TMS : Oru Pann-Paattu Sarithiram – By Vamanan – 500 page biography of the famous Tamil playback singer. Published by Manivasagar Pathippagam…Chennai 108 ; 91 044 – 25361039; Second edition – Price Rs.160/
How I came to write the biography of TMS – I
I met him some time in the summer of 1980. I was 25. He was 56. Something must have clicked between us from the start. I never knew at that time that I would be his biographer. The urge perhaps started with my ardour for Sivaji Ganesan – TMS was of course the famous voice behind many of the actor’s soaring songs. A quarter century from then we would work on a life for which he would spend endless evenings for months, reliving past memories. I would swim in a sea of words poured out by a man who was eager to open out his heart to me. TMS liked to explain everything…from the latest musical gadget he had acquired to the special features of a watch some fan has presented him! Sometimes he would launch into a disquisition on the benefits of circumcision with as much emotion as describing the working of a handpump or cycle gear!
One night, when the tapes had run out their length, but memories hadn’t stopped unspooling themselves, I would tell him. ‘‘I am frightened Sir…Is it really possible to put life on paper? Can I really project in words what we are experiencing? The mind suddenly goes into terrains of the past that come and invade us at this hour of 10 when tiredness and hunger wait by weakly. Our fevered minds break time barriers in an attempt to peer through the curtains of forgetfulness. What if my memory does me in…what if words cease to convey the senses they are meant to? What if the hundred feelings we are experiencing slip through my grasp…Can a rushing stream be frozen into cubes of ice?
The sight of a writer struggling with him in the present while grappling with an overwhelming life moved the artiste in the man. He was able to see a writer looking not just for facts and information but searching for colours and moods…perhaps for life and soul. He was almost in tears…and complimented me for my effort. But he would steadily feed my imagination…and not stop at anything in his sallies of recollection.
He was a man who was not afraid to bare himself to nakedness while inventorying his experiences, and I would sometimes have to carefully draw myself back from trespassing into hush-hush areas. He had been in the habit of writing diaries, but tore them because an auditor asked him to. Holding a photograph of a one-time flame, he would ask me with a look of naivete, ‘Must we go into this affair!’ He did indeed unfold the nitty gritty of his various passions…but I was not into the dare bare stuff.
He had poured out his heart to me…But in contemporary India, bigwigs generally want to hear their own voices singing their own praises. The authorship is of course attributed to some pliable writer or journalist. This exercise in ventriloquism goes by the name of biography, though it is actually only an auto- hagiography! What else can one expect in a society where values have decayed in almost all spheres.
In those days, TMS spent most of the day in the small compounded house on Rangachari road. It was a single storey building with a huge courtyard. A Saurashtra boy called Bhoomi did the cooking and looked after the house. Another Saurashtrian, a writer called Pandurangan, occupied one side of a verandah. The house actually had been the property of an admirer of TMS, who for some time even learnt some music lessons from him. But when the family fell on bad times, TMS convinced his disciple that he was the best buyer. At present, TMS’s second son Selvakumar, who has a reasonably good career as a light music singer, occupies the house with his family. A lot of trees have come up in the courtyard and it has become cool and shaded. Selvakumar’s family too has multiplied.
In the early eighties, TMS used to drive a blue Ambassador numbered TMS…..(the exact numerals I have forgotten). I used to accompany him to some recordings. He was a steady and careful driver, nothing flamboyant in the way he steered the vehicle through the medley on Arcot road (though it was nothing compared to the madness of the present-day). I remember some of the songs that were recorded…but the strongest memory is of the swagger of Ganesh (Shanker) as he exhibited a young actress all over the recording studio.
As we drove back, TMS made quite a few comments about the recordings that had gone by. Eye-openers. They would help me enter into the mind of the singer. The car would sometimes stop at Pondy Bazaar, and TMS would buy pomegranates, a favourite fruit.
