Carnatic Music and Maniratnam – Does it ring a bell?

The “December Music Season” in Chennai is on us. A season, when from all over the world, Carnatic musicians throng Chennai to be a part of the platform.   For a long time, it has been widely believed that Carnatic music only appeals to a narrow set of audience and has not broken the class divide. To be fair, there have been continuous efforts from those within the Carnatic music fraternity and outside, to break this divide and mainstream the same.

Talented and ace singer T.M.Krishna, in the past few years has been attempting to take the Kutcheri format out of the sabhas to the streets and slums. Sangeeta Kalanidhi Sanjay Subrahmanyan has kicked off this year’s season with an “All Tamil” concert titled ‘Tamizhum Naanum’ in Chennai yesterday which I hear, has got a rapturous response! I also saw a clip of a lecture Demonstration session by veteran singer G.S.Mani explaining the influence of Carnatic music in Tamil films. I have been an ardent follower of singer Charulata Mani’s pieces in The Hindu titled “The Raga’s Journey”, which I felt was a great attempt to de-mystify Carnatic music. In those pieces, Mani used to explain the nuances of a raga, demonstrate the same and then conclude with popular songs from films based on that raga. That was how I came to know of Ilaiyaraja’s mastery over Carnatic form of music as well and how deftly he used raga based compositions when the situations demanded. These pieces also brought out Rahman’s adoption of Carnatic music subtly in many of his compositions.

Among all the attempts to popularise Carnatic music among non-followers, I believe that using films or film music as a medium for the same is most effective. We all know how post K. Balachandar’s Sindhu Bhairavi, a film on a Carnatic musician, even a lay man could understand that usually a composition is made of scales going up (Aarohanam) and coming down (Avarohanam). And then a lead character goes on to explain how the hero, a veteran Carnatic singer has composed a song without the lower scale. That song, ‘Kalaivaaniye,…’ went on to become a super hit.  I had written in one of my earlier pieces (Read here) on how K.Balachandar, one of India’s top film makers, consciously attempted to mainstream Carnatic music through his films all his career. Along with KB, there could be other film makers in Tamil too, who have played their part and still attempting to do so in opening up new vistas for Carnatic music.  And it would come as a surprise to many, if I say that one of India’s finest film makers, Maniratnam too I believe, has been doing his bit to mainstream Carnatic music through his films. The big difference between him and KB is that, while KB’s efforts have been quite overt, Mani’s have been very subtle.  In many of his films, Mani has used a Classical Carnatic song setting to bring the male and female leads closer and also to further the screenplay. Sample these:

  • In Pagal Nilavu, one of Mani’s earlier films, Sarath Babu a Police officer meets Radhika, a classical dance teacher and sort of falls in love when she dances to the song ‘Vaidehi Raman Kai Serum Kaalam,…’ This song has a nice classical heft to it, being in the raga Kalyani, arguably Ilaiyaraja’s favourite raga (He has composed so many hits in this!)
  • In Agni Natchathiram, a film which was considered to be a calling card for “women’s lib” those days, Amala, the female lead is shown as trying to woo Prabhu, a grumpy IPS officer with a song which starts with “Ninnukori varnam,….”! The varnam Ninnukori… in raga Mohanam is quite a popular varnam in Carnatic music and is usually taught right in the beginning to Carnatic students. I am still surprised why or on whose behest lyricist Vaali used the words ‘Ninnukori varnam’ out of the blue in this song! But then, Vaali himself a Carnatic music follower and quite knowledgeable at that, is known to bring in Carnatic influences in his lines.
  • Even in Thalapathi, basically a gangster film, Mani deftly plugs in Carnatic music. Srividya, Arvind Swamy’s mother in the film sees Shobhana for the 1st time when she is seen singing this peach of a song of Ilaiyaraja‘Yamunai Aatrile Eera Kaatrile…’ sitting in the banks of some river! At the end of the song, she is shown as being being impressed with Shobana and the match between Arvind Swamy and Shobana is fixed. This song is set in the raga Yaman Kalyani or Yamuna Kalyani. As I mentioned before, Vaali is himself so conversant on Carnatic music, ragas et al,.. that, many times I have noticed him using the raga name based on which the song is composed, in the lyrics. This is one such example where he begins the song with the word “Yamunai”!
  • In one of Mani’s later films Alaipayuthey, where he makes a comeback to the youth and romance genre after a while, the Carnatic plug also makes a comeback after a while! When Shalini drops into Madhavan’s house for a function, she joins the elderly ladies in the room for the very popular Carnatic kriti – ‘Alaipayuthey…’! That, after that performance Shalini endears herself to the entire family who are shown as mighty impressed with her is an accepted stereo type in Tamil society and Mani doesn’t attempt to break that!
  • O Kadhal Kanmani is one of Mani’s recent films where he attempts to break societal stereotypes by showing the leads in a live-in relationship before eventually getting married. Even in this, Mani does not miss an opportunity to bring in Carnatic music to take the screen play forward. Dulquer Salman brings Nithya Menen to the house where he stays, which belongs to an elderly couple – Leela Samson and Prakash Raj. When Dulquer seeks Prakash Raj’s permission to let them stay together in the house, Prakash Raj obviously gets furious and doesn’t relent. At this juncture, Nithya Menen in a very well-staged scene, breaks into a beautiful song – ‘Malargal Ketten maname thanthanai,…’! Leela Samson, who is an erstwhile popular Carnatic singer and who is now suffering from Alzheimer’s, is shown as enjoying the rendition and at the end joining in the singing! And the next we see is, Nithya moving in to live-in! Just like in many of his compositions, Rahman seamlessly mixes many classical Carnatic raga influences to end up with a melody in this as well.

One look at the choice of songs in his films, whether it was with Ilaiyaraja before or with Rahman now, it is clear that Maniratnam has an ear for good music. While K.Balachandar is a self-confessed Carnatic music fan, we know less of the reticent Maniratnam’s affinity towards Carnatic music. But, I conjecture here that he must be an avid follower of Carnatic music. And hence, Mani’s attempts to plug this form of music in his films does indeed a ring a bell!

Post Script: Another film maker who can be put in this group is Rajiv Menon. Not surprising though, being the son of veteran Carnatic vocalist Kalyani Menon! I am looking forward to his next film – ‘Sarvam Thala Mayam’ which promises to be a story interwoven with music, rhythm etc and an attempt to mainstream classical music!

Pic courtesy: New Indian Express

2 thoughts on “Carnatic Music and Maniratnam – Does it ring a bell?

Add yours

  1. As usual Very nicely written piece Anand👍 Really appreciate Ur keen observation👌👏 shows immense interest in the subject. Loved all the references- the music, songs & the movies. The usage of the ragas bring out the Director’s & composer’s chemistry. Anuradha & Sreeram also used to conduct a similar programme on DD where they used to sing a Carnatic/Hindustani raaga and connect it to film songs which made the programme more appealing to the public.


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