Teaching with Songs
by Sachi Sri Kantha, March 28, 2019
Meaningful Songs as a Teaching Instrument
Since talkies came into existence, it had been the cultural tradition in Indian movies that songs and singing became an essential component for education and entertainment. Almost all the first generation lead actors (men and women) including comedians in Tamil movies were able singers and sang their own songs. But, situation changed when MGR came to play the hero role in 1947. Though competent enough to sing (and urged to do so by P.U. Chinnappa, a leading star of that era), MGR felt intuitively that his voice was sub par to those of ranking singer-actors of 1940s (such as K.R. Ramasamy and T.R. Mahalingam). This paradigm-shifting decision may be included as a ‘minor’ revolution MGR introduced in the movie production business, which lead to the incorporation a new category of singers (called as playback singers) in the composition and presentation of film music.
The first playback singer who ‘gave’ voice to MGR the hero, was a native of Tiruchi, M.M. Mariappa. He was a maternal uncle of reknowned playback singer Tiruchi Loganathan (1924-1989) of the first generation. Mariappa’s voice was heard in the first two MGR’s hero role movies, Rajakumari (1947) and Maruthanaatu Ilavarasi (1950). Even music director K.V. Mahadevan had given voice to MGR in a movie Panakkari (The Rich Woman, 1953; an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel ‘Anna Karenina’). Subsequently, after gaining confidence and a degree of control in his career from 1954, MGR preferred four singers mainly – Chidambaram S. Jayaraman, A.M. Rajah, T.M. Soundarrajan and Sirkazhi Govindarajan – to represent his voice in 1950s. (Table 1 – MGR’s Main Playback Singers in 1950s-1960s). Material in Table 1, was originally compiled in June 2013 to celebrate the life of T.M. Soundararajan and posted in this website (https://sangam.org/t-m-soundararajan/). Subsequently, I found inadvertent errors in it, related to the details presented on singer Tiruchi Loganathan. It was not Loganathan, but his maternal uncle M.M. Mariappa, who became the first playback singer to MGR. Though Loganathan had been involved in few of MGR’s movies (notably Manthiri Kumari and Gul E Bagavali), for some unknown reason, his voice had not been used for MGR. Also, Loganathan (born in 1924, and not in 1914 as indicated in the 2013 Table) was a junior by birth to Chidambaram Jayaraman and Soundararajan. Now, I had revised this table, to include A.M. Rajah, in place of Tiruchi Loganathan.
For most of 1960s, in rivalry with Sivaji Ganesan, T.M. Soundararajan became the ‘sole voice’ for MGR. Towards the late years of his career in 1970s, MGR phased out Soundararajan by incorporating two new singers, S.P. Balasubramaniam and K.J. Jesudas. Occasionally, either for the character role in a movie or as a personal favor, MGR also had used the voices of P.B. Srinivas (four songs in Mannathi Mannan 1960, Thirudathe 1961, Paasam 1962) and S.C. Krishnan (one song, Raja Rajan 1957).
MGR wouldn’t easily compromise, when it comes to shooting scenes and recording songs for his movies. Scriptwriter Arur Doss had written “Not only with the movies produced and directed by others, even for his own productions, MGR was like that. He wouldn’t be satisfied with the already finished shots. Repeatedly he would check again and again. The already recorded songs, he would listen repeatedly, and ask for alternate tunes and lyrics, and demand re-recording. Occasionally, even after the scenes had been shot and completed, he would dispose these, and demand recording another another song [for his satisfaction].”
Here lies the secret of MGR’s attention to achieve perfection. If the songs of MGR’s movies still retains the shine and literary glamor for those who listens to them after the passing of half a century, the labors of lyricists, music directors, singers and actors who cooperated with MGR deserve recognition. In hindsight, one can admire the efforts of MGR in demanding the best from his lyricists, music directors and singers, to elevate the Tamil movie songs to the caliber of freshly minted Tamil literature of the 20th century.
