It was a sight that T.M.Sounderarajan should have been alive to see. As his profusely garlanded body lay in the courtyard of his bungalow on Chennai’s West Circular Road lined with avenue trees, the road facing his balcony was spontaneously transformed into an impromptu stage and enthusiasts of his music belted out his hits all through the day. ‘Ulagam Pirandhadhu Enakkaaga’ , ‘Idho Endhan Deivam Munnale’, and a host of TMS hits mingled seamlessly in the air.
When the final journey began , the flower-bedecked carriage slowly wending its away amidst thronging admirers and bystanders, a band of diehard fans again broke out into blissful TMS song – it might as well have been the standard that they were fluttering in the evening breeze for the whole world to see. There was in their song the feeling of elation and exhilaration that TMS’s songs like ‘Adho Andha Paravai Poala Vaazha Vendum’ and ‘Pudhiya Vaanam, Pudhiya Bhoomi’ give his fans. And if it was one of the hottest days in Chennai’s summer calendar, nobody was even aware to complain. The final send-off left no doubt about whom the Tamil people considered as the people’s singer.
Thoguluva (T) Meenakshi Ayyangar (M) Sounderarajan (1922-2013), did not reach that pinnacle in a day, and not without a tough, extended competition from other singers. And it is an astonishing fact of Tamil popular history that he had almost no godfathers in the cinema world to help him win. Son of a lowly Sourashtrian temple priest in the city of Madurai, Sounderarajan’s teenage enthusiasm for music began with Tamil film songs of the thirties. The reigning star Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and others like V.A. Chellappa were his role models. His musical tutelage under Karaikkudi Rajamani Ayyangar, a nephew and disciple of the legendary Carnatic musician, Poochi Srinivasa Ayyangar was short but definitive.
Sounderarajan’s capacity to mimic Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s voice brought him his break (Krishna Vijayam,1950), but soon he had not only begun singing successfully for MGR (Malaikallan, 1954) and Sivaji (Thookku Thookki, 1954), but was also being honed by the auteur music composer, G. Ramanathan. This was the decade when TMS was only one of the pre-eminent playbacks of Tamil cinema. But lovely Carnatic ragas shone in TMS’s rendering of a hit parade (Vasantha Mullai in Chaarukesi, Mullai Malar Mele in Kaanada, Naan Petra Selvam in Jonpuri and so on). TMS’s resonant voice, his facility in the upper octave and his capacity to powerfully articulate both lyric and feeling stood out in song after song.
A whole new dimension of lighter melodies with greater emphasis on orchestral colours arose in the early sixties. But TMS could quickly rise up to the challenge and gave such a brilliant account of himself that he became the single most influential voice of the sixties.
His voice expressed both masculine power as well as melody. His Tamil diction was unequalled in Tamil cinema, and such was the uncanny identification of his voice with reigning stars Sivaji and MGR, that the latter seemed to be singing in their original voices! With the awesome force that TMS brought to their songs (Ponaal Poagattum Poada, Andha Naal Gnaanbagam, Deivame, and Paattum Naane for Sivaji, and Naan Aaanai Ittaal and Poomazhai Thoovi for MGR), the actors were left wondering how to act to their wonderful playback! TMS fulfilled Sivaji’s need for an almost King Lear-like melodrama and MGR’s pitch as a colourful romantic eternally in love with the poor and downtrodden.
With changing times and scenarios (rise of Ilayaraja and a more visually oriented cinema), and of course age, TMS faded off in the eighties, but not before suggesting a comeback or two.
From the fifties, TMS tuned and sang many devotional songs (Ullam Urugudhaiyya, Karpakavalliyin Porpadhangal etc) which are heard even today in many temples of Tamil Nadu. Till late in his life, TMS was a continuous fixture in live stage shows and made a success of live singing too. Even if he goes to rest at a ripe 91, no Tamil can help feeling a sense of personal loss. But there are countless others spread over South India who cross the language barrier and value his spirited singing and treasure his great songs.
(The author is a film historian and author of ‘TMS – Oru Pann-Paattu Charithiram’, a biography of the singer)
The above is the English version of an that appeared in India Today Telugu and India Today Malayalam.