Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tamil films and classical music

Travelling light: a journey in music 

By V Ramnarayan

Chapter 7

It was his friendship with the sons of a couple of film music directors that introduced Krishnan to the use of classical or semi-classical music in Tamil films. He was also an ardent follower of Hindi film music--in fact more interested in it than in Tamil film songs. One of them, Venkatachalam, was the son of KV Mahadevan, arguably the best exploiter of raga music during the 1960s, even more attractive to Krishnan's ears than Viswanathan-Ramamurthi, the star pair among music directors of that era. The other had been Sudarsan, the son of Subbiah Naidu of an earlier vintage. Through these and other friends connected to the film industry, Krishnan accumulated a fair knowledge of the classical and semi-classical music, musicians and others behind the scenes responsible for the high standard of film music then. This is what he pieced together from his conversations with these friends and from reading the newspaper and magazine articles of the time.

Music was king and queen in Indian cinema in the early 20th century. Those were the times when the success of a play or film was measured by the number of songs it featured, when encores prolonged them forever—even in silent films with music performed live in front of the screen by an assembled band.

Before playback singing—India’s brilliant contribution to cinema—came into being, the stars of the day had to do their own singing, but not all of them were musical, while those cast for their singing ability often could not act to save their lives.

The resultant classic was frequently unintentionally funny, but fans were undeterred by such incidental shortcomings, for listening to their heroes and heroines was reward enough.

In Tamil cinema, MK Tyagaraja Bhagavatar was perhaps the biggest draw among the singing stars of yesteryear, i.e., on a long term basis, excluding the sensational screen appearances of musical talents such as MS Subbulakshmi or GN Balasubramaniam, who made a huge mark on classical music.

A classically trained musician, Bhagavatar had a powerful yet pliant and mellifluous voice that traversed a great range and negotiated curves and glissandos seemingly effortlessly to the utter delight of millions of fans. Among these ardent enthusiasts were the cognoscenti as much as the man on the street. For MKT’s music was pure and unalloyed, but with an appeal that transcended that of proscenium concerts. His greatest hit, Haridas, ran for 114 weeks at the Broadway theatre, Chennai, a record that remains unbeaten to date.

Bhagavatar was paired famously with S. D. Subbulakshmi. The duo extemporised on stage to the delight of fans, their electric exchanges leading to their huge success in films like Pavalakkodi and Naveena Sarangadhara. Their songs Siva peruman kripai vendum and Chanchalam teerndinbamura became chartbusters.

SD Subbulakshmi, a discovery of director (and later, husband) K. Subramaniam, was to achieve critical acclaim in his ambitious Tyaga Bhumi (1939), a distinctly feminist film based on a novel by Kalki Krishnamurti that ran into censor trouble because of its “seditious” content. The song Desa sevai seyya vareer by D. K. Pattammal, which backgrounded a procession of freedom fighters, giving musical expression to patriotic sentiment, led to the banning of the film by the British government. Interestingly, the Carnatic musician and composer to have the greatest impact on Tamil film music, Papanasam Sivan, played Sambhu Sastri, the protagonist of Tyaga Bhumi. In an extraordinary reversal, a number of Sivan's compositions for films found their way to the concert stage. They are so classically pure that they are today unrecognisable as film songs.

The other Subbulakshmi, MS, was to lift the medium of cinema to a higher plane when worshipping crowds fell at her feet during the filming of Meera, directed by Ellis R. Dungan and masterminded by husband Sadasivam. For all the huge popularity of Kalki Krishnamurti’s Katrinile varum geetam and Anda nalum vandidado from this tale of a young female Rajasthani saint, their impact could not exceed by too much that of Ma Ramanan (Papanasam Sivan) from her debut film Seva Sadanam, based on Premchand’s reformist novel (made by that man K. Subramaniam, who else?). The song served to redefine film music with its unadulterated classicism; it has in fact passed into the mainstream of the Carnatic concert oeuvre.

Sakuntalai, a musical based on Kalidasa’s classic, had earlier starred that matinee idol among Carnatic musicians, G. N. Balasubramaniam, opposite M.S. The pair was a huge draw and the box office was kept busy by this extravaganza by Dungan. The duets Premaiyil yavum and Manamohananga anangey were responsible for that success.

Carnatic vocalist S. Rajam and his younger brother S. Balachandar were both to sing songs in films in which they acted. In fact, Balachandar, a child prodigy who became famous as a veena player, was a versatile all rounder, who acted in and directed films, besides playing many instruments.

