend’s intercession soon led him to Karaikkudi Rajamani Iyengar for proper musical training. He could afford only a two-year stint in which he learnt 12 varnams and 48 kritis.
The tutelage under Iyengar gave him the confidence to seek his calling as a singer. Soon, Sounderarajan got a break in ‘Krishna Vijayam’ (1950), singing Bhagavathar’s famous Senchurutti classic, ‘Radhe Unakku Kobam Aagathadi’ (Radha, this anger does not befit you) in a slightly modified lyrical version. The playback singing era had just dawned, and Sounderarajan sang for actor Narasimha Bharati, a fellow Saurashtrian who was born in the same day, date and city as Sounderarajan himself!

The fifties spelt the slow atrophy of the studio system of production (which had given Sounderarajan his first break), and the rise of stars like Sivaji, MGR and Gemini Ganesan. These were actors deeply conscious of the possibilities of playback singing adding to their appeal and played a part in choosing their background voices. We have it on record that when TMS was drafted to sing for Sivaji Ganesan in ‘Thookku Thookki’, whose success made the former’s fortune surge, it was the actor who was present at the recording to give his approval or otherwise. MGR, who had made a strategic decision to go Dravidian just then, again chose TMS’s ringing voice to make his first political point in, ‘Ethanai Kaalam Thaan Emaatruvaar Indha Naattile’ (Malai Kallan). It was just a question of putting across their brand strongly and they chose the brightest voice to do so. Songs like ‘Adho Andha Paravai Poala Vaazha Vendum’ and ‘Naan Aanai Ittaal’, in which Sounderarajan’s voice sounds like a trumpet in the taara sthaayi, gave substance to MGR’s political grandstanding and contributed to his larger-than-life image.

Of course, Sounderarajan’s ascendancy was no cake walk in the intensely competitive world of Tamil cinema. The fifties were the decade of a myriad playbacks. Tiruchi Loganathan had kicked off with the wonderful Bhimplas song with Jikki in Mandhiri Kumari, Vaaraay ne Vaaraay, so magnificently tuned by G. Ramanathan. C.S. Jayaraman might have seemed to sing with a pebble in his mouth and with a tremulo to boot, but  Sivaji had sung in his voice in the incredibly successful Parasakthi.  (Kannada Rajkumar had had some soaring numbers in his debut film, Bedara Kannappa in CSJ’s voice). CSJ was active all through the fifties. A.M.Raja might have seemed a trifle effeminate in the sometimes macho world of swashbuckling Robin Hoods (MGR) and declaiming heros (Sivaji) but in a decade which threatened to be inundated by light Hindi tunes of the Naushadian gharana, Raja seemed quite the in thing. It was then that G.Ramanathan teamed up with TMS (and in some measure with Sirkali Govindarajan, Loganathan and P.B. Srinivos) in an effort to create an original southern response in Tamil cinema through Carnatic music.
The opportunity came through a series of re-makes of thirties and early forties hits, earlier featuring Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and P.U.Chinnappa, now reprised by Sivaji, MGR and to a lesser extent by Gemini Ganesan. Even Thookku Thooki (1954) was a remake of 1934 success. Its riproaring success was followed by Ambikapathi, Madurai Veeran, Kaathavarayan (earlier Aryamala), Sarangadhara, Sadhaaram and Uthamaputhiran, among other films. Vasantha Mullai (Charukesi), Sindhanai Sei Maname (Kalyani), Mullai Malar Mele (Kaanada), Ninaindhu Ninaindhu Nenjam (Shanmughapriya), Sundari Soundari Niranthariye (Kurinji), Naan Petra Selvam (Jonpuri), Maasila Nilave (Maand) and Aadaatha Manamum Undo (in Lathangi, composed by the Viswanathan Ramamurthy duo) made the fifties redolent with the fragrances of raga music.

TMS, who had a ‘kaarvai’ voice not given to brigas marvelled at the flowing brigas that MLV marshalled when she sang the Lathangi song. This feeling continued in Sri Valli (1963), the last of the long list of remakes to hit the screen. Murugan’s famous courtship of the tribal belle Valli had been made into the first Tamil hit in 1933 and had been made again to stunning success in 1945 with singing star Mahalingam and lissom Rukmani. Sivaji, despite his girth, was now playing Muruga and Mahalingam was Narada. During the recording of the songs, Sounderarajan had had occasion to hear the brigalomania of Mahalingam in an extended six-and-a-half minute song, and the colour drained out of his face. He turned to mentor G. Ramananthan and asked, ‘‘My song is to appear just after this. After all this exuberant shower of brigas, will mine cut ice?’’. And Ramanathan said, ‘‘Yes, Mahalingam has celebrated the song in his briga style. But Soundararaja, you don’t know the value of your wonderful voice. Touch a high note in the song and make it an elongated one (kaarvai). When fans hear Sivaji miming to your majestic rendering they will go ga-ga’’. Sri Valli flopped, but the confidence that Ramanathan gave TMS made him ready for a hundred battles!

