Striking The Notes
A study of the relationship between Carnatic Music and Tamil Cinema


Still from Ambikapathi Carnatic music is raga-based. A raga is musical notes sa-ri-ga-pa-ma-da-ni arranged in many permutations and combinations. Each arrangement of seven notes called swaras bears a beautiful poetic name like thodi, kalyani, ranjani, charukesi, bhairavi and keeravani. Each song is composed in a particular raga and Sivan chose ragas with an accent on melody which could be hummed by the common man.

Usually composers do not write film lyrics. But Papanasam Sivan like most classical composers wrote the words and set them to tune. After the phenomenal success of films like Chintamani and Ambikapathi, Papanasam Sivan became a superstar. Till the early 1950s he dominated the Tamil film music scene.

During the early years of Tamil cinema when the playback-singing system had not yet come into vogue, the actors had to sing. Therefore, only artistes with singing skills and voices could play lead roles. Producers made a beeline for classical Carnatic musicians to act in films. Leading performing musicians with a fan following of their own entered Tamil cinema. Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, N.C Vasanthakokilam, C Honnappa Bhagavathar and T.N. Rajarathanam Pillai were not great actors but excellent musicians.

Interestingly, Papanasam Sivan acted in a few films like K. Subramaniam's Bhaktha Kuchela (1936), Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) and RS. Mani'sKubera Kuchela (1943). With his lean and striking looks, the celebrated composer was the ideal choice to play Kuchela, Lord Krishna's childhood friend, playmate and a poor Brahmin.

After the 1950s, the impact of Hindustani music, Hindi film music and western music like jazz and rock-and-roll was felt. Film music composers like CR Subbaraman, S. Rajeswara Rao, R Sudharsanam and others introduced such influences in their film songs which were well received. Indeed several song numbers were lifted from outside sources and used in local films.

Honnappa Bhagavathar However, Carnatic music continued to hold its own in Tamil cinema, albeit in a diluted form. A raga was jazzed up to make it appealing to laymen. The purists complained of course and some shouted themselves hoarse that Carnatic music was being sullied and destroyed. Indeed they called film music IIdappa sangeetham". During 1949, Ek Thi Ladki, a Hindi musical featuring Meena and Motilal, made waves with its song Lara lappa... haadi tappa. The impact of the number on regional cinema like Tamil was considerable. The hybrid form of film song was dubbed as 'dappa' music.

Tamil film music soared high after the advent of the brilliant music composers M.S. Viswanathan, T.K. Ramamurthy and K. V. Mahadevan. Though they were not classical Carnatic musicians they did possess sound knowledge of the traditional music and their songs too were raga based, firmly set in Carnatic music.

Then came Ilayaraja in 1976 with Annai Ki]i. Innovative, he is very knowledgeable about many schools of music including the classical western. He makes bold experiments with music, never mind the criticism by purists.

For K. Balachander's Sindhu Bhairavi (the name of a raga), Illayaraja adapted a Telugu song Mari mari ninney composed by Saint Thyagaraja, the legendary composer, a god-figure of Carnatic music who had composed it more than 150 years ago in a particular raga. In a bold, unprecedented move Illayaraja changed the raga Saramathi. No musician would have dared to do this. The song rendered by K.J. Yesudas, also a trained classical Carnatic musician, became a rage.

Indeed Ilayaraja has been using Carnatic music effectively. Composers like Deva and Hamsalekha also use classical music. Music continues to playa major role in Tamil cinema. Only the number of songs has fallen. Audio cassettes of film songs are released far ahead of the film at glittering functions. It is big business too, and a welcome source of income to the producer.

Carnatic music is alive and well in Tamil cinema in 1993, as it was in 1931.

Randor Guy
Courtsey: Cinema In India

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