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.