Carnatic keys

How Tamil films took Carnatic music to mass audiences – and threw in a few social messages too

Madras movies played a vital role in educating listeners about the nuances of classical music.

Growing up in Chennai, I remember the game we used to play with our cousins and friends from other cities. It involved guessing the names of places by describing the characteristics they would have assumed had they been people. While Mumbai and Bangalore inevitably produced hip connotations, Chennai was always the lovely old lady in a nine-yard sari, jasmine in her hair, preparing filter coffee, chanting away. Any mention of “modernity” and “openness” found no place in this old lady’s kitchen. Unfortunately, the old lady only got older, and whatever Chennai did to embrace change, evolution and innovation went largely unnoticed.

The stereotype is disturbing at many levels. For one, some of the world’s greatest culturally innovative ideas have emanated from Chennai. I am not talking Mani Ratnam, Kamal Hasan or AR Rahman, although those are equally arresting examples of the point I am making. But let us not forget that in the domain of Carnatic music, the hoary tradition that is firmly headquartered in the city, innovation has been almost constant.

To understand this, one needs to look at the larger cultural discourse and the social consciousness that the tradition forged. For one, let us take the example of Carnatic greats who made the foray into films effortlessly, classicism and experimentation combining in ways that make today’s internet mashups seem obsolete. All this happened nearly a century ago, when such moves were not only bold, but required tremendous effort and rigorous rehearsals. Women celebrities of the Carnatic stage – ML Vasanthakumari, NC Vasanthakokilam and of course the redoubtable MS Subbulakshmi and DK Pattamal – forayed into singing for films (incorporating much for their classical oeuvre and concert-based stylistic detailing into their film songs as well), in the late 1930s and ’40s. Not only did it popularise these wonderful women, but it helped a larger population sensitise themselves to classicism, stylised singing and musical structure. And with these things, a generalised awareness of classical Carnatic music also spread.

Patriotism, especially in the fervour and zeal of the 40s, found willing vocalists from the Carnatic world take to the medium of films. Songs such as Aaduvome Palli Paaduvome (DK Pattamal) galvanised a generation of filmgoers into immediate action. Equally important are the other causes that these tremendous artistes espoused through their role they played in early cinema music – that of popularising Tamil, for instance. Or of women’s equality and empowerment.

At a musical level, many interesting melodic structures from the Carnatic tradition were introduced into film music, often to very popular acclaim. Interesting ragas, sensitive poetry and superlative musical ideas (often led by these great Carnatic superstars) found their way to the matinee halls, and to great effect.

One of the most interesting stories in this firmament is that of Papanasam Sivan, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century in the classical Carnatic tradition. Born as Ramaiya in 1890, Sivan became a Carnatic vocalist, theatre actor and composer. Importantly, he composed several immortal classics for films (stylistically rooted in the Carnatic form and structure but arranged in a rather contemporary, hybrid manner). Some of these compositions have found themselves back into the classical concert stage today, a testament both to the composer and to the culture that seems to welcome good ideas wherever they come from – including such happy ironies.

Sivan was also a gifted innovator – borrowing from the Carnatic structure and form but extracting something less precise and yet profound. Compositions such as Pirava Varam (from the film Nandanar, based on the true life story of a Saivite saint-mystic) set in the unusual Lathangi raga is now a concert regular.

In the rather delightful space between deep classicism and outright “populism” for the lack of a better descriptor, lie compositions that are sung till date even on classical stages. Every Tamilian, at some stage, would have heard tunes such as Chinnan Chiru Kiliye (lyrics by Subramania Bharati, one of Tamil’s greatest poets, 1951 from the film Manamagal, sung by M L Vasanthakumari) or Chithiram Pesudhadi (lyrics by K M Balasubramniam, music by T G Lingappa, 1958, from the film Sabhash Meena, sung by T M Soundarajan).

Let us look at the compositions themselves. The arrangements use instruments as diverse as the theremin, the harp and the ubiquitous string orchestra to underscore often-deeply classical structures for the main melody. All of these were incorporated into the film score at a time that recording stages were still fairly rudimentary, and multiple rehearsals were required in order that the one “live” take was absolutely perfect.

In one unforgettable sequence from the film Bale Pandiya (1962), the lead actor Sivaji Ganesan essays a musical tete-a-tete with his future father-in-law, played by the phenomenally gifted MR Radha. The conversation happens in the Carnatic raga Shuddha Dhanyasi. Structural peculiarities from the Carnatic tradition including high-paced swara (note) passages and rhythmic syllables are used to create a scene of tremendous hilarity.

The idea of innovation was fostered in the very Chennai studios, concert halls and music rooms that are now cast into cultural stereotypes that refuse to budge for the most part. The Carnatic tradition has given much to enrich the fields of these possibilities. Carnatic vocalists, composers and instrumentalists freely collaborated with their contemporaries among the film fraternity to create an atmosphere that produced substantive experimentation and the growth of fresh ideas. Sociologically and in terms of the diffusion of thought, those were indeed the days.

