When they write the history of Tamil film music and Carnatic ragas, two names that would be right on the top of the list are Ilaiyaraaja and G Ramanathan (Gopalanatha Iyer Ramanathan), the man who passed away 60 years ago on November 20.
Raja, of course, has been a force of nature. But G Ramanathan only a little less so. For, both had a preternatural ability to felicitously fuse a poetic line into the yoke of carnatic raga seamlessly. It is a skill that cannot be taught but one has to be seemingly born with.
Interestingly, both the maestros had no formal training in classical music to begin with, and even more coincidentally, had an almost similar start to their respective careers.
Both got going with their musical life by accompanying their respective brothers. GR tagged along with his elder sibling Sundara Bhagawathar who was a specialist in Hari Kathas. Of course, Raja's older brother, Pavalar Varadharajan, was a well known singer at Communist meetings. A bit later, both Ramanathan and Raja continued their individual musical journey by playing the harmonium as part of musical troupes at stage plays.
Raja hit the musical jackpot with his very first film Annakili (1976) whereas GR, even though widely seen as a talented musician, had to wait for a bit before making a huge splash in his sixth or seventh film Aryamala (1941).
But then on, there was no looking back for the man who ended up being called the Sangeetha Chakravarthy, meaning musical emperor.
GR started his film music career in the late 30s, but really came into his own in the 40s and his creative prowess zoomed in the 50s, and by the time he passed away in 1963 --- due to cirrhosis of liver --- the man had composed music to over 90 films, most of which were in Tamil even though he had worked in Hindi, Telugu and Kannada movies.
Among his last films was the musical tour de force Arungairinathar --- he died when the film was still under production, and the film's music was completed by the underrated TR Paapa, who composed the legendary tongue-twisting . But film legend also has it that it was GR who had set the musical barebones for the song whose inherent cadence in itself provides the rhythm to the Shanmukapriya raga --- a raga, as the name suggests, a favourite of Lord Muruga (Shanmuka).
Finding a fitting raga was an uncanny talent of GR. When he started his career, Tamil film music tended to ape Carnatic music without much creativity or flair. It was GR who was the pioneer in making Carnatic music fit snugly in with the idioms of Tamil cinema. It is an ability that comes only to those who understand both music and cinema.
GR's film oeuvre is filled with songs in popular ragas like Kalyani, Aarabhi, Kambhoji, Darbari Kanada, Shanmukapriya, Mohan, Charukesi, Sankarabaranam, Kaapi, Anandabhairavi, Sahana, Sindhu Bhairavi, Saranga, Naatakurinji, Panthuvarali. And each one of them remains a touchstone for that raga usage in popular genre.
He made Carnatic music agreeably mainstream
Take this scintillating in the voice of the original bhagavathar in Tamil cinema P U Chinnappa. In this Saraswathy ragam song, see how GR has fleshed out the raga swaroopam right at the start. No frill and fancies, just musical felicity. It is something that stayed with him all through his career, which could have lasted longer had he been more disciplined in his personal life.
GR's early years were influenced by that musical titan Papanasam Sivan under whom he apprenticed before branching out on his own. The two in tandem produced probably India's first ever musical blockbuster Sivakavi (1943). The film had 29 songs --- composed by Sivan and orchestrated by GR. They followed it with another musical bonanza in Haridas (1944). The most famous number in it has to be the remarkable Charukesi-based . Just listen to the interlude after the first charanam --- a style that was not in vogue those days --- and you can see GR's imprint as the orchestration kicks in with glee-filled pulsation.
The Sivan-GR combo produced another musical vintage in Jagathalaprathapan (1944). However, by now GR has taken the centre stage as the composer while Sivan handled the lyrics. The film included in it the spectacular Kalyani ragam based --- a song that will go down in the history of Indian films as the first one in which a single character takes on the role of a concert singer as well as all the accompanists. This PU Chinnappa beauty is the more brilliant precursor (in picturisation) to the famed song in Thiruvilayadal (1965)
By the 1950s, GR was getting to his peak and he was inevitably the music director who set the tone, in more ways than one, for two of the biggest names of Tamil screen ---- MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. For MGR, he started with Manthiri Kumari (1950). Among the songs, and to this day remain hugely popular among the music fans. Take Ulavum Thendral, where GR conjures up a waltzy English feel with decidedly Indian orchestration. That was the genius of the man, an unsurpassed expertise to chisel tunes and timbre. In Vaarai Nee Vaarai, the sangadhis of Bheemplas offer unthinkable variations in the pallavis. This was GR’s practised way of taking Carnatic music to mainstream viewers in an agreeable fashion.
