No End For K Viswanath's Art

No End For K Viswanath's Art

by K Balakumar - Feb 3, 2023 05:39 PM +05:30 IST
No End For K Viswanath's ArtClassical arts and their performers, with all their personal and professional contretemps, was a lifelong muse for K Viswanath
  • K Viswanath (1930-2023) was the first director from the South to enjoy pan-Indian success.

A few days back, C Lalitha, one half of the well known duo known as 'Bombay Sisters' passed away, and I had mused in a tweet about how two artists performing together have to give up much of their individuality to make a name as a team.

"We know much about ‘Bombay Sisters’ but little about Saroja & Lalitha. It is their tragedy. And triumph too," I had said. The ebb and flow in the relationship of sibling-singers, who have earned a name together, indeed lends itself to a fascinating personality study in fiction and films.

As it happened, director K Viswanath, who passed away on 2 February, was a past master in fleshing out such character analyses, especially in the background of classical music and dance scene.

In fact, in his penultimate film as a director, the 2004 movie Swarabhishekam, Viswanath ventured forth into precisely such a subject.

The film, at its core, dealt with the friction and fractious emotion that a younger brother develops for his elder sibling due to both professional and family circumstances.

The singer-duo, known as Srirangam Brothers --- Srinivasachari (K Viswanath) and Ranga (Srikanth) --- have a fallout and then eventually come back together. Even though the film did not have the usual assured grip of vintage Viswanath --- by 2004 the veteran was past his prime --- the plot did give us an intriguing peep into the fevered undercurrents that run beneath successful artistic partnerships. 

Viswanath and his quintessence

All good and great directors always leave their unique stamp on their work that goes beyond the subject at hand. Viswanath was certainly one as his movies exhibited a nobility residing inside the human heart, and his characters, even in their evilness, were not entirely bad.

Viswanath never created a memorable villainous character, and one suspects that it was because he was incapable of thinking them up. The man was agreeably avuncular as he looked. His zeitgeist was a rose-tinted naivete.     

Classical arts and their performers, with all their personal and professional contretemps, was a lifelong muse for the master director as he grappled with multiple issues like casteism, feminism, alcoholism, disability and what not through that prism in a career that spanned over four decades and around 39 films.

Even as his films celebrated the culture and traditions of the lands, they also, in a sense, tried to figure out what impact classical arts have in shaping the sensibilities and sensitivities of an individual.

Viswanath did all of these not in a laboured fashion but while dishing out enjoyably compact middle-class mainstream entertainment. That is a special skill he kind of shared with another of his contemporary, K Balachander, in whom Vishwanath saw a pro that he can look up to.

KB, for his part, was always impressed with Viswanath's works. So much so that KB remade in Tamil Viswanath's O Seeta Katha and Seetamalakshmi as Moondru Mudichu and Ennipadigal respectively. 

The two were also linked by their own professional relations to that peerless screen performer Kamal Haasan --- both KB and Viswanath's best works had Kamal as the hero, and it was no coincidence. Directors like Viswanath, KB, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Basu Chatterjee, who made a major mark in the 1970s, elegantly dealt with subjects filled with enjoyable and relatable middle-class ethos, and created works that reflected their own dignity and poise. 

Viswanath's classical oeuvre

As a person born into a traditional family whose roots lay in a small village on the banks of river Krishna, Viswanath always had the ears and eyes for traditional classical arts. And his innings in the film industry quite appropriately started as an audiographer at the Vauhini Studios (his father at that time was doing film distribution for the studio).

As a recordist he had to interact with the then top Telugu directors like K V Reddy, B N Reddy, Tatineni Prakasha Rao, Bhanumati and Adurti Subba Rao.

Soon, he became a formal associate editor to Adurti, and eventually became a director in his own right for the Annapurna banner where he was apprenticing at.

Though he was quickly accepted as a director with his own authorial voice and vision, his early years movies never made a major splash.

Films like Chelleli Kapuram, Kalam Marindi fetched him State awards, and it was the 1976 film Siri Siri Muvva, about the trials and tribulations of a mute female dancer, that made people in other States also take notice of Viswanath.

