The voices of M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar & Dhandapani Desikar need special mention here. The former was a Super Star of his time, with innumerable renderings to his credit, since his debut in ‘Pavalakodi’ in 1934. Half of his fourteen films were run away hits. His 1944 movie ‘Haridas’ ran for three years at Broadway Theatre, Madras. His well known songs include “Amba Manam Kanindhu”, “Soppana Vazhvil Makizhndu”, “Sathva Guna Bodhan”, “Krishna Mukunda Murari”, “Radhe Unaku Kobam Aagadadi”, “Vasantha Ruthu” and more. Convicted in Lakshmikanthan murder case, he later died after his release when he was just forty nine.
A photo of a young M K Thyagaraja Bagavathar in the 1937 edition of Cine Art Review Magazine. PC: From the archives of TCRC
Here is the visual of the ever green song ‘Vasantha Ruthu’by MKT in the film Sivakavi (1942).
M.M.Dandapani Desikar was a great musicologist & composer. Songs such as ‘Jagat Janani’, ‘Inba kanavonru kanden, ”Thamarai pootha’ composed by him are hugely popular. His singing prowess was evident in ‘Nandanar’ (1942) produced by Gemini was a musical treatise, as he sang the compositions of Gopalakrishna Bharathi & Papanasam Sivan. Desikar also served as the HOD of Music Department of Annamalai University.
A photo of Dandapani Desikar from 1942 Kalki Deepavali Malar. PC: From the archives of TCRC
The below video features Sivan’s Composition Pirava Varam (from the film Nandanar) set in the unusual Lathangi raga, which is now a concert regular. The singer was MM.Dandapani Desikar
There was another singing star in the forties by name V.V.Sadagopan. He was a man of many parts, by being a university rank-holder, ICS aspirant, film actor, music teacher, performer and composer. He was a disciple of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar & Professor of Music in Delhi University till 1975. However, he went missing since he got off a train at Gudur in 1980, on his way from Delhi to Chennai. Since that none has information about him.
“Premaiyil yaavum matandhene” was a haunting romantic duet, based on Raga Desh, composed by Music Director S.V.Venkatraman, in the voice mellifluous voices of M.S.Subbulakshmi & G.N.Balasubramaniam. The movie was Sakunthalai (1941) , directed by Ellis Dungan.
D.K. Pattammal was inducted into playback singing in Tamil screen by the lawyer-turned-filmmaker cum director, K. Subramaniam, for ‘Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1939), at the instance of Papanasam Sivan. She only accepted songs of devotional or patriotic flavour and declined offers to sing romantic songs. She sang in many super hit films of the yesteryears. But there was a song ‘Sri Saraswathi’ which she recorded for Gemini’s ‘Miss Malini’ (1947), which was not featured in the film, though she was paid a handsome remuneration for the same.
M.L.Vasanthakumari was in the top amongst playback artistes of those times. In ‘Krishna Bhakti’ she even appeared on screen, rendering ‘Enta Veduko’ in a concert scene. N.S. Krishnan produced ‘Manamagal’ gave her the all-time hits ‘Ellam Inba Mayam’ and ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye’, which are being sung even by the kids in Super Singer reality show. There were many other memorable numbers of MLV such as ‘Konjum Purave’.
J.P.Chandrababu was a versatile actor-singer of his own unique style. He had an unique voice. In AVM’s ‘PeNN’ (1954) he even sang ‘Kalyanam..haha..kalyanam’ for S.Balachander, the actor-director-veena maestro. There are many memorable songs of Chandrababu to name a few: ‘Pambara kannale’, ‘Naan oru muttalunga’, ‘sollurathe sollipurren’, ‘Jolly life’, ‘Budhiyulla manithar ellam’. In fact his entry into the filmdom was very dramatic. While fishing for a film role, his life took through struggles leading to utter frustration that he attempted suicide in the premises of Gemini Studio in 1952, having failed to meet S.S.Vasan. Later, when Vasan came to know of this episode he gave him a small role in the film Moonru Pillaigal. Chandrababu rose to become a sought after artiste that in the film, ‘Sabhash Meena’ he commanded a remuneration that brushed past that of his co star Sivaji Ganesan. But in his later days he was broke and died penniless! This writer has seen him walking the Dr.Rangachari Road in his lesser fortunate days.
There were many other formidable ghost voices of those times which deserve detailing here. But for want of space in this write up we are constrained in not dealing with them. This does not in any way undermine their mighty contribution to Indian Tamil film music.
The magic of pre sixties’ Tamil film music, till recently, were available only on those old vinyl records. Now that the technology has brought them to us through other music formats, there no stopping to patronise these classic gems.
