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Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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On Tamil Film Music

Ram Ramakrishnan
in the Society.Culture.Tamil


Tamil film music is probably unique in the sense that there is a remarkable continuity in the style of composition over time. It initially absorbed elements of carnatic music and folk music of that time (the therukkoothu and kuraththi paattu prevalent in dramas).

If you listen to G Ramanathan (1935-1960 when he reigned supreme) this comes through clearly - in fact it is almost completely carnatic music for MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, PU Chinnappa, etc. etc. It's only for NS Krishnan and TA Mathuram or in the late 50s Sivaji, MGR films that the folk elements crop up - vaanga machchaan vAnga vantha vazhiya pATHu pOnga (madurai veeran), ERAtha malai thanilE vegu jOrAna kauthAri rendu (thookku thookki). Even in these films there are straight carnatic compositions (Adal kAneerO, sundari soundari niranthariyE).

In earlier years, all of the songs were written by Papanasam Sivan - mainly devotional themes, but substantial numbers of secular themes were also dealt with. This was the only time in Tamil film music that purely carnatic songs IN TAMIL where set to music. In later years, ilayaraja unfortunately started introducing Thyagaraja krithis into his films - brOvA bAramA, nee dhayarAdhA, manasulOni, etc.

I notice the discussions about Tamil film music on SCT  have so far not dealt with either the relationship between the song and the situation in the movie or the relationship of the lyrics to the music. We may not have seen/ remember the movie and so it's understandable that we don't discuss the first issue. But it's inconceivable to me how the music can ever be appreciated without understanding and appreciating the lyrics.

Right from G Ramanathan's day this link is very clear - I've made fun of songs like soppana vAzhvil magizhndhE subrahmanya swAmi unnaimaRandhaal (political overtones here?:-)  and krishnA mukundA murArE, but listening to them again recently I'm struck by how well G Ramanathan has matched the words to the music. Take another later example - ulavum thendral kaaRRinilE from mandhirikumAri. He spent considerable time composing the tune to suit the words and you hear the effect of the wind by the way in which Trichy Loganathan and Jikki elaborate these words. Since the composer set music to lyrics already written this was no mean feat.

Even though some of his greatest hits were in 1959-61 (kappalOttiya thamizhan, veera paandiya kattabomman) the phenomenal popularity of viswanathan - ramamoorthy's Gul-e-bakavali, mannAdhi mannan, pathi bhakthi, baagappirivinai, paalum pazhamum eclipsed these achievements. What they had done was to move from pure carnatic music to mellisai - orchestration was in, and even pure carnatic music couldn't be recognized as such by the layperson. Playback was also in big time. The folk element was still there - therOdum intha singAra madhuraiyilE kondAdum attam OyilAttam, thAyiththu thAyiththu etc. Again you can't talk about any of V-R's work without thinking about the great songs pattukkOttai and Kannadasan wrote. Though poor pattukkOttai died in 1959 he reigned supreme in the late 50s. Kannadasan became popular only after his death.(?)

Of course there were other composers and writers producing occassionally brilliant stuff right from the days of G Ramanathan. SV Venkatraman's Meera and Sakuntalai for instance are still a pleasure to listen to (if you don't laugh at GN Balasubramaniam's totally inappropriate "sha" wherever "sa" is called for).

Lyricists like thanjai rAmiAh doss, a. maruthakAsi (kannil vanthu minnal pOl), kA. mu. sherif (ulavum thendral), ku. mA. bAlasubramaniam (chithiram pEsuthadi) and the infamous udumalai nArAyana kavi also wrote excellent lyrics.

nArAyana kavi wrote awful nonsense lyrics that became extremely popular (jAleelO gymkhana dOleelO gumkhAnA and other insults to the art of writing Tamil lyrics). This trend has become popular again today (kushbu kushbu, and all those Rehman songs).

There was a lot of give and take with Hindi and  Telugu film music in this period with Kannadasan's lyrics standing tall (think of the banal sau saal pehle mujhe tumse pyaar tha aaj bhi hai aur kal bhi rahegaa [I loved you a hundred years ago, today too and I'll continue to love you tomorrow] transposed into manam ennum mEdai mElE nizhal ondru Aduthu yAr vanthathu angE yAr vanthathu? [There's a shadow dancing on the stage of my heart, who has come there?] or sAhir's LudhiAnvi's sau baar janam lEngE, sau baar sanam doongE brilliantly summarized as nooRu muRai piRanthAlum nooRu muRai irandhAlum unai pirindhu vegu thooram naan pOnathillai... followed by OrAyiram pArvaiyilE to the same tune. I think of karnan as the greatest achievement in this period - every song was excellent; they were all based on carnatic ragas but each song stood apart.

K.V. Mahadevan also produced a lot of excellent songs from the fifties through the seventies (Shankarabharanam is the last hit I can remember). He usually got typecast into the mythologicals (saraswathi sabatham, kandhan karunai, etc) but gave great tunes for other types of movies as well. He typically used only carnatic music with orchestration.

By this time Visvanathan-Ramamoorthy had split up and MS Viswanathan became extremely popular. While Ramamoorthy continued to compose music for some films (subhadhinam, maniyOsai, kAthal jOthi etc) he was never as popular as MSV.

After Teesri Manzil became popular (1965/66), rock n' roll became a great favorite. This may be the reason for some of the deprecatory comments about MSV's music. However, there were any number of great tunes that MSV churned out (rAjA, enga oor rAjA, ooty varai uravu, kudiyirundha koil, sumathi en sundhari, prAptham, balE pandiyA, sivakamiyin selvan, thangap pathakkam, selvamagal, avan thaan manithan, aboorva rAgangal, avargal, aval oru thodarkathai, nizhal nijamAgiradhu and the list goes on endlessly). By no means can you categorize these songs as inferior to anything produced earlier or to those being composed at the time in Hindi films.

