V. Dakshinamurthi – Telling melodies for cinema

Posted: February 7, 2015 in Tamil cinema, Tamil film music
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For the film world, success, money, glamour and perhaps make up are god. So it’s rather ironic that it should revere as ‘Saami’ an old man of over ninety ! But as it is, the south Indian film industry, especially its music circles learnt to salute this man who walked barebodied most of the time and didn’t even own a car! With over 100 films in Malayalam and a dozen films in Tamil, he had not been a star achiever ever in his life. But the way this acknowledged master of Carnatic song hitched the classical wagon to the needs of cinema and the simplicity and character that shone through his long life made the Malayalam film fraternity and music lovers flock to his simple flat near Sanskrit College a few weeks ago to pay their final homage to ‘Malayalam’ V. Dakshinamurthi. He had been seen slowly humming a song a few moments before he passed away peacefully at home. He had wanted to fade like a flower ; his wish seems to have been fulfilled.

 Dakshinamurthi’s forefathers belonged to Kallidaikurichi and had settled in Kerala. He was born in Alleppey. His maternal grandfather, mother and maternal uncles were all musically talented. He claims to have learnt 27 Thyagaraja kritis before the age of six by just listening to his mother sing. At Tiruvananthapuram, he learnt classical music from Venkatachalam Pothi who taught his sister. Dakshinamurthi was 13 when he sang at his first cutcheri at a Krishna temple in Alleppey.  Among those who chanced to hear him sing then were M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.D.Subbulakshmi and Tiruvavadu Rajarathinam Pillai. They marvelled at the boy’s musical knowledge and foresaw a great future for him. It seems Dakshinamurthi’s guru himself arranged many cutcheris for him.

  With bated breath, Dakshinamurthi would tell you how one day he heard  about the glory of Vaikkathappan, the Shiva deity in the temple of Vaikkom, and how Vaikkathappan has looked after him all these days. It began with a cutcheri offer on a midnight of heavy rain…after which it was one long journey in which, Vaikkathappan, it would seem, booked all his tickets and looked after all his journeys. Having to live as a performer and music teacher, Dakshinamurthi taught none less than Vasanthakokilam and even directed music for a few gramophone songs of T.V. Ratnam – then a budding singer – before returning to Vaikkom to be near his deity. Till about 1948, for a few years, Dakshinamurthi lived a life of piety, having darshan of the deity, singing all night, teaching when he was asked to. And when he got the call to come to Madras, it was with the feeling that he was leaving his treasure at Vaikkom. When he tuned his first song for the Malayalam film Nallathanka (1950), he had the feeling that Vaikkathappan was opening doors for him.

Dakshinamurthi’s success as a music director was as much due to his knowledge of Carnatic music and his capacity to put it to the service of cinema, as to his gift of empathising with different situations. When the Tamil novelist Sandilyan was drafted to write the Tamil version of the Malayalam film, Amma (1952), producer Vasu laid the condition that Dakshinamurthi, who had wept uncontrollably while listening to the climax of the Malayalam version, should do so for the Tamil script too. That was the sign that it would pass muster! Sandilyan saw to it that Dakshinamurthi wept, and the producers smiled all the way to the bank !

Sami’s music and its nearness to the land and its traditions came out soon enough in a lovely lullaby in ‘Sneha Seema’ (1954), ‘Kannum Pootti Uranguka’ sung by P.Leela and A.M.Raja. For another cradle song he enlisted P. Sushila for the first time in Malayalam cinema to come up with another winner, ‘Paattu Paadi Urakkaam Njaan’ . In ‘Paadunnu Puzha’, the same refrain occurs in three disparately different settings, a challenge to a composer to reflect different situations. But as Dakshinamurthi was clear about film song as ‘telling’ something in a musical way rather than mere singing, he could match the varying moods of the film in variegated melody. The combination of Dakshinamurthi with poet Srikumaran Thampi and Yesudas makes a very ordinary situation in the film luminous through the song, ‘Hridaya Sarisile Pranaya Pushpame’.

We have a very rare occurrence in cinema of a romantic air of great beauty begun in Begada in the film ‘Stree’ (Innale Neeyoru), and tapering off in Amir Kalyani! The imperceptible shifting of gears between Kamboji and Shanmukhapriya in ‘Kaattile Paazhmulam’ is capped rather dramatically with a plaintive Manoloyam (Vilaikku Vaangiya Veena). Dakshinamurthi could easily distill fragrant melodies from multifarious ragas that the sixties and seventies demanded (for example, Ponveyil Manikacha in Velaiikku Vaangiya Veena based on Sankarabharanam, and  ‘Uttaraa Swayamvaram Kathakali Kaanuvaan’ in ‘Danger Biscuit’). When it comes to Mahakavi G. Sankara Kurup’s suggestion-laden poetry in ‘Abhayam’ (Sraantham Ambaram), it gets the mounting, as it were, of Vedic hymns resounding to the rumble of monsoon clouds. The sombre and awesome metre and melody to which ‘an extended sky burning in a rush of fiery dreams’ flows like an Upanishadic incantation is possible only when literature is expressed by a musical oracle like Dakshinamurthi. Those who have listened to Dakshinamurthi reciting his own Tamil hymns like one possessed  can understand that basically he was translating into musical terms an inner state of worship and adoration going back to his Vaikkom days. (Dakshinamurthi published his outpourings, titled ‘Aatma Deepam’ under the pseudonym, ‘Sivanadithondar’).

‘Kaavya Mela’, which is about the tragedy that shadows a poet (and what greater tragedy can there be for a writer than plagiarism!), itself borrows freely from ‘Pyaasa’! The songs by Dakshinamurthi are thankfully original. They were a hit in Malayalam, and when the film was made in Tamil as ‘Devi’, the Tamil songs too made an impact though the film failed. One very interesting song in the Malayalam version, ‘Swapnangal’, has five singers and music directors singing on stage. They are P.Leela, P.B.Srinivos, Yesudas, M.B.Srinivasan and Dakshinamurthi himself! Sahana flows like a breeze in the refrain ‘Swapnangal Swapnangal’. The song features as a paean to the Tamil language in the Tamil version (‘Thithikkum Muttamizhe’ sung by T. M. Sounderarajan and P. Sushila). Once the late TMS remembered Dakshinamurthi to this writer, exclaiming, ‘‘He had the talent to make good melodies in classical ragas’’.

Being a natural singer himself, Dakshinamurthi tuned songs mainly by singing them. ‘‘Other composers use the harmonium for composing. But this – pointing to his voice – is the only reed I use. And I don’t believe in making tunes and having songs written for them. I invariably tune lyrics which are written for the situation. This helps me bring out the feelings that must be expressed. And generally, it is the tune that strikes me first that proves to be the best’’. Dakshinamurthi’s handful of films in Tamil were marked by winsome melodies but opportunities shrunk because the films didn’t succeed. One of the crowning glories of his career was his work for ‘Jagatguru Adi Sankarar’ (1977), which was made in Malayalam and dubbed in Tamil as well. His ‘Bhaja Govindam’ and ‘Sankara Digvijayam’ are unforgettable songs in this musically rich film.

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