Bringing Carnatic music to mainstream Tamil cinema, the K Balachander way

On the director’s 88nd birth anniversary, here’s a look at how he integrated Carnatic music with Tamil films to popularise the art.
Bringing Carnatic music to mainstream Tamil cinema, the K Balachander way
Bringing Carnatic music to mainstream Tamil cinema, the K Balachander way
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In one of the most impactful and memorable scenes in the Tamil film Sindhu Bhairavi, the male protagonist, who is a famed Carnatic vocalist, is shown rendering a Telugu kriti ‘Mari Mari Ninne’ in a concert. The assembled audience in a hall in Chennai applaud after the song, though nonchalantly. Even as the singer is revelling in that appreciation of the audience, a hand goes up. This is of the woman protagonist who challenges the singer and demonstrates that Carnatic music, if sung in the local language (Tamil in this case) which people can follow, will be appreciated much better. In a later scene, the singer discovers this for himself when a fisherman profusely appreciates his rendition of a Bharathiyar composition in Tamil.  

It was felt then (and may be even now) that Carnatic music was elitist in nature. Ace director K Balachander (popularly known as KB) one of the most revered filmmakers in India, used this film as a medium to plug this important message that for music to reach many, it needs to be understood.

By his own admission, KB was a big fan of Carnatic music and hence didn’t want it to be seen as some highbrow art form.  In his own ways – some direct and some subtle -- he did his best to mainstream Carnatic music as much as he could, through his many films. On his 88nd birth anniversary, here’s a closer look at this aspect.

The film Sindhu Bhairavi, one of KB’s later works, that too among his best hits, has a Carnatic musician as the central character. For a filmmaker to indulge in references to Carnatic music in a film like Sindhu Bhairavi which had it as its backdrop is not surprising. But this piece is just not about Sindhu Bhairavi alone but about many of his other films right from his early career days where it would appear that the director was waiting for some opportunity to plug Carnatic music in his films.  

Right at the beginning of his career, at the height of black and white cinema, one of KB’s landmark films was Apoorva Raagangal. Though the film was about complex relationships, KB sets this with Carnatic music playing the interlude. The female lead is a popular Carnatic singer. The male lead happens to play the mridangam which incidentally works in enhancing the romantic quotient between the leads!

Another novel idea in the film was to use different aspects of Carnatic music like Sarali varisaiThani Avartanam, Abaswaram, Sruti betam, Mangalam as placeholders throughout to carry forward the narrative. KB’s understanding of Carnatic music comes out very clearly when we see these placeholders in the context of the film. For example, when the estranged husband character makes an entry at the wrong time, the card KB uses is Sruti Betam (pitch distortion). How apt!

Apart from Aboorva Raagangal and Sindhu Bhairavi, another film where KB placed a Carnatic musician in a major role was Unnal Mudiyum Thambi. Here, the hero’s dad is again characterised as a famed Carnatic singer and is called Bilahari Marthandam Pillai, Bilahari being a popular Carnatic raga. And the elder son who is born mute is a Nadaswaram player.

Though the film is about ideological differences between a non-compromising dad proud of his “high caste” moorings and his son who wants to break these shackles, I feel KB’s use of Carnatic music here was only was to draw a parallel. Of the need for Carnatic music to be liberated from the sabhas to the streets, breaking another caste divide of sorts. In what is a typical “Balachander touch” scene, the dad tells the son that he used Ashuddha Danyasi (Shuddha Danyasi being a Carnatic raga) in a song he sang in front of labourers.

All these films, Apoorva Raagangal, Sindhu Bhairavi and Unnal Mudiyum Thambi with Carnatic music as the backdrop, gave opportunities for the music directors to popularise this form more widely. In that sense, KB and the respective music directors need to be credited for making or at least earnestly attempting to make Carnatic music, to use today’s lingo – “mass”.

If these were on-the-face attempts, there were other subtler methods which KB used. He had a penchant for using names of Carnatic ragas to name his women leads in many of his films. Bhairavi and Ranjani in Apoorva Raagangal, Sindhu and Bhairavi in Sindhu Bhairavi, Sriranjani in Jathimalli are some examples. Even in his small screen innings, this continued with the serial Sahana.

In the film Duet, one of the male leads is a saxophone player. In one of his interviews, KB had mentioned that he was a big fan of the very popular saxophone vidwan – Kadri Gopalnath. Kadri, as he is known in music circles, is one of the pioneers in playing Carnatic music with the saxophone. KB was keen to spread Kadri’s talent among the masses which he did with this film, Duet. This gave an opportunity for film’s composer AR Rahman to use Kadri in the songs which all became super hits. In the film’s opening sequence with title credits itself, we are treated with a virtuoso Kadri performance.

KB’s not so known film Oru Veedu, Iru Vaasal was a novel experiment in storytelling. It has two different stories split by the interval. The other experiment in this is that both the stories feature the famed Carnatic violinist duo – Ganesh-Kumaresh as the protagonists. Impressed by their stage presence and personality, KB probably cast them in the film but this was one experiment that didn’t work.

However, this doesn’t take away anything from his effort to mainstream Carnatic music – here, by introducing hitherto popular Carnatic musicians as actors in his films. If the film had worked, the “Cine fame” prefix to their names would have helped them get more people to their concerts, just like post the film Shankarabaranam, “Cine fame” Manju Bhargavi attracted huge crowds for her Bharatanatyam programmes.

These instances may not be exhaustive but they are enough to drive home the point that KB, through his films, played a stellar role in bringing Carnatic music to Tamil cinema. For instance, he points out the difference between Arohanam and Avarohanam of a Carnatic composition through the judge character in Sindhu Bhairavi in the climax.

This dimension is another feather in KB’s already crowded hat and remembering this on his birth anniversary is only a small tribute to this genius.

Thukkada: As a keen follower of Carnatic music, there is no doubt that Carnatic musicians started including full length Tamil keertanas in their concerts in Tamil Nadu or while singing amidst Tamil dominated audience, post Sindhu Bhairavi. If Tamil songs are no more restricted to Thukkadas (short songs thrown in at the end of concerts usually), K Balachander deserves credit for the same.

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