With his energetic and evocative singing of compositions based on Carnatic ragas, TMS was the brightest face of Ramanathan’s success in the fifties, and when a novel light music wave arose pushing the sound of the fifties to the background, he might simply have been sidelined comprehensively. But he became the stormtrooper of the new wave in which not raga, but feeling was predominant, a more melodious and meaningful orchestration added to the magic of the song , and the lyric, thanks to Kannadasan had poetic charm, literary weight and cinematic aptness and was yet intelligible to the masses. The success of the ‘Pa’ series of films, and the astounding reception to their songs – which, though they were neatly dovetailed into the film had a life and meaning all their own --  impacted the Tamil consciousness powerfully. Sounderarajan’s voice had both puissance and melody, and his Tamil diction was not only great but had a mesmeric charm. Witness a  ‘Vandha Naal Mudhal’, powerfully putting across man’s loss of innonence, and ‘Malarndhu Malaraadhu’, a grand lyrical dirge to the stormy pressures that rocked close family ties.  Add to this the uncanny suitability of TMS’s voice to the two poles of Tamil cinema….MGR and Sivaji. The widespread feeling was that he changed his voice to suit theirs. Even the AVM studio baron Meiyyappa Chettiar, a tough cookie if ever there was one, strongly felt that TMS could change his voice to suit different actors. When TMS had to sing for the younger Sivakumar in ‘Uyarndha Manidhan’, he is said to have told his staff – ‘‘Just tell TMS that the song is for Sivakumar, he will take care to see that it is different from his rendering for Sivaji!’’ TMS took playback singing beyond just singing a song in the background, it was vocal acting…histrionics through voice. ‘Andha Naal Gnaabagam’, ‘Deivame’ and ‘Devane Ennai Paarungal’ bear witness to this aspect of his singing which was like a dash of melodramatic opera. And of course, having been the voice of Tamil cinema for decades, the charges of kitsch and crassness can stick to some of his songs too.

Like the re-make craze of the fifties, Tamil cinema turned to the golden era of the Tamil stage in the mid-sixties, thanks to director A.P.Nagarajan who had been a boy actor in troupes that enacted the Sankaradas Swamigal brand of musical drama.  Sivaji Ganesan, Kannadasan, K.V.Mahadevan, and TMS as the male voice carried these films from Tiruvilaiayaadal to Saraswathi Sabatham and Tiruvarutchelvar and Tirumal Perumai on their shoulders. The one-man orchestra cinematic concept in which multi-exposure is used to show the same person playing all the roles in a cutcheri was picturised to TMS’s ‘Paattum Naane’ in the stirring ‘Gowrimanohari’ song. (P.U.Chinnappa did this first in Jagathalapratapan, and Narasimha Bharati followed suit in Krishna Vijayam to TMS’s singing). One offshoot of his enormous success as a singer was the opportunities he got to act. He donned the title role in ‘Pattinathar’, produced and scored by his mentor G.Ramanathan, and in Arunagirinathar, Kallum Kaniyaagum and Kavi Kaalamegam.  TMS’s stirring rendering of the Tiruppugazh, ‘Muthai Thiru Pathi’, a veritable tonguetwister stands out to this day for the clarity he could bring to the most tortuous Tamil style.

TMS was an HMV artiste from the early fifties, and a parallel track of his frenetic singing career was his yen for singing devotional songs. He tuned his songs and scored the music himself for such memorable songs of this genre like ‘Ullam Urugudhaiyya’ and a hundred other hits. His rendering of ‘Karpagavalliyin Porpadhangal’, as a raga malika in Ananda Bhairavi, Kalyani, Bageswari and Ranjani is said to have been commended by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. A Vaishnavite who had been named after the presiding deity of Azhagarkoil, Sounderarajan shifted his devotion to Lord Muruga seeking fame as a singer. He attributed his phenomenal longevity, both in the film world and in the real one – of course, sometimes they mixed in shades of purple and grey! – to his adoration of Muruga, the lord of eternal youth. As the decades roll by and time takes its toll, quite a few of the songs rendered by Sounderarajan are bound to resound in the digital paradise that mankind has made for itself!