If you listen very carefully, the old lady is holding the silver tumbler in her hand very gingerly. She is wondering how to innovate and make its contents unique and new for today’s generation. What we need to realise is that she always has!

Anil Srinivasan is credited with introducing the piano to the South Indian classical musical palette in his pathbreaking collaborations with several leading musicians in the field. He is also a music educator.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

The perpetual millennial quest for self-expression just got another boost

Making adulting in the new millennium easier, one step at a time.

Having come of age in the Age of the Internet, millennials had a rocky start to self-expression. Indeed, the internet allowed us to personalise things in unprecedented fashion and we really rose to the occasion. The learning curve to a straightforward email address was a long one, routed through cringeworthy e-mail ids like You know you had one - making a personalised e-mail id was a rite of passage for millennials after all.

Declaring yourself to be cool, a star, a princess or a hunk boy was a given (for how else would the world know?!). Those with eclectic tastes (read: juvenile groupies) would flaunt their artistic preferences with an elitist flair. You could take for granted that and would listen to Bollywood music or read Archie comics only in private. The emo kids, meanwhile, had to learn the hard way that employers probably don’t trust candidates with e-mail ids such as

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

And with chat rooms, early millennials had found a way to communicate, with...interesting results. The oldest crop of millennials (30+ year olds) learnt to deal with the realities of adolescent life hunched behind anonymous accounts, spewing their teenage hormone-laden angst, passion and idealism to other anonymous accounts. Skater_chick could hide her ineptitude for skating behind a convincing username and a skateboard-peddling red-haired avatar, and you could declare your fantasies of world domination, armed with the assurance that no one would take you seriously.

With the rise of blogging, millennial individualism found a way to express itself to millions of people across the world. The verbosity of ‘intellectual’ millennials even shone through in their blog URLs and names. GirlWhoTravels could now opine on her adventures on the road to those who actually cared about such things. The blogger behind could choose to totally ignore petunias and no one would question why. It’s a tradition still being staunchly upheld on Tumblr. You’re not really a Tumblr(er?) if you haven’t been inspired to test your creative limits while crafting your blog URL. Fantasy literature and anime fandoms to pop-culture fanatics and pizza lovers- it’s where people of all leanings go to let their alter ego thrive.

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

Then of course social media became the new front of self-expression on the Internet. Back when social media was too much of a millennial thing for anyone to meddle with, avatars and usernames were a window into your personality and fantasies. Suddenly, it was cool to post emo quotes of Meredith Grey on Facebook and update the world on the picturesque breakfast you had (or not). Twitter upped the pressure by limiting expression to 140 characters (now 280-have you heard?) and the brevity translated to the Twitter handles as well. The trend of sarcasm-and-wit-laden handles is still alive well and has only gotten more sophisticated with time. The blogging platform Medium makes the best of Twitter intellect in longform. It’s here that even businesses have cool account names!

Self-expression on the Internet and the millennials’ love for the personalised and customised has indeed seen an interesting trajectory. Most millennial adolescents of yore though are now grownups, navigating an adulting crisis of mammoth proportions. How to wake up in time for classes, how to keep the boss happy, how to keep from going broke every month, how to deal with the new F-word – Finances! Don’t judge, finances can be stressful at the beginning of a career. Forget investments, loans and debts, even matters of simple money transactions are riddled with scary terms like beneficiaries, NEFT, IMPS, RTGS and more. Then there’s the quadruple checking to make sure you input the correct card, IFSC or account number. If this wasn’t stressful enough, there’s the long wait while the cheque is cleared or the fund transfer is credited. Doesn’t it make you wish there was a simpler way to deal with it all? If life could just be like…

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

Lo and behold, millennial prayers have been heard! Airtel Payments Bank, India’s first, has now integrated UPI on its digital platform, making banking over the phone easier than ever. Airtel Payments Bank UPI, or Unified Payment Interface, allows you to transfer funds and shop and pay bills instantly to anyone any time without the hassles of inputting any bank details – all through a unique Virtual Payment Address. In true millennial fashion, you can even create your own personalised UPI ID or Virtual Payment Address (VPA) with your name or number- like rhea@airtel or 9990011122@airtel. It’s the smartest, easiest and coolest way to pay, frankly, because you’re going to be the first person to actually make instant, costless payments, rather than claiming to do that and making people wait for hours.

To make life even simpler, with the My Airtel app, you can make digital payments both online and offline (using the Scan and Pay feature that uses a UPI QR code). Imagine, no more running to the ATM at the last minute when you accidentally opt for COD or don’t have exact change to pay for a cab or coffee! Opening an account takes less than three minutes and remembering your VPA requires you to literally remember your own name. Get started with a more customised banking experience here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Airtel Payments Bank and not by the Scroll editorial team.