Arguably the greatest all round star among the singer-actors of Tamil cinema was
P. U. Chinnappa, who came to films via the same route that Tyagaraja Bhagavatar took: stage plays. Chinnappa could act and that is where he was different from some of the other heroes like Bhagavatar and G. N. Balasubramaniam, essentially singers who strayed into films. Following in his father’s footsteps, Pudukkottai Ulaganatha Pillai Chinnasami became a stage actor at age five, in 1922. The play Sadaram, the story of a thief, catapulted Chinnappa to fame. His films Aryamala, Kannagi, Jagadalapratapan and Harishchandra established him as a leading actor, who besides singing his own songs, fought his own fights, with mastery over a number of martial arts.

An unusual singing star was K. B. Sundarambal, a box office draw for her golden voice and the devotional fervour of her singing. Both on stage and in films, she captured the hearts of her adoring audiences, playing both male and female roles with consummate ease. Her stage and life partner S. G. Kittappa was perhaps the most talented singer the Tamil stage had seen, and together, they made history. Sundarambal sang songs that were to become evergreen melodies in such films as Nandanar, Manimekhalal, Avvaiyar, Tiruvilaiyadal and Poompuhar. Her performance as Avvai, the Tamil poet-saint, was so convincing that a whole generation of children believed her to be the original Avvai Patti.

Another singing role she played was male, that of Nandan in Nandanar, which also had the classical vocalist Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer in it! In Manimekhalai, which followed, Sundarambal was paired with Kottamangalam Cheenu, a fine singer who was later consigned to oblivion. A later version of Nandanar Charitram, had the peerless Dandapani Desigar, playing the role of a dalit devotee, and singing movingly in his ringing baritone.

Another popular male vocalist, who made it big in the 1940s and 50s, was a namesake of the greatest flautist Carnatic music has known. TR Mahalingam was one of those singing stars who bagged acting roles because of their singing ability, but he was a success in both romantic songs and bhakti music. Chittoor V. Nagiah was another famous actor capable of singing his own songs, for he was a fully trained Carnatic vocalist, a conscientious one at that. For his role as Tyagaraja in the film on the celebrated composer’s life, he reportedly took lessons from GNB and Musiri Subramania Iyer, himself a singing star in and as Tukaram.

Of South India’s singing stars of a more recent vintage, P Bhanumati and Rajkumar achieved greater fame than most. Bhanumati who later became the principal of the Government Music College, Madras, was a classically trained vocalist who had early success singing her own songs in Tamil and Telugu, but the Kannada star was a late bloomer, who yet became an enduring icon in his dual role. Like Bhanumati, S. Varalakshmi was another actress from Andhra who had a nice singing voice and used it to effect in films.

Around 1960, Krishnan had heard the mellow vocie of PB Srinivas for the first time--under the music direction of MB Srinivasan, the original whose experiments in choral music involving Indian tunes gave some memorable film songs. It was at Tuticorin's Charles theatre that Krishnan saw such movies as Paathai Teriyudu Paar in which the two Srinivas (an)s had collaborate dto produce some glorious music.

G Ramanathan, SV Venkataraman and Adinarayana Rao were among south Indian music directors in films to deploy classical music to great effect in their movies. The first two were perhaps the top two music directors of the 1940s. Continuing to be prominent in the 1950s, GR composed the music for nearly a hundred films. Among his significant efforts was his turning Subramania Bharati's verses into film songs.

A landmark film of the 1960s was Tiruvilaiyadal, based on the Tamil myth of Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam, featuring the many miracles of Lord Siva who appeared in human form on earth. Though the main male singer of the film was TM Soundararajan, it also had one song  by Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, the famous Carnatic vocalist, who later became a Sangita Kalanidhi of the Madras Music Academy. Krishnan found it intriguing that in a scene in which a Tamil singer and a north Indian vocalist compete in court, TMS (the Tamil voice of Sivaji Ganesan) defeats Balamuralikrishna as lip-synced by TS Baliah, though to his ears the so-called north Indian's ragamalika (Oru naal poduma) sounded superior to TMS's Gaurimanohari (Paattum naane).

Another song by Balamuralikrishna, Tangaratham from the film Kalai Kovil was a sensational hit. The film had its excellent music composed by veena vidwan Chittibabu, whom Krishnan had the pleasure of meeting, when they were both waiting at a bus stop! Imagine a top-flight musician of today depending on public transport! Krishnan found the charismatic  artist with a sizable fan following among the young to be a simple and unaffected young man.


tucker said...

Ram, a very nice write up !!!!! While I appreciate your assessment of MKT and his music it will not be exaggeration to mention the name of SHRI. KOYHAMANGALM SEENU, a Versatile singer equal to MKTmif not more !!!!! His songs in film music unfortunately not got the FULL RECOGNITION since he had no God Father !!!! He had more training and stage experiences and unfortunately the TAMIL Music World had lost a very Talented Musician due to poor patronage and PR !!!!!

Ramnarayan said...

Thank you, Tucker. Yes, Kothamangalam Seenu will certainly find a place in the book this blog will eventually become. Thanks for mentioning him there. This is the very purpose why I am blogging the contents of my planned book.