One of the lifelong disappointments of T.M.Sounderarajan was that he had not been able to become a Carnatic musician proper. ‘‘My days have passed without my being able to make a mark as a respected Carnatic Vidwan,’’ , the famous playback singer would say in a tone of half-lament (‘‘Lakshanamaaga Karnaataka Sangeeta Vidwaan endru peredukka mudiyaamaleye en Kaalam Kazindhu Vittadhu…’’ )
The obvious answer is that if you plant sugarcane you cannot harvest samba paddy. But the context of the remark of Sounderarajan, who passed away last May at the ripe age of 91, was his Carnatic tutelage under Karaikkudi Rajamani Iyengar, a nephew and disciple of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, the redoubtable musician, composer and scholar. TMS was very conscious of the fact that his teacher’s gurubhai, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar had fired the imagination of a whole generation of Carnatic listeners.
While Ariyakudi’s example of shining success is indeed something that can make an aspiring singer turn Carnatic-ward, TMS, as he was famously known would also shudder at the obscurity and anonymity that wooing the Carnatic muse might have brought upon him! He had seen a classical singer shuffle past his compound one day, and rightly or wrongly got a sense of what might have happened to him too. In the bargain, TMS earned a million fans for his cinema songs – it was a sight to see some of them following the funeral cortege with ‘Ulagam Piradhadhu Enakkaaga’ (the world was made for me to conquer)—but lost out on the quintessential classical genre. Of course, he could give a sufficient account of himself in classically oriented film songs, but in such songs it’s not sampradaya but celluloid and its sangathis that get priority.
The son of a poor hereditary temple priest of the Saurashtra community in Madurai, Sounderarajan’s tryst with music began in the thirties when he was studying in the St. Mary’s School and Saurashtra School in Madurai. Tamil cinema’s first decade had begun and it was a musical chapter in which bhagavathars trooped in to studios as the criterion for donning greasepaint was the ability to sing. It was a time when a 23-year-old GNB could get before the camera as Narada and belt out Thyagaraja’s ‘Koti Nadulu Dhanushkodilo’ while Maharajapuram Krishnamurthy’s Krishna joined him in a jugalbandhi of swara singing! In his late teens, Sounderarajan reacted to this musical mileau with glee, and would burst into song a la the actors of the decade. His school recognized him as the prayer singer. One of the songs he would remember years later was, ‘Thaniyaai Ennai Vidhuthaai’ , a verse expressing Shiva’s angst at Sathi’s leaving for her father Daksha’s yaaga despite being forbidden to do so. It’s a stirring Kalyani projection that has survived to this day, delivered trenchantly by V.A. Chellappa, a nephew of S.G. Kittappa whose voice summed up all the magic of the stage.
But it was the voice of heartthrob M,K,Thyagaraja Bhagavathar that Sounderarajan took as his role model. Such was the passion with which Sounderarajan imitated the singing star that he gravitated towards his inner circle and had a near escape from becoming a personal lackey! The alternative was between becoming a ‘raja’ on his own or becoming a ‘kooja’ (hanger on) of MKT. Sounderarajan chose the first option, and a friend’s intercession soon led him to Karaikkudi Rajamani Iyengar for proper musical training. He could afford only a two-year stint in which he learnt 12 varnams and 48 kritis.
The tutelage under Iyengar gave him the confidence to seek his calling as a singer. Soon, Sounderarajan got a break in ‘Krishna Vijayam’ (1950), singing Bhagavathar’s famous Senchurutti classic, ‘Radhe Unakku Kobam Aagathadi’ (Radha, this anger does not befit you) in a slightly modified lyrical version. The playback singing era had just dawned, and Sounderarajan sang for actor Narasimha Bharati, a fellow Saurashtrian who was born in the same day, date and city as Sounderarajan himself!
