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.

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

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