(This article appeared in 'Sruti' magazine as an obituary tribute)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Classical Musicians in Tamil Cinema


When asked by a fan about the raga of a film song, Maharajapuram Santhanam would sport his impish smile and quip, ‘Cinema Raagam’.  Cinema music is freewheeling in its approach to melody, the only rule being that it must be evocative.  Carnatic music is bound by a long tradition, and any creativity is within the confines of accumulated wisdom.
Prof Sambamurthy

But despite this diametrical difference of approach, Carnatic musicians have had a shot at film music. Some have even had an innings. Certain periods in Tamil cinema have been easier for this two-timing, but versatile artistes have found it possible all the while!  In recent times, artistes have additionally to double as judges in reality shows shot late into the night and live media events with a lot of razzle dazzle.

Maharajapuram Santhanam himself sang a snatch of song in the 1974 film Roshakkaari, but it did not involve any foray into a new genre as he only sang an Alwar pasuram with which he used to woo his concert audiences. He had not reached the peak then, and it is possible the song added a wee bit to his rising popularity. Later, he would return the compliment to the music director (M. S. Viswanathan), performing jugalbandhis with the latter’s orchestra.

Santhanam’s father Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer had done one better, taking up an important acting role in the much hyped Nandanar (1935). Having come into his own in the early twenties, he became the first charismatic Carnatic musician to essay a celluloid role. But Viswanatha Iyer knew that Carnatic music was his métier and but for a single deflection of course would stick to it. His younger contemporary, G. N. Balasubramaniam was of the same ilk, but used films as a parallel career for more than a decade and acted in five films. He was unlike most Carnatic performers, being well educated, urbane and groomed outside the gurukula system, and needed the new gramophone and celluloid mediums to survive the hostile ambience. But except GNB’s single film with M. S. Subbulakshmi, there is not trace, not even a gramophone record of his celluloid phase. Apart from other things, it also shows that he never took his film music seriously. In the case of MS, however, her film work dovetailed beautifully into her persona as a classical singer with a yen for the spiritual.  

Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer
Roshakari film titles
The Carnatic element was so pronounced in the first decade Tamil talkie that it drew musicians and artistes of all hues towards it. Musiri Subramania Iyer unwillingly donned the title role in ‘Tukaram’ (1938), only for the dough, and a young  K. V. Narayanaswami, later to be known for his sensitive and sublime Carnatic singing,  portrayed the young Kannappa Nayanar  in a film of the same title (1938). Professor P. Sambamurthy, famous for his array of works on Carnatic music, had his all-woman orchestra play the background score for the film Rajabhakti (1937). He was also responsible for the music of Urvasiyin Sabatham (1939) and Krishnakumar (1941). Rukmini Devi, who later refused a presidential candidature, mimed to an erotic padam in Rajadesingu (1936) for a clip tagged on as an added attraction. V.V. Sadagopan, Carnatic musician and first actor in Tamil cinema to shoot in London (Navayuvan 1937), acted in four films before embarking on a concert career and then preferring to teach music and launch a movement for an alternative pedagogy for music.
T. N. Rajarathinam, both by personal and public estimation the Nagaswara Chakravarthi, acquiesced in playing the title role in ‘Kalamegam’ (1940). Neither the film nor the celebrated piper’s singing cut much ice and that was the end of his pipe dream of cinema.
G.N. Balasubramaniam

GNB’s star disciples MLV and (Radha) Jayalakshmi had, in contrast, an eventful record as playback singers in the fifties in addition to their concert careers. P. Leela, after a great stint as a playback singer, began a concert career with the comment that she was basically a classical singer who became famous in cinema. Balamuralikrishna, a Carnatic legend in his lifetime, has been the film world’s bridge to classical music. His singing for films has been selective, but always successful.  

 Sirkali Govindarajan, with his rigorous training in classical music was successful as a playback, Tamil Isai performer and devotional singer. Yesudas did the same with great success and in more than one language. In the next generation, P. Unnikrishnan has balanced his Carnatic concerts with playback singing admirably.

The trend in film music is eclectic and looks at the classical idiom as additional colour. There will always be opportunites for Carnatic artistes in such a scenario. But making a mark requires versatility as well as application and imagination. The challenge of singing both classical and film songs has been met before and can be done again.