My conjecture, based on MGR’s strict adherence of non-alcohol use policy, is as follows. MGR had seen around him, how alcohol destroyed the lives and performances of his talented mentors and peers – especially those of comedians N.S. Krishnan (1908-1957) and J.P. Chandrababu (1927-1974). He was also aware that the number of lyricists addicted to liquor destroyed their lives prematurely. These include, Tanjai Ramaiah Das (1914-1965), Kambadasan (aka Appavu or Rajappa, 1916-1973), K,P. Kamatchi sundaram and Kannadasan (1927-1981). All four had worked in MGR’s movies. Tanjai Ramaiah Das had penned some popular lyrics for MGR movies, Malai Kallan (1954) and Gul-E-bakavali (1955). A lyric, which came to be identified among the fans as the first MGR’s ‘policy song’ (kolhai padal, in Tamil) ‘Ethanai kaalam thaan emaruvaar intha naddile?’ (For how long, they go on cheating in this land?) was penned by Ramaiah Das for the Malai Kallan movie, set to tune by M.S. Subbiah Naidu and sung with gusto by T.M. Soundararajan. A You Tube clip of this song is in the following link.
Once this song became so popular, there was some controversy in attributing the credit. According to one account I had read, the story goes that Ramaiah Das contributed the bulk of the lines, but for some personal reason, failed to complete it. Those involved in the production, then brought in Kovai C.A. Aiyamuthu (another old hand) to complete the lyric. Kambadasan was the script writer for an early MGR movie Salivahanan (1945). And Kannadasan dependence on alcohol and drug (pethidine use) was an open secret.
MGR might have doubted that their compositions could be bettered, if they were written while they were sober. Even, Vaali (1931-2013), MGR’s choice to replace Kannadasan in MGR’s movies in 1960s, by his own admission was partial to liquor as well. Thus, this may partly explain MGR’s ‘irritating’ habit of soliciting additional labor for the songs he wished to use. Subsequently, MGR even phased out Vaali, and in 1970s introduced new lyricists, Pulamaipithan (b. 1935), Muthulingam (b. 1937) and N. Kamarasan (1942-2017).
Let me analyze, what critic M.S.S. Pandian had recorded in his 1992 essay on MGR lyricists:
“Though lyricists like Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, a communist, and Kannadasan, once a rationalist and a DMK activist, wrote lyrics for MGR films during the 1950s, MGR later groomed his own lyricists, such as Vali and Pulamaipiththan. Both Kalyanasundaram and Kannadasan were poets in their own right and their lyrics held their ground – over and above the cinematic situation as well as the hero’s screen personality. But neither Vali nor Pulamaipittan could gain a following for themselves, and have to have their songs sold under ‘MGR songs’.”
Since Pandian wrote these lines in 1992, the stock of both Vaali and Pulamaipiththan had appreciated considerably. Because of their association with MGR’s movies, Tamil literary world came to appreciate their talents and MGR’s chief contribution was to promote their talent, like what he had done to other talented actors and actresses. The same could be said to poets N. Kamarasan and S. Muthulingam. Pandian’s implication that MGR appropriated the efforts of lyricists, music directors and playback singers is an exaggeration of fact. There have been claims that geniuses in the movie industry like Chaplin and Hitchcock had took on the credit of deserving fellow workers of their units; such accusations don’t hold water for MGR. He hardly obliterated the talents of song creators. That he was a hard task master and forced others to bring out the best in them, by repeated writings and recordings, should not be equated to appropriating or emaciating the talent of others. There were circulating stories that MGR had professional conflicts with music director G. Ramanathan, lyricist cum script writers Tanjai Ramaiahdass, Kannadasan, and actor-singer-director P. Bhanumathi in 1950 and 1960s. These conflicts had to be placed in proper context in ‘producing the best for mass approval’ and not to be interpreted as MGR appropriating the talent of others. Only those who are illiterate in movie making skill would make such a charge. MGR made sure that lyricists, music directors and singers earned their credits for their effort.
In Table 2 – Image Maker Lyricists for MGR, I provide a comparison of three major lyricists cum image makers for MGR songs – namely, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, Kannadasan and Vaali (KVV). The number of MGR movies these three were involved were 7, 46 and 63 respectively. These numbers were not exclusive. Five of the 7 MGR movies that featured Kalyanasundaram’s lyrics had Kannadasan’s lyrics as well. Similarly, after Kalyanasundaram’s death in 1959, for quite a number of MGR movies, MGR had assigned lyric writing to both Kannadasan and Vaali.
