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.

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