Carnatic keys

When Jayalalithaa was part of exciting era of experimentation in Tamil film music

Three tracks featuring the megastar and the brilliant music of MS Viswanathan.

This past week was all about J Jayalalithaa. Following her death on Monday, a number of obituaries and articles have given us endless details of her life, some of which were known, some unknown. For me, the bit that stuck out was that she trained in music and dance, in her childhood and youth.

Although her forays as a student of dance (of the late KJ Sarasa) were well known before and talked about a lot, I was amazed to learn that she was a student of Handel Manuel (pianist-organist-composer) in school, and that she took voice lessons as well.

I find it incredible that we live in a time where we question funding for the arts and think it a superfluous luxury, even though history is filled with examples that show its absolute criticality. Art completes an individual. And you do not need extraordinary examples – the Einsteins and the Tagores – to see the impact an artistically-trained individual has on larger society. The instances are everywhere.

Modern approaches

Jayalalithaa was part of a transitional time in South Indian cinema. Early experiments in Technicolor were underway and there was a more “modern” approach to narrative and film-making, even if some of the stories were hackneyed, propagating stereotypical gender roles and boy-meets-girl plots.

It was also an era of great experimentation in music. This was the time when maestro MS Viswanathan (1928-2015) became immensely popular.

“MSV”, as he was commonly known, was different. Despite having little or no formal training in music, he absorbed almost every major musical influence of his day – in his music, you will find equal status accorded to elements ranging from the Carnatic to Rock and Roll, ragas to ragtime.

It was MSV (along with his famous contemporary in Bollywood, RD Burman) who set the stage for creative and experimental sound before the advent of the modern “indie” sound.

In this column, I provide three examples featuring Jayalalithaa and the brilliant music of Viswanathan. MSV may be lesser known outside of South India, but it is important to see the versatility and creative confluence that the South began creating in his time.

‘Enna Enna Varthaigalo’ (What Words There Are), ‘Vennira Aadai’, 1965
Music score: Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy

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Co-composed with his famous collaborator T K Ramamoorthy, this piece combines the haunting voice of P Susheela with an impressive piano track played in a free-flowing jazz-meets-polka style (played by the famous ‘Piano’ Diwakar).

The movie rendition starts with Jayalalithaa herself playing the opening phrases on the piano. Her performance in this film and, in particular, this song has often been used to underscore her precocious acting abilities. Particularly noteworthy, since this was her debut film.

‘Paaduvor Paadinal’ (When Singers Sing), ‘Kannan En Kadhalan’, 1968
Music score: MS Viswanathan

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Interesting use of the piano again. The sheer range of instruments (Indian classical, western, multi-percussion) and styles are visible in the first interlude, when the piece shifts genres with each successive phrase. Again, MSV defies easy categorisation and yet presents a brilliant melody (sung by T M Soundarajan) in a jazz-meets-Indian folk redux.

‘O Meri Dilruba’, ‘Suryakanthi’, 1973
Music score: MS Viswanathan

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This last example features the voice of Jayalalithaa, revealing her as a singer with verve and style. A more modern rendition sees the use of a rumba-style rhythm for an out-and-out jubilant song.

The writer is a well-known pianist and music educator based in Chennai.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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