I tentatively assign the year 1965 as when MGR’s image build up reached its zenith, with Vaali’s signature song, ‘Naan Aanaiyittal Athu Nadanthu viddal’ [If I issued a command, and if that succeeded] in the Enga Veetu Pillai movie; You Tube clip is in this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mu9oQL3d31A and Kannadasan’s lyric ‘Atho Antha Paravai Pola Vazhavendum – Itho Intha Alaigal Pola Adavendum’ [There, we need to live like those birds – Here, we need to dance like these waves] in the Ayirathil Oruvan movie; You Tube clip is in this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2Q0-XY4BeA
The Tamil meaning of the title Ayirathil Oruvan [One in a Thousand] was itself an act of MGR crowning himself, a la Napoleonic fashion! It was also the first movie for the MGR-Jayalalitha pair. Thus, the lyricists who joined the MGR bandwagon in 1970s, namely Pulamaipithan, Muthulingam and Kamarasan could be relieved from the exercise of singing MGR’s glory in verse.
Among the KVV, it was unfortunate that Kalyanasundaram had a short life. In 7 movies for MGR (four of which were released posthumously), Kalyanasundaram’s contribution to the foundation of MGR’s popular image was solid as a rock (Table 3 – List of MGR movies with Kalyanasundaram lyrics). As he was associated as a prime lyricist in MGR’s first own production, Nadodi Mannan (1958), MGR had extolled his service. In a speech made after he was elected to the Chief Minister position of Tamil Nadu in 1977, MGR had spoken. ‘I’m not sure what the three legs of the chief minister’s chair stands for. But, I know definitely, that the 4th leg of the chair belongs to Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram’. It should also be noted that Kannadasan was also a contributor to the Nadodi Mannan movie, but only as a dialogue writer, and not as a lyricist! Nadodi Mannan had 11 songs, among which Kalyanasundaram penned the maximum 4 lyrics. Other lyricists included, N.M. Muthukoothan (2 lyrics), Aathmanathan (2 lyrics), Suratha (2 lyrics) and C.A.Lakshmanadas (1 lyric). A signature song of Kalyanasundaram that preceded Nadodi Mannan movie, was the Maha Devi (1957) solo, ‘Kurukku Valiyil Vaazhu thedidum kuruddu ulakamada’ (A blind world that lives in a crooked path), tuned by Viswanathan – Ramamoorthy duo and sung by Soundarajan. A You Tube clip is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iei-vD2WHg4.
In Table 4 -List of MGR movies with Kannadasan lyrics, I provide the list of MGR movies, in which Kannadasan’s lyrics appear. Though in early 1960s, MGR and Kannadasan had a political fallout, and MGR introduced Vaali as Kannadasan’s substitute, he never ousted Kannadasan completely from his sponsorship. He did appreciate Kannadasan’s talent wanted lyrics from him continuously. As the Table 4 indicates, from 1957 to 1974, Kannadasan’s contribution to MGR’s movies remained a constant, though both parted their ways politically in 1961. Two omitted years in this table are 1958 and 1969. However, 1958 was the year in which MGR’s first production Nadodi Mannan was released, and as indicated in the previous paragraph, Kannadasan’s contribution as a dialogue writer for this movie cannot be underestimated. One stabilizing factor in the MGR – Kannadasan relationship was Sandow M.M.A. Sinappa Thevar, who was a patron to Kannadasan. Thus, in most of the MGR movies produced by Thevar Films, Kannadasan’s lyrics became routine ornaments.
Lyricists other than KKV Trio
It should also be recorded that MGR also made the effective use of other respected lyricists for his songs. This list include, Udumalai Narayana Kavi (1899-1981), Tanjai Ramiahdas, A. Maruthakasi (1920-1989), C.A. Lakshmanadas, Ku. Ma. Balasubramaniam (1920-1994), Suratha (1921-2006), Ku.Sa. Krishnamurthy, K.D. Santhanam, Alangudi Somu, N.M. Muthukoothan, M.K. Athmanathan and Avinasi Mani. First three listed had written excellent lyrics in 1950s to enhance MGR’s image. Udumalai Narayana Kavi was the sole lyricist for MGR’s first hero role movie ‘Rajakumari’(1947).
