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

Play

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

Play

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

Play

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.
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

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