In August of 1986, Mani Ratnam announced his arrival in Tamil cinema—after two middling Tamil movies previously—with Mouna Ragam.
Among the five impossibly brilliant songs in the album --- all of course tuned by Ilaiyaraaja --- nestles a bouncy rain song Oho Megam Vandhadho. Sung by the ebullient S Janaki, it is among the best rain songs ever in Tamil.
And in the November of the same year, K Balachander's Punngai Mannan came with an equally impressive --- yeah, that man Ilaiyaraaja again --- rain song Vaan Megam Poo Poovaai. But this time for the slightly more reflective number, the celebrated music composer went for the relatively younger voice of KS Chitra.
Among the young and impressionable, the two songs set off a debate as to which one is better. As with most musical debates, it all boiled down to taste and preference. But still, opinion was divided whether the brilliant veteran's song or the talented newcomer's number was better.
It needed a tie-breaker.
And soon enough, in 1989 to be precise, it came through another Mani Ratnam movie.
Idhayathe Thirudathe (Geethanjali in Telugu) had a bouncy rain song. And this time, Raja firmly picked Chitra for the cheerful Aththadi Ammadi (Jallanta Kavvinta in Telugu). It was clear that the Chitra era was well and truly beginning.
No surprises there, as Chitra had grown in stature in those three years and had already notched two National awards --- in all she has six, the highest for a female singer --- the first for the two songs in the 1986 musical tour-de-force Sindhu Bhairavi (Paadariyen Padippariyen and Naan Oru Sindhu) and the Malayalam film Nakhakshathangal under the baton of Bombay Ravi for the song Manjal Prasadavum.
Though Chitra had been singing since the late 70s in Malayalam, her major break happened with the 1985 Fazil melodrama Nokkethadhoorathu Kannum Nattu.
The song Aayiram Kannumaay, under the musical maverick Jerry Amaldev, remains among the top of Chitra playlist of many.
When the same film was remade in Tamil, Poove Poochudava, Fazil went for Ilaiyaraaja as the music director, who, however, did not want to change Chitra. When you heard the songs you understood why.
The man with a keen sense for musical talent, Ilaiyaraaja gave three solo songs to Chitra in her very first Tamil film. And all of them to this day retain their freshness and flavour.
One of the songs Chinna Kuyil Paadum Paattu has paved the way for the monicker Chinna Kuyil (Young singing bird, in loose translation) to Chitra.
Though Malayalam cinema discovered Chitra and has given her some of the best melodies ---- the internet is full of Chitra's Malayalam masterpieces --- it can be argued, forcefully, that it is Tamil cinema, especially Ilaiyaraaja and later A R Rahman, that made her a true legend of Indian film music.
The sheer number of songs and variety that Chitra has sung in Tamil, especially for the two musical wizards, is remarkable.
It is no surprise that out of her six National awards, three have come for Tamil songs --- aside from Sindhu Bhairavi, there is the breezy Ooh La La in Minsara Kanavu for AR Rahman (Minsara Kanavu 1996) and the emotional Ovvoru Pookalume for Bharadwaj (Autograph 2004). Even her National award for the Hindi film Virasat (1997), it was for the song Payalay Chunmun which is a blatant reprise by Anu Malik of Ilaiyaraaja's iconic Inji Idupalagi in Thevar Magan (1992).
Chitra winning a National award for a number whose original in Tamil had fetched Janaki the same award is a telling testament to how the Malayalam singer is carrying forward the legacy of her illustrious colleague from Telugu.
When Chitra arrived on the scene, the Ilaiyaraaja-Janaki combination was at its peak. A case can be made for that partnership being the best ever in the history of Indian film music.
For Ilaiyaraaja, who was the progenitor of that musical pairing, to move towards Chitra, there must have been something special in her voice and delivery.
Chitra may not have the sheer genius of Janaki for modulation and expressions, but Chitra, in a sense, combines the best of Janaki, Susheela and Vani Jayaram.
Take this song Kannaa Varuvaayaa in the film Manathil Urudhi Vendum (1987). It is a song filled with deep romantic pangs, and the way Chitra delivers it with dignity, fervour and grace adds lustre to it. It has both Janaki and Susheela in it. And that is the quintessence of Chitra.
Or take the 1986 film Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu --- music by both MS Vishwanathan and Ilaiyaraaja. There are two songs --- Ooru Sanam Thoonkidichu and Kuzhaloodum Kannanukku. The first is by Janaki, and the second by Chitra, both give the other a run for the money in both delivery-sweetness and emotional feel. On a different day, each could have sung the other.
The 1989 film Vetri Vizha has a song --- Poongatru Un Per Solla --- which in previous years would have been a shoo-in for Janaki. But Chitra makes it all hers with ease and elegance alongside the great SPB.
There are literally hundreds of examples from Raaja-Chitra oeuvre that underscore the greatness of the duo, and how the Malayala chechee has proved a great replacement for the aging Janaki. (Just type Ilaiyaraaja-Chitra songs on YouTube, and you are into the most enjoyable rabbit hole ever).
Chitra, like with Janaki, is comfortable across genres. She is gritty and bankable with Carnatic tunes and equally adept at funky ones. The famed Ninnu Kori Varnam (Agni Natchathiram, 1988) is a great case in point. So is the fuzzy and effervescent Thathithom in Azhagan (1991) under the then up and coming Keeravani.
When Rahman arrived on the scene, even though he had a tendency to go for multiple singers, when he had to go for a strong female voice that could produce myriad emotions and ideas, he unfailingly opted for Chitra.
Examples galore for that --- Kannalane, Uyire Uyire, Anajali Anjali Pushpanjali, Malargale Malargale, Malargal Ketten. The list is actually endless as exemplified by the fact that even in the latest Ponniyin Selvan, Chitra has left her indelible mark in Veera Raja Veera.
When Chitra ventured into film music it was dominated by Susheela, Janaki and Vani, and now when the likes of Shreya Ghosal are on top, but the demure woman from Kerala is still able to hold her own.
Chitra has not only managed to sustain her voice culture but has also been able maintain its throw and thrum. It is hard to believe that she has turned 60.
‘Chinna Kuyil’ retains both chinna (as in youthfulness) and the kuyil in her name.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!