On Tamil Film Music
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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