GR gave MGR and Sivaji a musical lift
With Sivaji Ganesan, GR teed off with Thirumbi Paar (1953) but Thookku Thookki (1954) would prove to be epoch-making as this was the first film in which T M Soundarrajan was tried as a playback singer for Sivaji. He eventually ended up as the singing voice of Sivaji in myriad movies and the songs are among the hall-of-famers ever.
Among the hits in Thookku Thookki is the chart-busting in the ever-interesting Maand raga. The first line of the song, penned by Udumalai Narayana Kavi, remains the go-to philosophy of jilted men (and also adorns the back of many an autorickshaw much to the chagrin of feminists).
With MGR his biggest hit would be Madurai Veeran, a musical necklace studded with gems. The folksy remains fresh to this day. The man had musical chutzpah to have two Jonpuri contoured numbers and in the same film, but without one seeming like the other. It is what original thinking is all about.
Madurai Veeran's piece de resistance has to be in the flawless voice of ML Vasanthakumari. The way GR has worked with Charukesi, starting with that laya-filled start, is a contradistinction to his Charukesi from Haridas. Charukesi has to be GR's favourite raga as the fantastic in Sarangadhara (1958) would confirm. You can spend a whole night wondering at the easy brilliance of the song.
With Sivaji, GR touched great heights. Ambikapathy (1957) is a lodestar for musicals. The film, with over 25 songs, is research material for how to use Carnatic music in popular cinema. offers the Kalayani ragam in a musical kaleidoscope. The Karaharapriya virutham that is one for the ages, worthy of an exalted place in any concert dais.
GR, the ace of ragamalikas
The Kambhoji charanam bit is as pristine as anything that raga has seen. in Kedaragowla raga is filled with the beautiful essence of the sweet raga. Forget it, the songs of Ambikapathy deserve a separate standalone article. It is a gift that will keep on giving. The film also has a ragamalika song (beginning with Maand with the finale in Punnagavarali) , and underscores his felicity with variegated ragas.
Another ragamalika heaven is in another Sivaji super hit Uthama Puthiran (1958). Look at the ragam changes, they arrive without any effort as if it is their natural progression. Talking of Uthama Puthiran, many would know that it is the remake of the film under the same name in 1940. This P U Chinnappa starrer too had music by GR. This is one for trivia lovers: GR is perhaps the only/first music director to have scored tunes for two movies with the same title.
The second Uthama Puthiran film had that complex but compelling song, an astounding near 6-minute number that will run the gamut of folk, jazz, rock and roll and, of course, Carnatic. The sheer expanse of that song in terms of style and musical substance is mind-boggling.
Then there are even more sterling Sivaji hits like Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1959) – the song gave PB Srinivas a much-needed career break during his early struggling period. And then there is Kappalottiya Thamizhan (1961) - it featured 11 songs, all poems written by Bharathi. Who can forget the PBS - P Susheela gem ? The rousing patriotism in , in the voices of two legends, Tiruchi Loganathan and Seerkazhi Govindarajan, is a testimony to GR's ability to invoke the right emotion with the right tune.
Talking of Bharathi, GR used his brilliant lines for the film Deivathin Deivam (1962) --- his last hurrah. And the song was in --- what else? --- ragamalika as if showcasing the great man's musical skills one last time. In the young and fresh voice of S Janaki, the song sets off in Bhimpalasi moves to the gossamer soft Bageshree and hits the end with the high of Bihag.
The song, with the adroit use of veena, flute, shehnai and tabla, is verily GR as it traverses across the ragas. He remained a Raganathan till his death.
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