When Carnatic Music Used Songs From Tamil Cinema

When Carnatic Music Used Songs From Tamil Cinema

by K Balakumar - Thursday, May 4, 2023 10:46 PM IST
When Carnatic Music Used Songs From Tamil CinemaMS Subbulakshmi as Meera
  • Five Kollywood numbers that are still popular in kutcheris.

The unseemly controversy surrounding the Veera Raja Veera song in Ponniyin Selvan 2  doesn't seem to die.

Dhrupad maestro Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar has now alleged that AR Rahman's song Veera Raja Veera in Ponniyin Selvan 2 'lifted' materials from 'Shiva Stuti' that his father and uncle had composed.

But to be fair, Rahman and his team have officially credited the song to the Dagarvani tradition, and so what the Ustad is complaining about is not clear. 

In any case, it is not uncommon for film musicians to dip into traditional classical tunes. There are countless examples.

But the reverse has also been true. That is, Carnatic musicians using songs from films for their traditional concerts.

If you are talking about Tamil cinema, this 'give and take' was understandable considering the fact that many of the stars of that era were actually classical musicians. M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Dandapani Desikar, P U Chinnappa, S G Kittappa were all consummate stage performers. Big names from the Carnatic field like G N Balasubramaniam, M S Subbulakshmi, M L Vasanthakumari, D K Pattammal, Radha-Jayalakshmi, NC Vasanthakokilam have acted and/or lent their voice to songs in many films from that period.

Much later in the 60s and the 70s when K J Yesudas became a big name in both film playback singing as well as Carnatic music, he began to perform many of his popular film songs on classical music concert platforms.

He regularly sang in kutcheris semi-classical sounding film numbers like Nakshatra Deepangal (film: Nirakudam), Janaki Jane Rama (film: Dhwani), Bhaja Govindam (film: Jagadguru Adisankaran).

Incidentally, the more popular Bhaja Govindam version by M S Subbulakshmi was incidentally tuned by that underrated maestro S V Venkataraman. 

Here's a list of five songs that are today popular on concert platforms but not many seem to be aware of their film origins

Dheena Karunakarane (Thiruneelakantar)

This is a MKT hall of famer from the monstrous hit Thiruneelakantar (1939).

The film is said to have run for a year to packed houses. And the film, on the potter-saint Neelakanta Nayanar, had six memorable songs — a small number as usually MKT starrers had songs in the dozens — but none more popular than Dheena Karunakarane set to the Yamuna Kalyani ragam.

The song was composed and written by Papanasam Sivan. Incidentally, it remained a film offering till Carnatic vocalists like Unnikrishnan, Sudha Raghunathan and Bombay Jayashri started the trend of using popular movie numbers from the 40s and 50s in their concerts as ‘tukdas’ (typically, short songs towards the end of a concert).

But in the succeeding years, songs like Dheena Karunakarane have become concert numbers in their own right and their antecedents almost forgotten. This is a version of the song by Bombay Jayashri. 

Chinnanchiru Kiliye Kannamma (Manamagal)

Which Carnatic musician has not sung this Bharathiyar poem in their concert? It is an evergreen song that is forever popular among performers and listeners.

But again, it is not too well known that this was  composed by C R Subbaraman for the film Manamagal.

This 1951 film gave the singer M L Vasanthakumari a major break, and soon enough she became the voice of Padmini. Her songs for PadminiEllam Inbanayam, Aadal Kaaneero, Aadadha Manamum Undoa — still stand the test of time.

The music director Subbaraman (he was the elder brother of Shankar of Shankar–Ganesh duo music directors), as he died relatively young, never reached the heights that he promised. But Chinnanchiru Kiliye Kannamma (in Ragamalika: Kaapi, Maand, Vasantha, Thilang and Sivaranjani) has ensured that he, in the form of his music, will never die. Here is Sudha Raghunathan rendering the song.

(Incidentally, the same lines were set to a totally different tune by the redoubtable MSV for the film Neethikku Thandanai. The song, crooned by Swarnalatha and KJ Yesudas, did not become that popular.)

Sivaloka Nathanai Kandu (Nandanar)

The 1942 film Nandanar was a musical tour de force, featuring as many as 32 songs. The then musical sensation Dhandapani Desikar sang 15 of them and many of them remain chratbusters even today.

The music directors, Papanasam Sivan, Partasarathy, and Rajeswara Rao, had employed a wide range of ragas.

Sivaloka Nathanai Kandu, set to Mayamlavagowlai ragam, is among the best flowers in that musical bouquet.

There was a famous contest — to a then unheard of prize money of Rs 10,000 — to choose the top three best songs from the film. The producer SS Vasan had reportedly deposited the list of songs in a sealed envelope with the Indian Bank, First Line Beach, Madras.

It is not clear now which songs were in that list. But smart money is certainly on Sivaloka Nathanai Kandu to be among them.

Here is Sanjay Subrahmanyan felicitously rendering the song at a concert appropriately at the Kapaleeswarar temple. A great song on Lord Siva at his most famous abode in Tamil Nadu.

Kaatrinile Varum Geetham (Meera)

Meera (1945) was the film that kind of sublimated the image of MS Subbulakashmi from being a mere singer to that of a bhakti incarnate performer in the minds of the public.

It was her last film before she set out on a classical musical career that wowed everyone from kings to commoners.

In such a special film, the song Kaatrinile Varum Geetham was the equivalent of the icing on the cake. The song was written by Kalki Krishnamurthy and set to music by S V Venkataraman.

The tune for the song, though, is from the Hindi bhajan Toot Gayi Man Bina.

“In those days there was a very popular gramophone record of a song that went Toot Gayi Man Bina. (Kalki’s daughter) Anandi was so enamoured of it that she pestered her father to write a Tamil equivalent for Meera and thus was born Katrinile,” according historian V Sriram.

Inspired it may be, but Meera’s Kaatrinile Varum Geetham continues to inspire countless Carnatic musicians. Here’s the young Sivasri Skandasri delivering it

Bruhi Mukundeti Rasane (Savithri)

Songs that MS Subbulkashmi sang in Savithri are all-time hits. Perhaps the greatest of them all is Bruhi Mukundeti’, composed originally by Sadasiva Brahmendra in Raga Kuranji.

“The way MS rendered this song in Savithri became so popular that it found a place in her serious classical concert repertoire,” wrote TJS George in her biography.

Apparently, when the film was being shot, artists and technicians in New Theatres, Calcutta including legendary luminaries such as K . Saigal, Kanan Bala, Pankaj Mullick and Pahari Sanyal, used to assemble in the studio whenever MS had a recording session. They would request her to sing some popular numbers, especially Bruhi Mukundeti. Here’s a version attempted by TM Krishna

PS: Thunbam Nergayil (Or Iravu)

Our list has only five songs. But we chose to include this one as an extra because this was a song that was originally set to tune in Desh ragam by the one and only Dandapani Desikar. But after him nobody really took up this song, till it was incorporated by music director R Sudarasanam in the 1951 film Or Iravu.

Sung by M S Rajeswari and V J Varma, the song has become a classic of our times, and this version by Sanjay Subrahmanyan deservedly being the most popular. A concert song coming back to it via the route of film is interesting and hence we included it as an addition. 

PPS: But we, even in our most accommodating mood, cannot get ourselves to include in our list Sid Sriram attempting songs like Maruvarthai Pesathe at a seeming classical concert platform in this list. 

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