You cannot accept or even imagine Indian Films without songs. Whether it is a romantic duet or a parody number or song with some philosophy engrained in it or even an off screen rendering in the backdrop of a visual, songs have thrived,to the enchantment of the movie goer. There are instances where the songs have outlived the memory of a film in which they featured. In contrast, western films had limited number of musicals like My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific where songs featured, as they were based on Broadway Musicals.
In the bygone days, the music came from those fragile vinyl records as they revolved under that magical pin! The success of Indian Cinemas’ music was amplified by the music companies such as HMV, Odeon, Columbia that published music, then. Out of these HMV fascinated me the most as a child, with its dog peering into the phonograph player, with inscriptions “His Master’s Voice”. In later adult years, I learnt that this logo was based on a painting by Francis Barraud, a Liverpudlian painter, with the same caption. Francis painted his late brother’s pet dog Nipper, as Nipper would run over to the phonograph and listen intently to the voice of his late master. In India, HMV became RPG when bought out by RP.Goenka Group and later came to be known as ‘Sa Re Ga Ma’.
In my childhood in the village, around late forties, I used to sprint to one of the neighbouring houses where a ‘thatha’ lived, to see & listen to his gramophone, as he played ‘oridam thannile’ song. Here is the video of the very song from the 1949 fim ‘Velaikkari’, sung by P.Leela & V.N.Janaki (wife of MGR) in the music of C.R.Subburaman & S.M.Subbiah Naidu.
In the initial days of Talkie Cinemas, it was a prerequisite that the main artistes had singing ability. Personalities such as M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.G.Kittappa, P.U.Chinnappa, Honnappa Bhagavathar, K.B.Sundarambal, M.S.Subbulakshmi, G.N.B, T.R.Rajakumari , T.R.Mahalingam, N.C.Vasanthakokilam were all singing stars. Most of them could travel to high altitude octave levels with ease. They had to be mostly loud in rendering as was the need of the recording technology available.
Somewhere, the play back artistes, who lent the actors their ghost voices, took avtar as a professional tribe in cinemas. That has a background too.
When AVM was making ‘Nandakumar’ he found a song rendered by the actress playing Krishna’s mother, Devaki was far from satisfactory. So he got an innovative spark of replacing the sound track of the song recorded by the actress with an external voice and shooting the song with the actress lips ‘sync’ing. And he got cracking with that idea which finally worked. AVM commissioned a then prominent Carnatic musician of Bombay, Lalitha Venkataraman, to render the song. It worked, as the song was re-shot with the actress moving her lips to Lalitha Venkatraman’s singing. This is the origin of the playback system in Tamil cinema. Necessity, sure, is the mother of invention! It was a major breakthrough in those times, which practice is continuing with great tradition & aplomb even into these days of state of the art sound engineering.
A still from a scene in the film Nandakumar published in the 1937 issue of Cine Art Review Magazine. PC: From the archives of TCRC
The current generation or even the immediately preceding one might not have had the opportunity of listening to the old Tamil film songs of fifties & prior, leave alone knowing the names of playback singers of those times? This writer has catalogued nearly seventy Tamil Film play back singers (some of them actors too) of sixties and the prior period extending back to thirties. These names, alphabetically, are: A.G.Ratnamala, A.L.Raghavan, A.M.Raja, A.P.Komala, A.S.Mahadevan, Balamurali Krishna, C.R.Subbaraman, C.S.Jayaraman, Chandrababu, D.K.Pattammal, G.N.Balasubramanyam, Gajalakshmi, Ganasaraswathi, Ghantasala, Hemant Kumar, Honnappa Bhagavathar, Jamunarani, Jesudas, Jikki, K.A.Chokkalinga Bhagavathar, K.B.Sundarambal, K.R.Ramasami, K.Rani, K.V.Janaki, K.Vijaya, Kanaka, Kothamangalam Seenu, L.R.Easwari, M.H.Hussain, M.L.Vasanthakumari, M.M.Dandapani Desikar, M.R.Santhanalakshmi, M.S.Rajeswari, N.S.Krishnan, Nagerkoil Mahadevan, P.A.Periyanayaki, P.B.Srinivas, P.Bhanumathi, P.Leela, P.Suseela, P.U.Chinnappa, Pazhani Baghirathi, R.Balasaraswathi Devi, Radha Jayalakshmi, Raghunath Panigrahi, S.C.Krishnan, S.M.Subbiah Naidu, S.Varalakshmi, Sarangapani, Sirkazhi Govindarajan, Srinivasan, Sulamangalam Jayalakshmi, Sulamangalam Rajalakshmi, Sundari Bhai,T.A.Madhuram, T.A.Mothi, T.M.Soundararajan, T.R.Mahalingam, T.R.Rajakumari, T.R.Ramachandran, T.S.Bagaavathi, T.V Ratnam, Thavamani Devi, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Tiruchi Loganathan, U.R.Jeevarathinam, Udutha Sarojini, V.J.Varma, Vasundara Devi, V.N.Sundaram, V.Nagaiah, V.T.Rajagopalan, V.V.Sadagopan. Huff….even reading this long enumeration of singers of yesteryears makes one pant!
