By V Ramnarayan
Hindi film music was for long a meaningful bridge between classical and light music. In the 1950s and 60s, for every hundred popular songs based on westernised, fast numbers, Hindi cinema offered at least a handful of raga-based songs, including some that filled entire films. Music directors like Naushad, Shanker-Jaikishen, Roshan, Madan Mohan, S.N. Tripathi and even Ravi Shankar gave us melodious songs some of which were adaptations of bandish, thumri or tarana. A parallel stream of light classical music – mainly ghazals by such maestros as Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh, as well as Sufi music by the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – constantly followed a pleasant middle path, so that the chasm between art and popular music was never too wide. Unfortunately, the typical Hindi film music director no longer seems interested in or capable of composing pure raga based songs.
In the south, film music was completely dominated by classical music in the time of M.K. Tyagaraja Bhagavatar, K.B. Sundarambal and T.R. Mahalingam. Concert singers of the calibre of G.N. Balsubramaniam, Dandapani Desigar, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari sang songs which became bestsellers in their time. Popular singers like T.M. Soundararajan, Sirkazhi Govindarajan and P. Leela were classically trained and known to have performed in the kutcheri circuit. Music directors G. Ramanathan and K.V. Mahadevan readily come to mind as outstanding purveyors of raga music in films.
Film music in the south had moved away from Carnatic music when the Telugu film Sankarabharanam in the 1970s promised to bring back audience interest in the genre, by featuring a principled bhagavatar rooted in tradition as the protagonist, though it offered at best a “filmi” form of the classical genre. In later decades, geniuses like Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman have proved time and again that they can be masters of classical music including Indian and Western, along with world music of great variety, but films celebrating Carnatic music have been rare.
Classical musicians like Sriram Parasuram, Dr. S. Sunder and Chitravina Ravikiran, to name just a few, have been authors of outreach efforts of varied kinds. The recent past has seen attempts by T.M. Krishna to take classical music to those not overly exposed to it so far. His attempts at inclusiveness have been much in the news, especially since the announcement of the Magsaysay Emerging Leadership Award to him, with several critics questioning the merit and timing of the honour. While his fan base continues to be loyal in its total support to him, other admirers of his music have questioned his experiments with the kutcheri format among other things. They feel the award could have waited for a few more years of solid contribution in the field by Krishna. A third category of critics continues to respect his musical prowess, but questions his politics and ideology.
Assuming that the propagation of classical or art music on a mass level is a desirable objective, can it be done effectively through the medium of cinema? T.M. Krishna was involved in two films celebrating Carnatic music – one was a concert from varnam to mangalam along with Bombay Jayashri, and the other was of raga music amidst nature.
There have not been too many Tamil feature films on the lives of classical musicians or films with a predominance of raga music in recent decades. Is it time to produce quality films of the kind in order to take art music to a wide audience, and will there be genuine music patrons willing to invest in them? Will senior musicians and modern day composers be interested in composing the music for such initiatives? For such an effort to have any chance of succeeding, the film needs to be a box office hit, and it therefore becomes imperative for it to have a good storyline, a winsome star cast and top class music – and of course loads of luck. Carnatic music through cinema, anyone?