In fact between 1965- 1975 RD Burman, Kalyanji Anandji, and Laxmikant Pyarelal produced a whole lot of junk music. Of course the great tunes of this time are popular even today (Aradhana, Parichay, Chupke Chupke, Abhimaan, Mili, Kinara, Khushboo, Kora Kagaz, Anand, Safar, Anurodh, Amanush, Shor, Chor machaye Shor etc); but this does not mean that most of the songs produced were great. In fact the instrumentation was harsh and shrill - poor Rafi could not keep up. Only someone capable of drowning out the orchestra (Kishore Kumar) could sing most of the songs.

In the earlier years, eight to ten composers like Naushad, Madan Mohan, SD Burman, OP Nayyar, Shanker Jaikishan, Salil Choudhury, Hemant Kumar each had developed their own unique styles of composition. They rarely strayed into each other's territories and when they did fared miserably (case in point: Naushad's pathetic ghoda gaadi song "koi pyaar ki dekhe jaadugari" which does not even come close to the perfection of OP Nayyar's work in the same genre). And again in the 50s - C Ramchandra, Sajjad, Husnlal Bhagatram, Anil Biswas, Khemchand Prakash, Vasant Desai also specialized in distinct styles. In sharp contrast, G Ramanathan, V-R, MSV and KVM spanned the entire range of styles prevalent in their time. But all of this was before the MSV era.

Which brings us to Ilayaraaja - I remember listening to his annakkili song adi raakkaayi, mookkaayi,..,kasthuri, meenakshi,....thangappal kaararukkum vaaththiyaarammavukkum kalyanam, nellu kuththa vaangadiyo. Having become inured to vividh bharathi/ SLBC's sunday programs like isai arangam, neyar viruppam, paattukku paattu, etc that used to be on 24 hrs a day courtesy of my sister, I used to be wonderstruck that such great songs (lyrics and music) could have been produced.

S Janaki was familiar to me only through singAra vElanE dEvA and kannan mananilayai thangamE thangam. Here suddenly was something entirely new in a familiar voice; the music was supposed to be based on Tamil folk melody, but it felt like nothing that I had listened to before - my reaction was duh? What's this guy upto, spoiling one of my favorite pastimes? I didn't like the rest of the score either except for the varanamayiram piece. It was only with films like kizhakke pogum rayil, kavikkuyil, kaaRRinilE varum geetham that I began to like his music. Again the lyrics were excellent and blended extremely well with the songs most of the time. Afterwards, his folk tunes, jazz experiments etc. became addictive. Of course there were a few rough edges that grated and still do.

With Vairamuthu in nizhalgal, kaathal Oviyam etc. and vaali occasionally I thought he would continue the excellence that had characterized Tamil film music upto this time. By and large this has happened - from kannadasan's death in '81 to his break up with vairamuththu in '90? things have generally worked out nicely. Since '90 he's had to depend on the whimsy of vaali who these days writes 6 good songs and 16 lousy ones after that. Talking about Ilayaraaja's consistency by commenting that the introductory stanza has interesting music but not the later interludes misses this issue completely. In recent years he has complained bitterly that lyricists are not able to write for the tunes he composes - so he has to get the lyrics and set them to music. It would not be surprising if inspiration dries up in these circumstances. In the last month or two he has taken the first positive step to deal with this problem by requesting lyrics via a competition in kumudham. Let's hope we get some new lyricists who'll do justice to his tunes.

As to the final issue of comparing music directors like SD Burman and Ilayaraaja this is unfair since the lyrics are not being taken into account. If you want to compare the style of composition alone then you can't conclude that A is a better music director than B or that C is the best indian music composer. The most you can say is that A uses this style more than B.

Finally, although this article is humongously long it scratches only the tip of the iceberg as far as Tamil film music/ influences of Tamil and Hindi film music on each other. I have the sneaking suspicion no one cares for G Ramanathan, and people don't remember a lot of V-R, MSV, KVM or even early Ilayaraaja. Of course I'm basing this judgment on the number of Rehman supporters:-) (I don't think anyone who has listened to the 1st 5 yrs output of these composers will seriously entertain the opinion that Rehman is the next great composer of Tamil film music).

As for the second issue, this probably appeals to an even narrower segment - those who enjoy Hindi and Tamil film music. However, if you guys are interested let me know and I'll post more.

SDB: The thing that I like very much is his bringing folk tunes of India and bringing it to the film world. I feel uncomfortable that I have to compare Ilayaraaja with him. It is the same thing of bringing folk tunes into the film world that Ilayaraaja is good at it. Not just good; but great at it.

I am glad that my love for old Tamil songs did make me not like Tamil songs of MS Vishwanathan era that much, and this made me move towards Hindi music to be able to enjoy such artists like Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh, Mannadey etc. And, great musicdirectors like Naushad, SDB, SJ, Salil Chaudhry, Madan Mohan, Khayyam, etc.

When Ilayaraaja entered the film world he brought me back to Tamil music field, and once again I started enjoying Tamil music. He could have limited the number of assignments and put in good songs all the time. When he has set a high standard for film music, he should himself keep that consistency.

I know at times for some songs. The song will start great; but the stanzas will not have the same greatness, and will be less than that.

P.S. I may feel some other music director is better than Ilayaraaja if I can listen to something new that I have not heard before, or that I am able to notice some additional nicities that I have not heard observed from their old songs.

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