When the first Tamil film, Kalidas, opened in Madras at Kinema Central, in October 1931, and the heroine T.P. Rajalakshmi sang on the screen, few in that rapt audience would have realised that they were witnessing the birth of a cultural colossus-Tamil film music.
All the song-laden Tamil films of the initial years were celluloid versions of plays of the popular drama companies. The filmmakers thus tapped a powerful musical tradition-the company drama repertoire. These plays had evolved into a theatre of song and music, a kind of an opera, with minimal spoken words and action. Into the drama music, based primarily on Carnatic style, had been introduced a form of the Hindustani idiom appropriated from Marathi company dramas that had toured the presidency. Folk songs were also featured, and within a decade it began absorbing western music as well.
The cinema industry expanded after sound studios were set up in Madras in 1934. The prospect of steady money attracted classical musicians. There was M.S. Subbulakshmi, along with M.M. Dandapani Desigar. So, people flocked to cinema halls as if they were going to a concert. Music composer Papanasam Sivan gave classical music to the people in a simplified form and helped widen its base. However, when playback singing came into being, there was a separation of acting and singing and the classical musicians had to leave the scene.
In the black-and-white era, the song sequences were in 'real' time. This was the phase when G. Ramanathan and K.V. Mahadevan dominated the music scene. Once colour arrived, filmmakers began to shoot a single song sequence in different locales and in varied costumes. This meant a complete suspension of the logic of time and space for the duration of the song.
Today, film music is all-pervasive in Tamil Nadu. It enjoys a popularity that has few parallels in history. It has transcended categorisations-an important development in a non-egalitarian society. In the '50s, Radio Ceylon brought the songs home when All India Radio, under I&B minister B.V. Keskar, refused to broadcast film songs. Eventually, the minister relented. Later, audio cassettes, CDs, TV and the attendant electronic technology extended the reach of film songs.
Today, no other artiste personifies the popularity of film music as does Ilayaraja. He entered Tamil films in the mid-1970s, when there was stagnation in film music. Ilayaraja's creations came as a whiff of fresh air. The song that made him famous in his debut film Annakili (1976)-Annakili unnai theduthu (Annam is looking for you)-was authentic folk. In his 30 years in cinema, he has composed music for more than 1,000 films in Tamil and four other languages.
But what sets apart Ilayaraja is his grasp of the role of music in cinema. Very few music directors, with the possible exception of L. Vaidyanathan and Salil Chowdhry, have demonstrated an understanding of the medium of cinema and the role of a musical score in the narrative. Ilayaraja doesn't believe in creating film music as a mere aural experience, isolated from the images. For him, music is integral to the effect of the movie. It has to integrate with the narrative, not intrude upon it. It has to go with the images, has to be part of the viewing experience.
Even as Ilayaraja was dominating the scene, A.R. Rahman made his debut with the film Roja (1993) and went on to introduce world sounds and New Age music to our film score. Rahman's stress has been more on songs than on background score. Unlike Ilayaraja, he accentuates the independent aural character of film songs; they aren't necessarily linked to the onscreen images or the characters singing them.
In comparison to classical music, film music might often be denigrated but it has been all-embracing, adopting continuously from several styles. It has supplanted folk music in the lives of common people. Both have a simplicity that doesn't presuppose any knowledge of music. The latest trend in Tamil film music is Gana songs, which can be described as urban folk music spawned by the Chennai working class. The popularity enjoyed by a Gana song, on a marriage between two species of fish, in the 2006 film Chithiram Pesudhadi (Look...A Picture Speaks) is symptomatic of the catholicity of Tamil film music. Hope the future stays just as vibrant.
(Baskaran's An Eye of the Serpent won the 1996 national award for the best film book)
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