The fifties spelt the slow atrophy of the studio system of production (which had given Sounderarajan his first break), and the rise of stars like Sivaji, MGR and Gemini Ganesan. These were actors deeply conscious of the possibilities of playback singing adding to their appeal and played a part in choosing their background voices. We have it on record that when TMS was drafted to sing for Sivaji Ganesan in ‘Thookku Thookki’, whose success made the former’s fortune surge, it was the actor who was present at the recording to give his approval or otherwise. MGR, who had made a strategic decision to go Dravidian just then, again chose TMS’s ringing voice to make his first political point in, ‘Ethanai Kaalam Thaan Emaatruvaar Indha Naattile’ (Malai Kallan). It was just a question of putting across their brand strongly and they chose the brightest voice to do so. Songs like ‘Adho Andha Paravai Poala Vaazha Vendum’ and ‘Naan Aanai Ittaal’, in which Sounderarajan’s voice sounds like a trumpet in the taara sthaayi, gave substance to MGR’s political grandstanding and contributed to his larger-than-life image.
Of course, Sounderarajan’s ascendancy was no cake walk in the intensely competitive world of Tamil cinema. The fifties were the decade of a myriad playbacks. Tiruchi Loganathan had kicked off with the wonderful Bhimplas song with Jikki in Mandhiri Kumari, Vaaraay ne Vaaraay, so magnificently tuned by G. Ramanathan. C.S. Jayaraman might have seemed to sing with a pebble in his mouth and with a tremulo to boot, but Sivaji had sung in his voice in the incredibly successful Parasakthi. (Kannada Rajkumar had had some soaring numbers in his debut film, Bedara Kannappa in CSJ’s voice). CSJ was active all through the fifties. A.M.Raja might have seemed a trifle effeminate in the sometimes macho world of swashbuckling Robin Hoods (MGR) and declaiming heros (Sivaji) but in a decade which threatened to be inundated by light Hindi tunes of the Naushadian gharana, Raja seemed quite the in thing. It was then that G.Ramanathan teamed up with TMS (and in some measure with Sirkali Govindarajan, Loganathan and P.B. Srinivos) in an effort to create an original southern response in Tamil cinema through Carnatic music.
The opportunity came through a series of re-makes of thirties and early forties hits, earlier featuring Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and P.U.Chinnappa, now reprised by Sivaji, MGR and to a lesser extent by Gemini Ganesan. Even Thookku Thooki (1954) was a remake of 1934 success. Its riproaring success was followed by Ambikapathi, Madurai Veeran, Kaathavarayan (earlier Aryamala), Sarangadhara, Sadhaaram and Uthamaputhiran, among other films. Vasantha Mullai (Charukesi), Sindhanai Sei Maname (Kalyani), Mullai Malar Mele (Kaanada), Ninaindhu Ninaindhu Nenjam (Shanmughapriya), Sundari Soundari Niranthariye (Kurinji), Naan Petra Selvam (Jonpuri), Maasila Nilave (Maand) and Aadaatha Manamum Undo (in Lathangi, composed by the Viswanathan Ramamurthy duo) made the fifties redolent with the fragrances of raga music.
TMS, who had a ‘kaarvai’ voice not given to brigas marvelled at the flowing brigas that MLV marshalled when she sang the Lathangi song. This feeling continued in Sri Valli (1963), the last of the long list of remakes to hit the screen. Murugan’s famous courtship of the tribal belle Valli had been made into the first Tamil hit in 1933 and had been made again to stunning success in 1945 with singing star Mahalingam and lissom Rukmani. Sivaji, despite his girth, was now playing Muruga and Mahalingam was Narada. During the recording of the songs, Sounderarajan had had occasion to hear the brigalomania of Mahalingam in an extended six-and-a-half minute song, and the colour drained out of his face. He turned to mentor G. Ramananthan and asked, ‘‘My song is to appear just after this. After all this exuberant shower of brigas, will mine cut ice?’’. And Ramanathan said, ‘‘Yes, Mahalingam has celebrated the song in his briga style. But Soundararaja, you don’t know the value of your wonderful voice. Touch a high note in the song and make it an elongated one (kaarvai). When fans hear Sivaji miming to your majestic rendering they will go ga-ga’’. Sri Valli flopped, but the confidence that Ramanathan gave TMS made him ready for a hundred battles!