It was a period when Ilayaraja’s stars were shining bright, and TMS’s chances were becoming scarcer. When conflicts and controversies arose, I would be always there to write about them in the Indian Express. I would meet him either at the Rangachari Road house, or at the West Circular road house where he stayed with his family, and the meetings helped me learn not only about the latest turns in his career, but also about his life in general. As I said earlier, he always liked to paint the big picture.
In the late eighties, my school friend Nagendra Prasad, who was then working in Air India, conceived of a trip to the United States and Canada, with TMS and P. Sushila and an excellent 14-member cine orchestra (flautist Sudhakar, violinist and keyboard player Das Daniel, guitarist Abu, tabla player Arvind, violin Kalyan and Venkatesh among them, would become friends, and I would work with a few of them many years later).
Prasad had singing ambitions, and being an admirer of P.B. Srinivas, meant to sing some of his songs abroad. He used to discuss films songs with me when we were together at the Madras Christian College School. He came to me at Indian Express asking for help regarding the tour. I ended up being master of ceremonies of all the programmes, which were held in Toronto, Montreal, Washington, Chicago and New York.
There were many ups and downs during the live shows…like for example the row kicked up by some Telugus in Chicago. The programme seemed to have been marketed in Chicago as a South Indian show, and some Telugus were angry that they were paying for Tamil songs instead of the Telugu hits they had come for. TMS tried to assuage these troublesome Telugu fans with a snatch of ‘Sangeeta Gnaanamu Bhativina Sanmaargamu Galadhe Manasa’ (‘Mere knowledge of music without devotion can never lead to the right path, O Mind!). Could be that the Telugus there wanted neither gnaana nor bhakti just then, but some entertainment mileage in the form of Telugu songs. They had paid just for that!
All this gave a ring-side view of a singer’s life. That I was TMS’s room-mate most of the time helped me observe the man better. Booze generally flows when musicians gather, but TMS not only kept aloof from the musicians but also avoided alcohol. ‘‘I have given up all that sir’’ he would say. (I have described his forays into drinking in the book, though).
I was able to see that to succeed as a playback was one thing…and to flourish as a live singer was another. TMS clicked both ways, though there were times when his mercurial reactions on stage marked him out as a temperamental artiste. After his film chances dwindled in the eighties, he began to tour all over the world, and was something of the ‘Ulagum Suttrum Vaaliban’ of MGR’s film title. He was in his early sixties by then. He really was durable! (When he was over 70, he sang an album of my songs!)
At another venue, TMS came to know that Sushila had been made the focus of the publicity. He refused to start the show, saying, ‘Avalaiye Paada Chollungo’. An attempt again by the organizers to rope in as many south Indian film enthusiasts as possible – TMS had mainly sung Tamil songs, while P.Sushila had a career in all the south Indian languages – had ended up alienating the male performer. TMS was obviously upset…the organizers had made an invidious distinction between him and Sushila.
It was such ruffled tempers that Prasad had intended me to smoothen when he tagged me along for the trip, I suppose. Artistes do like to have people around whom they can trust. And Prasad, who did a good job of singing PBS hits too, was scared of TMS…so it seemed. And he had rightly chosen a person who was completely at home with him, as the buffer!
Once when TMS was saying something that I objected to, I told him to his face that he was saying so for the third time and was making a huge mistake. As his friends looked on in utter disbelief that somebody could speak to him like this, TMS would say…‘‘Let him…he is so much like me!’’ (Avarai Paesa Vidungo…Ennai Maadhiriye Pesugiraar…). It was not the style and tone that he was referring to, though that was also true because I could hold on just like him for hours on end! It was the plainspeaking. In fact I would like to believe that that is one of the strengths of ‘TMS – Oru Panpaattu Sarithiram…’. You hear a great singer speaking loud and clear. Though, I would like to add that there is much of me too in the book. The way in which it is structured, for example. TMS likes to see himself something like Carlyle’s hero…the architect of the times. I like to look at him as shaping and being shaped by his times. That is why I made his life the story of forty years of Tamil film history. Of course, as it is his life, it is the thread that weaves through these times….it is his personality and art that is reacting to the time and circumstance.