Here is another popular song, in the lighter vein, “Oosi pattase” from the film ‘Digambara Samiyar’. (1950), in the voices of Gajalakshmi & V.T.Rajagopalan. The tune of this duet, between a young girl and her grandfather, was inspired by a popular Hindi tune ‘O…..dilwalo!’. The music directors G.Ramanathan & S.M.Subbiah Naidu.
From the early talkie Tamil films and up till the fifties the film songs followed the classical Carnatic genre and there are gems among such compositions. Those days many senior music directors were employees of big Studios which owned orchestras.
Music Director MD Parthasarathi with his orchestra at Gemini Studios. PC: unknown
AVM’s orchestra was known as Saraswathi Stores Orchestra. Even though these orchestras had many Western instruments like Trumpets, Clarinets & French Horns, besides typical desi instruments like Jaltharangam, Veena, Morsing, Hormonium, they all played Carnatic tunes. To say it all, in those days even the Madras Corporation had a Band consisting of Western Instruments playing songs like Chakkani Raja or Nagumo! There was also a famous private Brass Band in the old Madras known as Nadhamuni Bros. Band, which was, out and out, a Carnatic music band. This shows how strong the classical music had influence on general public.
It was only at the advent of MSV-TKR in the early fifties the cine music assumed a light music genre, which is why they were called Mellisai Mannargal. In fact, MSV-TKR duo stepped into main stream music direction when C.R.Subburaman died abruptly leaving unfinished music assignments. The era of MSV-TKR heralded a new chapter in Tamil film music. It was also the induction of musical instruments like Accordion, Dilruba, Bongos, Grand Piano, Spanish Guitar, Mandolin and the like into orchestration. They experimented with numerous genre of music. You could spot jazz, blues, samba, rock, cha cha cha and what not in some of their compositions. Their music never drowned the lyrics. Together they created magic through the voices of living legends for decades well into seventies. You need a dedicated write up to discuss their music.
In the early days they used the lyrics of celebrated personalities like Bharathiyar , Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Thayumanavar et al. Then there were composers of the tall order of Papanasam Sivan, Bharathi Dasan, Kalki Krishnamurthy. There were other well known lyricists such as Udumalai Narayana Kavi, Aroordas, Maruthakasi, Kamatchi sundaram, Thanjai Ramaiahdas, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram much before the later lyricists such as Kannadasan & Vaali.
Papanasam Sivan wrote many beautiful songs for films which are greatly remembered & revered. Mostly these were set to Carnatic tunes. Some of these, like ‘Maa Ramanan’ which was a cinema song, has come to be sung on Carnatic Stages even today. Papanasam Sivan’s Carnatic compositions were largely popularised by D.K.Pattammal & D.K.Jayaraman. Another interesting thing about Papanasam Sivan is, neither his name was Sivan nor was he from Papanasam. He was, in fact, born Polagam Ramaiah. His ‘mudra’ name in his compositions was ‘Ramadas’. He spent a lot of time in Papanasam, thereby adopting the “Papanasam” tag. Also, it was a tradition to address men of respect as Sivan in those days, this explains the suffix to his name. It is also said that there was lot of influence of Mahavaidyanatha Sivan, during his tenure at Trivandrum, on his compositions, thereby making Sivan as his second part of the name.
AVM used many songs of Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathi in their films such as Naam Iruvar, Vethala Ulagam, Ore Iravu, Vazhkai. The rights to Bharathiyar’s works were held by a gramaphone company owned by Surajmal & Sons which bought the rights for Six Hundred Rupees. Later AVM bought the rights from them for Ten Grand. It was at the instance of Omandur Ramasamy Reddy , who was the then Chief Minister of Madras Presidency between 1947 & 1949, AVM relinquished their rights.
Bharathidasan’s ‘Thunbam nergaiyil’ written by Bharathi Dasan as expression addressed to a child was used in AVM’s ‘Oar Iravu’ (1951) in the voices of M.S.Rajeswari & V.J.Varma and filmed in a situation of romance between lovers, played by Lalitha & Nageswara Rao