Harris Jayaraj's Minnale took the music industry by storm in 2001 for a multitude of reasons. The debutant music director was seen as a worthy contender to break the spell that AR Rahman had cast on the entire film music audience for more than a decade.
The album was a runaway hit on the whole, but the real head turner was undoubtedly Vaseegara. Thamarai had arrived on the scene with lyrics that so tastefully elucidated female desire, neither masking it in superficial allusions nor cheapening it brazenly.
The voice behind the song became something of a gold standard for all songs of the same nature that came in the following years. The credits list of the album made people gape - that sultry, husky voice dripping with sensuality belonged to Bombay Jayashree, who at the time was making a mark as one of the most promising Carnatic musicians.
This revelation left people unsure of how to react. While a chunk of the audience was wowed by this avatar, Carnatic music aficionados were rather indignant - why would a respectable Carnatic musician undertake a song of this nature, with such an evocative video to boot? The effect of this would surely infiltrate and dilute the standards of her kutcheris, they speculated.
Many of her contemporaries like Unnikrishnan, Nithyashree Mahadevan, Sudha Raghunathan etc were getting active in the film music scene too, and the mamas and mamis had all but written off their future in the hallowed sabhas.
This anxiety was strange and unfounded. Carnatic musicians singing in films is an age old tradition and certainly not unheard of. Instances range from the great composer Papanasam Sivan composing music for films (Thyagabhoomi, Haridas) to stalwarts like MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal and ML Vasanthakumari lending their voices to some of the most timeless hits in Tamil film music.
In fact, this crossover was so seamless that popular film songs from the period like MS's Kaatrinile Varum Geetham and DKP's Aaduvome Pallu Paaduvome were making regular appearances in their sabha concerts as well.
Conversely, the distinct classical flavour of such songs was also taken to a wider audience to appreciate and enjoy. More importantly, these films leveraged Carnatic music to address social issues like patriotism and women empowerment (think numerous compositions of Subramanya Bharathi) and ideas of romance drawn from various works of literature.
By and large, the Carnatic concerts of these artistes continued to remain untarnished by these influences, and stayed steeped in the bhakti aspect that governed most compositions. DKP, for instance, remained as much a darling of the purists for her chaste rendition of Muthuswami Dikshitar kritis, as she gained mass popularity for her film songs.
More artistes followed suit in the later years, attempting to venture into both streams of music, and this was also when the judgement started getting more critical.
KJ Yesudas's brilliant Kalyani ascensions in Kalaivaniye (Sindhu Bhairavi) left the audience amazed while his Thanni Thotti, from the same album was received with relative disdain by the purists. Though his concerts drew large audiences, his specialty was slotted to the semi-classical and devotional genres and he was not considered quite in the league of his Carnatic contemporaries.
This treatment continued for a few more years with most of the singers who took to film music being sidelined in the Carnatic music scene. But these singers persisted, unfazed by this criticism and gradually established that it was possible to sustain the bhaava and technicality in a full fledged Carnatic concert and in parallel lend their Carnatic expertise and technique to film songs that demanded it.
For instance, Nithyashree's rendition of Dikshitar's Hariharaputram in Vasantha could be as awe-inspiring as her rendition of the complex akaaram phrases in Minasara Kanna (Padayappa) in the same ragam. Similarly, Bombay Jayashree, through the last two decades has established herself as a musician of immense vidwat, while reaching great heights in the world of film-music.
The next generation of singers, with their exposure to various genres of Indian and world music grew even more versatile and cross-genre collaborations became the order of the day. The audience also gradually became more receptive to this cross-pollination of the art forms, and secure in the knowledge that the beauty and sanctity of each could still be preserved, and even better, refine each other.
When TM Krishna came out with his single Chennai Poramboke Paadal, addressing the environmental degradation at the Ennore creek, tuned in a typical classical style, it received mostly positive reviews, especially from the younger generation audience.
More recently, the acclaimed duo Ranjani - Gayathri made their debut in film music (Unavey marundhu for the movie Server Sundaram) highlighting the importance of traditional foods and their medicinal value, which again received mostly positive reviews.
It does seem like this unison of film music and Carnatic music has come a full circle, and is finally at a happy place where the audience is able to welcome and appreciate a complex Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi in a concert and a Carnatic cover of Ed Sheeran's Shape of You with equal enthusiasm!