A.E.Manoharan – The man who wowed Tamil Nadu with Surangani song

Posted: February 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

Vamanan

Jay Jay padadhil Ceylon Manohar, Pooja

Ceylon Manohar with Puja in Jay Jay

It may seem an irony of history that a Tamil from Sri Lanka wrote and sang a Sinhala number in the island’s signature ‘Baila’ genre and wowed the entire sub continent with his magical Suraangani refrain. But the singer Ceylon Manohar who passed away recently was a man of old world charm harking back to idyllic times and his music and personality reflected the harmonies of music and humanity rather than the dissonances of ethnic strife in his country of birth. Manohar’s latter-day duet with another ‘King of Baila’, Desmond De Silva, emphasized putting behind bloody conflict and embracing amity and accord.

Born Anthonypillai Emmanuel Manoharan to a Jaffna Tamil father and Indian Tamil mother in the island’s central province, the future ‘Pop Isai Chakravarthy’ took to music early as a choir boy in the church group led by his mother with his father playing the organ. In his school final year he was not only the singing hero of a Tamil play that literally went places but also the protagonist of ‘Paasa Nila’ (1964), the first Tamil film made in Jaffna! These early histrionic successes fuelled his ambitions of an acting career and he did figure in over 250 films in South Indian languages, but the roles scarcely did justice to his talent and personality.

Manohar’s career-transforming moment as a singer came with ‘Suraangani’ in Sinhala and Tamil in 1972 with a Surya label record which was frequently broadcast over Ceylon Radio. The foot-tapping number in which Manohar had written of a youth wooing his girl named Surangani  was so infectiously catchy that soon every Tamil Nadu college student fest was rocking to the strain! Manohar had dipped into the Baila genre’s brisk and bouncy compound duple rhythm (commonly called 6/8)  and its jaunty spirit and narrative that made it a popular vehicle of celebrative dance and song.  Ilayaraja, fresh from his dream debut of Annakili was quick to co-opt the song in his ‘Avar Enakke Sondham’ (1977).  On its heels, the Hindi film ‘Paramatma’ had Asha Bhonsle doing kamaal with ‘Suraangani Kamaal Karegi’!  

Riding the wave of this popularity, Manohar got to sing a Baila duet with L.R. Eswari under M. S.Viswanathan’s baton in the Indo-Sri Lanka joint production ‘Pilot Premnath’  (1978) starring Sivaji and Sinhala film star Malini Fonseka. Manohar’s popularity as a live performer zoomed, his vibrant stage presence and stand-out African hair do, not to speak of his amazing command of multiple languages, standing him in good stead.  

Tamil cinema’s music composers and playback singers who also worked in Sinhala films in the early fifties were quite familiar with Baila.  Chandrababu, the singing comedian who had lived for some years in Colombo rendered the lovely Baila-style number ‘Pambara Kannaale’ (Manamagan Thevai 1957). Veda composed the very typical song of the genre in ‘Dingiri Dingaale’ (Anbu Engey 1958).  Music composer G. Ramanathan invested ‘Chinna Kutti Naathana’ (Aaravalli 1957) with Bailaesque hues. Th identification of the genre with carefree and youthful celebration is clear from ‘Once a Pappa met a Mamma’ in ‘Anbe Vaa’ (1966), in which a bus full of young holidayers is shown rocking to the Baila song.

Through the seventies,  the genre showed up off and on in Tamil cinema (MSV’s Angamuthu Thangamuthu – Thangaikkaaga 1971; Shyam-Phillip’s Poondamalliyile Oru Ponnu Pinnaale – Karunthel Kannaayiram 1972). MGR is said to have even enlisted Nithi Kanagaratnam’s ‘Kallukkadai Pakkam Pogaathe’ (Don’t go near the arrack shop) for his campaign against drinking. In the gaana and remix age of the new millennium,   ‘ Suraangani’ and ‘Chinna Maamiye’ have had their kinetic remixes (Pandhayam 2008). We will hear more of Baila in the days to come, as it can be enthrallingly effective when genre and subject merge seamlessly.

 (The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and an author)

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