(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music) (A version of this article appeared in the Times of India)

Monday, January 19, 2015

MDP - Best Music Director for Gemini's Avvaiyar

‘Avvaiyar’ , featuring K.B.Sundarambal is one of the classics of Tamil cinema. It was the dream child of S. S. Vasan, the Gemini studio baron : a film released by him in 1953 after a seven-year struggle to disprove cinema-basher Rajaji’s stand that films are piffle and deleterious trash.

The film made waves – Vasan saw to it that it did --- but Rajaji saw it and wrote some nastry things about it…its music included. It was his private opinion put down in his diary. It came to be known when Rajaji’s biographer and grandson revealed it decades later (both Rajaji and Vasan were gone by then).

Nonetheless, in the present decades of cable TV and dime a dozen digital videos, the well-preserved ‘Avvaiyar’ makes the rounds as a film shot with finesse and full of lovely songs. In a Tamil Nadu overtaken by urbanization and environmental depredation the visuals and music of Avvaiyar seem to be a call from the unspoilt Tamil country of yore! Kalidasa was on the spot when he made that famous epigram about the diversity of tastes (‘Loko Bhinna Ruchihi’).

And much of the music of ‘Avvaiyar’ is the handiwork of a forgotten music director called M.D. Parthasarathi. He was a worthy from Tiruchi Radio whom Vasan employed at a monthly salary of 1.5 quid. This was a time when salaries did not get into three figures even for the well-educated!

Parthasarathi was a ‘Sangeetha Bhushanam’ of Annamalai University at a time when old time giants like Ponniah Pillai (of the famous Thanjavur quartet family and the composer of ‘Maayaatheetha Swaroopini’ and the now famous ‘Ranganaathude’) and violinist and Sangita Kalanidhi T.S. Sabesa Iyer taught there. After completing his course, Parthasarathi was right on the dot at Chennai, Madras then, in the early 1930s, when the Tamil talkie began to lisp its incipient alapanas. It was the season of a cloudburst of mythologicals and the manifold ragas that go with them, and the tall and imposing young man of twenty with a tuneful baritone was sure to be part of the talkie scene. It was ‘open sesame’ for anybody who could sing.

Parthasarathi was acting in a play of the amateur group of the veteran Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar when the prominent stage actor and writer Vadivel Naicker spotted him. This led to Parthasarathi playing roles in films like Sakkubai (1934), Draupadi Vastrapaharanam (1934) and Srinivasa Kalyanam (the first Tamil film to be wholly made in Madras itself). But he is said to have come into his own with his interpretation of Hanuman in the film ‘Garuda Garva Bhangam’ (1936). A tall young man of admirable physique and a fervent singing voice would surely have had things going for him in such a role. Parthasarathi went to Calcutta’s Pioneer Studios to act in the film, and was known as ‘Sangeetha Bhooshanam’ Parthasarathi.

‘Garuda Garva Bhangam’ opens in the aftermath of the Kurukshetra war, with Balarama coming to know that Krishna was the cause of the ruination of the Kauravas and vowing to wreak vengeance on him. To add to Krishna’s troubles, his vehicle Garuda is also too much of himself and thinks that his services have not be properly utilized. Krishna’s spouse Bhama is also throwing tantrums. The script of the film is the plot that is   hatched to cut each of these overweening personalities to size. And it is Hanuman’s self-abnegating devotion that comes in handy for the purpose.
Garuda, Satyabhama and Balarama are shown their place through beautifully orchestrated incidents in the film. A good running role for Parthasarathi. He sings the songs, ‘Ramane Arul Nemane’ in the raga Behag, ‘Balarama Peyar Thagumaa’ in the raga Thodi, and the sloka, ‘Maata Ramaha…’ in the raga Chenchurutti. The famous actor Serukalathur Sama played Krishna while another good singer Vidwan Srinivasan acted as Narada.

Parthasarathi reprised the role in ‘Sethubandhanam’ (1936), with Oriental films, which made ‘Garuda Garva Bhangam’, shifting the focus  from the Mahabharata to the Ramayana. The scene was Lanka with Sita languishing in the Ashokavana under Ravana , played by the imposing actor P.B.Rangachari.  As Hanuman, Parthasarathi takes the crest jewel of Sita and presents it to Rama (‘Nott’ Annaji Rao -- father of the devotional singer and exponent Swami Haridoss Giri), singing ‘Ananda Sevai Seidhaen…Paramaananda Seivai Seidhaen’. In another song, he is more in the Sanskritic vein – ‘Saarasa nayana Sarojaanana’. Both ‘Garva bhangam’ and ‘Sethubandanam’ were directed by R. Padmanabhan, the veteran of some silent films and talkies.