With his energetic and evocative singing of compositions based on Carnatic ragas, TMS was the brightest face of Ramanathan’s success in the fifties, and when a novel light music wave arose pushing the sound of the fifties to the background, he might simply have been sidelined comprehensively. But he became the stormtrooper of the new wave in which not raga, but feeling was predominant, a more melodious and meaningful orchestration added to the magic of the song , and the lyric, thanks to Kannadasan had poetic charm, literary weight and cinematic aptness and was yet intelligible to the masses. The success of the ‘Pa’ series of films, and the astounding reception to their songs – which, though they were neatly dovetailed into the film had a life and meaning all their own — impacted the Tamil consciousness powerfully. Sounderarajan’s voice had both puissance and melody, and his Tamil diction was not only great but had a mesmeric charm. Witness a ‘Vandha Naal Mudhal’, powerfully putting across man’s loss of innonence, and ‘Malarndhu Malaraadhu’, a grand lyrical dirge to the stormy pressures that rocked close family ties. Add to this the uncanny suitability of TMS’s voice to the two poles of Tamil cinema….MGR and Sivaji. The widespread feeling was that he changed his voice to suit theirs. Even the AVM studio baron Meiyyappa Chettiar, a tough cookie if ever there was one, strongly felt that TMS could change his voice to suit different actors. When TMS had to sing for the younger Sivakumar in ‘Uyarndha Manidhan’, he is said to have told his staff – ‘‘Just tell TMS that the song is for Sivakumar, he will take care to see that it is different from his rendering for Sivaji!’’ TMS took playback singing beyond just singing a song in the background, it was vocal acting…histrionics through voice. ‘Andha Naal Gnaabagam’, ‘Deivame’ and ‘Devane Ennai Paarungal’ bear witness to this aspect of his singing which was like a dash of melodramatic opera. And of course, having been the voice of Tamil cinema for decades, the charges of kitsch and crassness can stick to some of his songs too.
Like the re-make craze of the fifties, Tamil cinema turned to the golden era of the Tamil stage in the mid-sixties, thanks to director A.P.Nagarajan who had been a boy actor in troupes that enacted the Sankaradas Swamigal brand of musical drama. Sivaji Ganesan, Kannadasan, K.V.Mahadevan, and TMS as the male voice carried these films from Tiruvilaiayaadal to Saraswathi Sabatham and Tiruvarutchelvar and Tirumal Perumai on their shoulders. The one-man orchestra cinematic concept in which multi-exposure is used to show the same person playing all the roles in a cutcheri was picturised to TMS’s ‘Paattum Naane’ in the stirring ‘Gowrimanohari’ song. (P.U.Chinnappa did this first in Jagathalapratapan, and Narasimha Bharati followed suit in Krishna Vijayam to TMS’s singing). One offshoot of his enormous success as a singer was the opportunities he got to act. He donned the title role in ‘Pattinathar’, produced and scored by his mentor G.Ramanathan, and in Arunagirinathar, Kallum Kaniyaagum and Kavi Kaalamegam. TMS’s stirring rendering of the Tiruppugazh, ‘Muthai Thiru Pathi’, a veritable tonguetwister stands out to this day for the clarity he could bring to the most tortuous Tamil style.
TMS was an HMV artiste from the early fifties, and a parallel track of his frenetic singing career was his yen for singing devotional songs. He tuned his songs and scored the music himself for such memorable songs of this genre like ‘Ullam Urugudhaiyya’ and a hundred other hits. His rendering of ‘Karpagavalliyin Porpadhangal’, as a raga malika in Ananda Bhairavi, Kalyani, Bageswari and Ranjani is said to have been commended by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. A Vaishnavite who had been named after the presiding deity of Azhagarkoil, Sounderarajan shifted his devotion to Lord Muruga seeking fame as a singer. He attributed his phenomenal longevity, both in the film world and in the real one – of course, sometimes they mixed in shades of purple and grey! – to his adoration of Muruga, the lord of eternal youth. As the decades roll by and time takes its toll, quite a few of the songs rendered by Sounderarajan are bound to resound in the digital paradise that mankind has made for itself!
(This article appeared in ‘Sruti’ magazine)