MGR’s dilemma in song composition
In 1953, MGR was a late comer to the DMK party. Being an offshoot of the Dravidar Kazhagam party led by rationalist and atheist E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, one of the planks of DMK was atheism. Those who were ‘founder members’ of the party, M.Karunanidhi, Kannadasan, Sivaji Ganesan and S.S. Rajendran subscribed to atheism then. First to leave the party was Sivaji Ganesan in mid 1950s, followed by Kannadasan in 1961. By becoming a top mascot of DMK in the movie world, MGR had to play by the party rules in espousing atheism. Many of his close friends had acknowledged that deep in his mind, he was not an atheist per se. Here, one could attribute MGR’s trust in faith to the influence of his god fearing mother Sathyabama, and that of his trusted pal cum producer Sandow M.M.A. Sinappa Thevar.
As such, few prominent MGR movie lyrics penned by Kannadasan and Vaali deviated from the atheist line, by either direct or indirect attribution to the God. In some song sequences, Kannadasan and Vaali also used the evasive ‘Third person singular’ in Tamil (Avan) to refer to the God. Six examples are as follows:
Kadul irukinraan athu un kannuku therikinrathaa? [God is present. Does your eye see it?] – Ananda Jothi (1963), lyricist Kannadasan.
Poyum Poyum Manithanuku intha puthiyai koduthane! – Iraivan, puthiyai koduthane [Why why, the man got this knowledge – Oh God – why (you) gave the knowledge] –
Thai sollai thattathe (1961), lyricist Kannadasan
Oorukku nee uzhaithal, Unnaruhe Avan iruppan [If you serve the village, He will be near you] – Raja Desingu (1960), lyricist Kannadasan
Kadavul seitha paavam – inku kaanum thunbam yaavum [It may be the sin of God, the unhappiness we see around here] – Nadodi (1966), lyricist Kannadasan
Koduthathellam Koduthan – athu yarukkaha koduthan? [Afterall, He had given much – To whom did He give?] – Padahotti (1964), lyricist Vaali.
Naan Anaiyittal athu nadanthu viddal [If I issued a command, and if that succeeded] – Enga Veetu Pillai (1965), lyricist Vaali.
To compromise with the DMK party line, in a few song sequences such as those of black and white Ananda Jothi and Nadodi movie examples cited above, the ploy of using an alter-ego in white dress with the character (in black dress) singing the song was used. A beauty in the song, ‘Unnai arinthaal – Nee unnai arinthaal, Ulagathil pooradalam’ [Know yourself – You, know yourself, (then, you) can fight the world] in the Vettaikaran movie was an MGR self-praise song, equating his ‘good traits’ to that of a living God! Kannadasan incorporates the Socratic wisdom of ‘Know thyself’ in the beginning lines, and then in the second couplet inserted the comparison to the God.
‘Poomiyil neraha vazhpavar ellorum Samikku niharillaiya?’ [Ain’t those who live straight in the word, an equal to the God?] Kannadasan was a master in word play, using many synonyms for the God – such as Kadavul, Iraivan and Sami. He even, composed a macoronic verse in English mentioning MGR for a stage drama scene in the Raman Thediya Seethai (1972) movie. It was this.
[Woman]: Twinkle twinkle little star – You are also film star
Looking like our MGR – Lovely beauty Come On Sir.
[Man]: Meet me meet me Sweaty girl – Teach me teach me lovely tale
Tell me tell me meeting place – Daily daily show your face.