Annaji Rao, who was Rama in Sethubandanam, played a prominent role in the film ‘Dharmapuri Rahasiyam’ (or ‘Raja Drohi’ – alternative titles were a fad of those times),  which was released in 1938. Parthasarathi potrayed the roles of a court jester and a wise minister in the film, which told the story of a deceitful minister who was carrying on with the queen. It was banned in the Travancore Samasthanam.  (A latter-day article in the Tamil film journal ‘Pesum Padam’ says that Parthasarathi established his histrionic capacity in the film).

Parthasarathi tried to produce a film at this juncture, but nothing came out of his efforts. He is also said to have been involved in the music direction of ‘Abala’ (1940), written and directed by PSV Iyer. (There are some who attribute the music to the Sarma brothers, who were perhaps the first to run a free-lance orchestra for the film industry in Madras. But just as sometimes film people go unpaid for their labours, they are also cheated of due credit for their work).

Just when his cinematic career seemed to have hit a dead-end, Parthasarathi found work with Tiruchi Radio as a staff artiste. He is said to have been very popular as an actor in radio plays. After a few years in radio, the film world beckoned him again. It was S.S.Vasan calling him to be in-house music director for the Gemini banner which would become a household name in a few years.

‘Nandanar’ (1942), featuring Dandapani Desigar in the lead role proved to be a resounding success for Gemini studios. The songs proved to be major hits, with Papanasam Sivan playing a major role in writing them and teaching Desigar (as noted by Desigar himself in an article). Gemini S.S.Vasan even conducted a ‘choose the best song’ contest – most probably the first ever for Tamil film songs. The film’s titles feature M.D.Parthasarathi and S. Rajeswara Rao as the music directors, in that order. That the film became a classic of Tamil cinema does add to the credit of its creative team.

Parthasarathi then scored the music for the film, Madanakamarajan (1943), a folklore story starring the singing star V.V. Sadagopan and K.L.V. Vasantha. The film was a big hit and featured short and pithy songs with able instrumental support. The music is credited to M.D.Parthasarathi and S. Rajeswara Rao, making it difficult to apportion credit. One can perhaps assume that the Carnatic oriented songs were Parthasarathi’s work, as he was known to be in charge of the Carnatic section in the studio. There is a beautiful song by Sadagopan in Mohanam, a song of love and pining: ‘Prema, Nee Illaamal Uranguvadhenge’ (Darling Prema, No sleep without you!).  There are other good songs like ‘Amma, Un Paadham Panindhaen’ (In Naattai, rendered by the latter day ‘mother of all stars’ M.V.Rajamma), ‘Kekai Vanna Thogai Minna’ (Kalyani, Sadagopan), ‘Thunai Neeye Arul Thaaraay’ (based on Kanada, rendered in unison by Sadagopan and supporting actor Krishnamurthy) and Oru Naalum’ (in Saraswathi, KLV Vasantha).  A virutham in Bhairavi and Kambodhi by Sadagopan (Minthirameni) is a stirring piece. The lyrics of Madanakamarajan (1941) were written by Papanasam Sivan and Kothamangalam Subbu. As everyone knows, Sivan used to give the lyrics and the tunes for them too. But we cannot say, how much of it flowed over to the screen, and how much the music directors whetted it and wove it to their ends. Such was the nature of film music composition in the initial decades of Tamil cinema.

 Gemini’s hit film, Mangamma Sabatham (1943), the story of a village girl who manages to get even with a lecherous prince, was a great success for its heroine Vasundhara Devi as well as Ranjan, who played the villain. The orchestral elements are prominent in the background score, and lend the film a special charm. The songs too don’t let down the film (Papanasam Sivan and Kothamangalam Subbu). The preludes and interludes of some songs (Siridhum Kavalai Padaadhe…for instance) are beautiful. They complement the visuals  of camera genius K. Ramnoth in a meaningful way. The titles spell out the music directors of the film like this :
‘Music by
Gemini Orchestra
Headed by
S. Rajeswara Rao

