A Melody Regained

cilappathikaaram (Epic of the Anklet) - kANalvari IllangovadikaL

For no reasons, some music get etched in memory. Some melodies keep haunting every now and then, even though it is ages since last listened. One of those rare gems is a movie song "thingaL malai veNkudaiyAn". I remember vividly that I first listened this song when I was about 13 years old, in Srilanka Broadcasting Corporation, Tamil Service 2. I do not know why/how I remember these trivial details. It was a weekend; I was sitting down on the floor and doing my history homework. It should be between 4:00 and 5:00 pm. My world stopped. I put the pen down and concentrated on the song. All that I could comprehend at that age was that the singer is K.J. Yesudoss . I froze the moment in my memory (to the mind numbing details of the evening and my history lessons). I might have listened to this song few more times, every time only from Tamil Service 2. I never could listen this song after 1982. This is the time the Tamil services of SLBC were downsized following the ethnic conflicts.

I came back to this song in 1991, when I was a student in the Indian Institute of Science. This was during a casual conversation with my friend Ujjwal Das about composer Salil Chowdhury. He was surprised when I informed that his favourite Salilda has scored music to a handful of Tamil movies (thUraththu idi muzhakkam, azhiyaatha kOlangaL, karumbu). He wanted to listen to those songs, I had the first two and my quest to acquire the third began then. It is about 12 years since then, I finally have a copy of the songs from karumbu; thanks to the Internet.

This song was recorded for Karumbu in 1973. The movie was never released and was supposed to be directed by Ramu Kariat of chemmeen (malayalam) fame. There is also a P Susheela version of this song.

Since 1999, with the advent of the Forumhub , I speeded up the search. There were few others who reminisced about this song, but none of them had a copy of it. When I moved to Toronto, I used to seek this song with all my Srilankan friends. Movie songs were (are?) never broadcast in All India Radio before the movie itself was released. However, SLBC never had any qualms about pre-screen broadcasting. In fact, several movies became instant hits as the songs had already become popular thorough SLBC-TS2.

By now, my interest in this song has grown many fold as I started developing a passion for Tamil literature. I was involved in e-texting the first part (pukaark kANtam) of cilappathikaaram for Project Madurai and had the pleasure in contributing this great epic. I Started sending emails to everyone whom I thought, may have a copy of this song. This is strange for someone who is no big fan of KJ Yesudoss and who despises his Tamil pronunciations in songs.

Finally, I had my luck when I visited a site devoted to Salil Chowdhury . I overcome my initial reservation in asking someone whom I never knew, gathered enough courage to write to Gautam, who developed this excellent site. Within a day, he replied. For the first time I heard from someone who has a copy of this record!! He was willing to send me a copy of those songs once his PC is back in action. Yes, he did. Within a week, I had the copies of both the versions of this song. I did some noise editing and tagging so that I could propagate its glory.

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cilappathikaaram and kANalvari are the beginnings of what we consider as the early Tamilisai (the roots of Carnatic music). The exact date of cilampu is not known but is rated between 400-700 AD. The work has 6 chapters on music: aRangetRukAthai, kaNalvari, vEnirkAthai, vEttuvavari, kunRakuRavai and aychiyarkuRavai. It also talks extensively about instruments, song structures, meters, stage dimensions and settings. There is no other Indian work that is so descriptive of the days music and dance. Illango adikaL also used kalippA extensively and very imaginatively. KalippA (with its tharvu, koccakam, thaazicai...) is what metamorphosed into the classical raaga structure. In more than one sense cilampu was a trendsetter of the day (it is an epic about ordinary folks, not about a king). It has very well developed dramatic elements. cilampu may also be one of the highly misunderstood epics in Indian literature. Prof. Indira Parthasarathy argues that it was not the intent of illango adikaL to glorify kaNNaki and goes on to prove how ordinary, unimaginative, self-centered she was (to the extent of using her chastity as a currency for her fame).

That is how kOvalan finds mAthavi - not only stunningly beautiful and talented but also capable of intelligent conversation, something kaNNaki was incapable of. The passages in kANalvari best exemplify this. It all start as simple verbal play between the pair that is enjoying itself in the festive atmosphere in the beach. Soon, kOvalan comes out, unable to hide his inferiority in front of the femme royale mAdhavi. Words stretch and kOvalan misinterprets mAdhavi's simple playfulness (in the light of his inferiority) and leaves her company. Cilampu enters its second chapter, where the travails of the human life take the centerstage.

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Salil has tuned several great songs. I am sure this lesser known is one of his great contributions to the Indian Film Music. Here is a song, supposed to be for a movie in Tamil, and one of the oldest lyric ever tuned for a motion picture. The singer is KJ Yesudoss (MalayAlee), the other version is sung by P Susheela (Telugu) tuned by Salil (Bengali), for a movie to be directed by Ramu Kariat (a MalayAlee). Yet, the song has perfectly captured the forlorn spirit of kANalvari and the grand epic. Yesudoss has come up with an impeccable rendition. The song is loosely based in chakravaaham (one the generic carnatic raaga).

The variation of this by P Susheela is missing the emotional undercurrent of kANalvari and has a more celebration mood to it, with chorus in the interludes. I guess Salil should have been briefed about kANalvari, that it takes places in a beach and during a carnival atmosphere. He has attempted two variations, one manifesting the emotions and the other the locale. But kANalvari lyrics have more emotive desolateness to them and Yesudoss' version stands out easily, bringing out the emptiness of kOvaln's heart.

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I must conclude this thanking Gautam again for preserving this song and willing to share it with someone who is interested in it.

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Article written by V. Venkataramanan