There is an interesting anecdote, which lyricist Vaali had recorded, about the Padahotti movie hit song – Koduthathellam Koduthan Yarukkaha koduthan, mentioned above. It was first rejected by the Communist producers, for the movie,‘Paathai Theriyuthu Paar.’ (1960; The Path is Seen- Look), when actor V. Gopalakrishnan (Gopi; 1933-1998) attempted to introduce Vaali for a chance to the music director M.B. Srinivasan (1925-1988) in 1958. This was when Vaali was knocking at the doors of production companies for any opportunity. Gopi himself had appeared in numerous MGR movies in subsidiary roles; the earliest was in ‘Thai Magalukku Kattiya Thaali’ (1959). Vaali had reminisced as follows:
“ ‘K.C.S. Arunasalam, Jeyakanthan and Pattukottai [Kalyanasundaram] are the three who write lyrics for this movie. There isn’t any situation for Vaali to write a lyric. Nevertheless, if he has a lyric which reflects the Communist and social awareness themes, I can use it as a title song for this movie’ said M.B.S. Gopi looked at me and asked,
‘Vaali, can you tell us any lyric you have which reflects social awareness, as suggested by M.B.S?’
I thought a little, and what I had written in my note book which I had memorized, and sang it to M.B.S.
M.B.S. didn’t tell any opinion immediately. Then, he answered,
‘Mr. Vaali! I cannot say that the song which you had sung to me now is not good. But, it didn’t impress me that much….So, sorry’ and moved to the orchestra folks to give notations.
‘Don’t worry Vaali. We can try at another place’ replied Gopi and took me home.
The same song which I sung to Mr. M.B.S. in 1958, was recorded in 1967 (Note by Sachi: a memory error here by Vaali. It was 1964) and became popular like a national song. Subsequently when I mentioned this to M.B.S, he really felt sad about it. He acknowledged his mistake graciously.
That song was the ‘Padahotti’ movie lyric, ‘Koduthatellam Koduthan – Avan Yarukkaha koduthan- Orutharukka koduthan – Illai Oorukkaha koduthan’, ‘sung’ by MGR and became popular.”
The bottom line was, while MGR’s Padahotti movie became a super-hit among Tamil fans for its songs alone, Paathai Theriyuthu Paar movie was a financial flop due to professional incompetence of the producers and ego conflict among the Communist authors, including Jeyakanthan.
The list of music directors who were involved with 133 MGR movies was compiled. Among the 133 movies from 1936, details on music directors for 5 early movies were not available for me. Also, for the first 20 of his movies (from 1936 to 1949, excluding the Rajakumari movie of 1947), MGR was not a lead player. Two notable movies of this MGR phase for its song contents were M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar starrer Ashokumar (1942); music director was Alathur Sivasubramania Iyer (1916-1965) of the ‘Alathur Brothers’ tag, and M.S. Subbulakshmi starrer Meera (1945); music director was S.V.Venkataraman (1911-1998). S.M. Subbiah Naidu (1914-1979), an MGR confidant and mentor of M.S. Viswanathan was the designated music director for the Rajakumari movie.
Thus, among his oeuvre of 133 movies, MGR was a notable decision maker on the music director assignment for the remaining 113 movies, since 1950. MGR’s preferred choices for the music director assignments were M.S. Viswanathan (alone or in combination with T.K. Ramamoorthy) and K.V. Mahadevan, followed by S.M. Subbiah Naidu and G. Ramanathan. They account for 97 movies out of 113. M.S. Viswanathan (alone) – 38; M.S.Viswanathan – T.K. Ramamoorthy (duo) – 14;
K.V. Mahadevan – 33; S.M. Subbiah Naidu (alone) – 6; G. Ramanathan (alone) – 6;
The names of the remaining music directors for the other 16 MGR movies are below.
- Dakshinamurthy – 2; Govindarajulu Naidu – 2; T.R.Pappa, aka Sivasangaran – 2;
M.S.Gnanamani, C.N.Pandurangan, C.S.Jeyaraman, S.Rajeswara Rao, Kunnakudi Vaithianathan, S.V.Venkataraman – 1 each;
C.R. Subbaraman and S.M. Subbiah Naidu – 1;
M.S.Viswanathan, M.S. Gnanamani and T.A.Kalyanam – 1.