‘Dasi Aparanji’ (1944) had Pushpavalli playing the lead role of a woman of pleasure who would tax even those who dreamt of her! Some songs were really great. Kothamangalam Seenu, for instance, has a resounding hit in ‘Aasai Kollaadhavar Aanapillaiyai’ ! The song is a raga malika (Shanmugapriya, Begada, Kanada and Chenchurutti) and is beautifully worded: ‘Kazhuttazhagam, Kondai Surukkazhagum, Mullai Sirippazhagam, Chandhira Mugathazhagum…Kattazhagum, Nettri Pottazhagum, Kangal Vettazhagum, Kachchai Kattazhagum…’ . A raasa leela in a raga malika! M.D.Parthasarathi had exclusive music direction credits for ‘Kannamma Enn Kadhali’ (1945), a film ostensibly supporting the British during World War II by showing the Japanese attack on Rangoon and the Indian exodus from there.

Chandralekha was of course Gemini’s blockbuster, the south’s entry into the Hindi market and its answer to the formula for filmi entertainment. The music director’s title in the film goes to S. Rajeswara Rao, while the background score, a winning one at that, is credited to M.D.Parthasarathi, R. Vaidyanathan ( or Rima in short: Ranjan’s brother, and a science researcher who gave up a scientific career in London for his love for music), and B.Dasgupta. Parthasarathi even sang in the film, teaming up with the petite Sundari Bai to sing the ‘Naattiya Kudhirai’ song. Parthasarathi’s baritone for clown ‘Pottai’ Krishnamurthi makes a curiously effective combo.

In Chakradhaari (1948), with Chittoor Nagiah acting as the devotee Gorakumbhar, there are a lot of soft and melodious songs in various Carnatic ragas like Useni, (Rangan Karunaiyaale), Mayamalavagaula (Unakkum Enakkum) and Kambodhi (Bhuvanapathe).  Parthasarathi seems to have had a field day in the film.

‘Apoorva Sahodarargal’ (1949), modelled on Alexander Dumas’ novel, Corsican Brothers and its celluloid avatar featuring Douglas Fairbanks, had the subdued actor M. K. Radha in a double role. The songs in this film are in the romantic mould and are fashioned in the light and melodious genre. With T.A. Moti singing for the hero and Bhanumati singing her own songs, there was a bouquet of mellow tunes. ‘Aha Aaduvene’ is a Moti-Bhanumati song with a lilt and loveliness all its own. ‘Maanum Mayilum Aadum Solai’, sung by Bhanumathi is a beautiful song in Bhimplas. (The music direction is credited to S. Rajeswara Rao, M.D.Parthasarathi and R. Vaidyanathan, in that order).

Avvaiyar, of course, was a spectacle and a musical, making the most of the personality and voice of K.B.Sundarambal. The film is a regular in the TV channels and has also been well preserved. Its songs are not only a tribute to KBS but also to M.D. Parthasarathi, Anantaraman and Mayavaram Venu who are credited with the music direction.

I hear that Parthasarathi was involved in the music of Natyarani (1949) and ‘Soudamini’  (195i), but I wonder whether he was credited for his work. The song book of the latter film, gives S. V. Venkatraman’s name as the music director. Parthasarathi came out of Gemini studio when Vasan began shedding his permanent staff. He worked as the music director of the film ‘Nam Kuzhandhai’ (1955) as a free lance composer. One song by the singer M.S. Anuradha, who sang very rarely in films, is ‘Oviyakalai Therindhaal Poadhuma’ (is it enough to know the art of painting), a very beautiful and unforgettable song in Bhimplas. ‘Nam Kuzhandhai’ had a battery of redoubtable old timers singing for it : S. Varalakshmi (Ulagam Poara Thinusai), V. Nagiah (Deivame Unai Therindhavar Yaar), V. N. Sundaram (Valluvan Sonnadhellaam Poyyaagumaa) and U.R. Jeevaratnam (Jigu Jigu Jigu). I hear from the late Parthasarathi’s daughter Dr. Vijaya Parthasarathi that he was not only never paid for his work but also ended up paying musicians from his pocket. Parthasarathi then left the world of films for good and joined AIR Bangalore. What a way to lose a committed musician of class and conscience!

Parthasarathi passed away rather prematurely at the age of 53. But his daughters Dr. Vijaya Parthasarathi (a botanist), Dr. Ranganayaki Parthasarathi (a leather technologist), Padmini Ramaswamy (a nuclear scientist) and Rohini Krishnan ( a medical welfare officer), and his only son Dr. Naresh are celebrating the centenary of their great father 37 years after his passing. A rare privilege for a man who is not there to argue his case. May great memories live on.