Siri Siri Muvva also, it could be argued, was the beginning of Viswanth's tryst with classical music and dance as a cinematic device in myriad ways. Most of his such works, interestingly, had the name starting with the letter 'S': Siri Siri Muvva, Sagara Sangamam (Salangai Oli in Tamil), Sruthilayalu, Swarnakamalam, Srivennela, and, of course the most famous of them all, Sankarabharanam. The last-named was perhaps the first known pan-India hit from the south. 

That a film in Telugu, with sub-titles being unheard of in those times, could run to packed houses in other States was a testimony to the fact that its story and treatment spoke of a universal condition. It is no exaggeration to say that the success of Sankarabharanam, replete with Carnatic classical songs under the baton of K V Mahadevan, was instrumental in southern Indian classical music getting a huge fresh lease of life among the young.

(How the film Sankarabharanam and the arrival of music director Ilaiyaraaja mainstreamed Carnatic music in ways unimagined deserves a separate book).

His art and its meaning

Sankarabharanam as a film story, especially from today's light, may be filled with corny sentimental stuff, but the film's underlying artistic concerns --- the immortality of an artist through his/her art and the fact that true art sees no boundaries or barriers of caste or gender or class --- are the essential leitmotifs of Viswanath's subsequent movies with similar classical arts backdrop.

Sagara Sangamam took a stab at the idea of even an unsung artist creating a legacy and perpetuating it and that art has no end.

Swathi Kirnam grappled with the contradiction that how noble and pure art can still set off the fire of envy. In this film, a master is jealous of his protege's talent and ability. The guru does not want his artistic legacy to be overshadowed by his disciple's glory. The student commits suicide, and eventually the master has to find redemption by running a musical school in his ward's name.

It is an intriguing loop. In Swathi Kiranam, Viswanath deals with how high art can be an escape to freedom from the burden of every-day drudgery. Srivennela, essentially a love triangle film, also shows how art can transcend the physical handicap (the hero is blind and the heroine is mute).

In Swarabhishekam, Viswanath shows that good art can be a binding force and bring together forces that are otherwise pulling in different directions.

As you can see, Viswanath did not use classical music or dance merely for exotic effect. He fleshed them out with both conviction and care. His films contain hall-of-fame songs because the man had the nous and nuance to get them out of his music directors.

It can be stated with no fear of contradiction that no other Indian director's works have fetched National Awards to three different music directors. Sankarabharanam landed KV Mahadevan the coveted honour. Sagara Sangamam got Ilaiyaraaja the most deserving award. And Swarabhishekam provided Vidyasagar his first-ever and the only National encomium so far.

And it is just not music directors who get to shine in Viswanath's films. Singers too invariably hit it big. SPB for Sankarabaranam and Sagara Sangamam, Vani Jayaram in Sankarabharanam and Swathi Kiranam, S Janaki in Saptapadi and P Susheela for Siri Siri Muvva have all bagged National Awards for best play-back singing.

These numbers of awards are staggering and unmatched in the Indian film annals. They underscore the effort that Viswanath managed to get from his teammates. Only a true connoisseur of art could have wangled such performances from his mates.

If his direction was fancy-free and accessible, as an actor --- which he became at the insistence of Kamal Haasan --- he was equally composed and convincing. He had the knack of making you believe in whatever role he did. 

His first movie as an actor Subha Sankalpam (Paasavalai in Tamil), which was produced by SPB and Kamal Haasan, had the song Narudu Brathuku Natanaa that was a reprise of the more famed Thakita Thakita Thadimi Thakita Thamdhaanaa from Sagara Sangamam. Same director. Same actor. Same singer. Just that the music director was different (M M Keeravani for Subha Sankalpam).

It, as it were, amplified what Viswanath truly believed through his movies: 'No end for any art'*. It perpetuates by all means.

Rest assured, Viswanath's art too will live on. 

*Closing line of Sagara Sangamam.

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