Among the above named lyricists and music directors in this chapter, in his autobiography, MGR had written (1) warmthly on his relationship with music director Subbiah Naidu, who became a confidant of him. (2) reflexively on his initial condescension and ignorance on the talents of senior lyricist C.A. Lakshmanadas and music director M.S. Gnanamani, and (3) thankfully on the tiffs and differences of opinion he had with Kannadasan, while both were members of DMK party, and after Kannadasan joined the Congress Party led by Indira Gandhi. What is appreciable in MGR’s character was his magnanimity in recording his youthful ignorance of the talent of Lakshmanadas and asking his pardon for attempting to hit him. Sadly, not much information is forthcoming now about Gnanamani, who was the music director for MGR’s Maruthanattu Ilavarasi (1950) movie. MGR had mentioned that Gnanamani’s birth name was Thirunavukarasu.
Songs for Inspiration and Mental Vigilance
Here is a pathetic medical case report, that appeared with the title, ‘Murdered to the Music of Bob Dylan’ in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 20 years ago. I provide this story, because it is an anti-thesis to what MGR believed on the virtue of a song. To quote,
“The victim’s 21 year old son returned home at 4:00 am after smoking marijuana. He put on the Bob Dylan record ‘Desire’, which woke the victim – his mother, a 50 year old State registered Nurse – and an argument followed. The son ripped up a photograph of his mother and repeatedly kicked her in the head whilst she lay on a couch. He danced to Bob Dylan’s music on his mother’s body, and then dragged her outside the house and repeated the performance…”
The author of this report J.E. Goodyear was affiliated to Launceston General Hospital, Tasmania, Australia. It is not that, Bob Dylan, the generator of the song lyric and now a Nobel literature prize laureate, should be blamed for a horrendous deed done by an insane guy, who was a marijuana smoker. But song writers should take precautions that their lyrics shouldn’t instigate the listeners to do anti-social nefarious deeds. Though cultural standards may differ, a mentally deranged son killing his mother, after listening to a song of Bob Dylan pinches on the nerves of many readers. Had he been living, MGR would have been much distressed to hear this story that a song of Bob Dylan, the celebrated American artist, instigated a guy to kill his mother!
MGR worked hard with his lyricists, music directors and singers to create songs that will be beneficial to the Tamil society with meaningful message, catchy rhythms and easily understood words. His contention was that, songs should be inspirational and offer mental vigilance to those who hear them and perform the function of elevating the mood of the listeners. After a half a century, it is a delight that his ‘creations’ in collaboration with his trusted lyricists and musicians have stood the test of time, and challenge the new entrants to the field.
There have been a number of duplicates or imitators of MGR in the Tamil movies for the past 30 years, but still the original remains unmatched. Though one cannot assert that MGR succeeded in eliminating the crimes committed in Tamil Nadu by his songs, his mission of educating the populace wasn’t a failure either. Those critics like Pandian who carp on MGR’s success also haven’t presented an alternate successive model as an actor in educating the illiterate masses in India or elsewhere.
Arurdhas: Naan Mugam Paartha Cinema Kannadigal, Kalaignan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2002, pp. 94-99.
P.E.Balakrishnan (ed) : Makkal Kavignar Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram Padalhal, 5th ed. 1977, New Century Book House, Chennai.
Goodyear, J.E. Murdered to the Music of Bob Dylan. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 1989; 10(4): 349-352.
Randor Guy: Blast from the Past – Panakkari (1953), The Hindu (Chennai), Dec 26, 2008.
Kannadasan: Thirai Isai Padalhal, vol.1, Vanathi Pathippagam, Chennai,2nd ed. 1978.
Kannadasan: Thirai Isai Padalhal, vol.2, Vanathi Pathippagam, Chennai, 3rd ed. 1984.
Kannadasan: Thirai Isai Padalhal, vol.3, Kannadhasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2nd ed. 2014.
Kannadasan: Thirai Isai Padalhal, vol. 4, Kannadhasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 5th ed. 2013.
Kannadasan: Thirai Isai Padalhal, vol. 5, Kannadasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 1st ed. 2011.
M.S.S. Pandian: The Image Trap – M.G.Ramachandran in Film and Politics, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1992, p. 58.
MGR: Naan Yean Piranthaen – Parts 1 and 2 (autobiography), Kannadhasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2014, pp. 66-78, 1061-1072, 1455-1474.
Kavignar Vaali: Naanum Intha Nooraandum (autobiography). Kalaignan Pathippakam, Chennai, 1995, pp. 142-144.