Dravidian Queen: K.S Chithra

t368930681-b1343688348_s400 Mumbai’s film industry is so visible and influential that the ugly term ‘Bollywood’ has become shorthand for Indian popular cinema.  This is not only inaccurate for northern Indian cinema itself, which uses Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Bengali as it’s main languages but it totally misrepresents the films of southern India.

Several hundred kilometres south of Mumbai is the city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras. In this city in 1917, just four (or five, depending on how you’re counting) years after the first Indian feature film was released, an importer of American cars, Mr. Nagaraj Mudaliar, was infected by the movie bug too. Being rich enough to damn the torpedos Mr Mudaliar arranged for a few lessons on the film cameras of the day and was so impressed by his own aptitude he set up South India’s first film studio in the quiet suburb of Puruswalkam.


Nataraja Mudaliar

His first film and indeed, the first South Indian feature was a retelling of a story from the Vedic epic Mahabharata about a military commander who is so besotted by the beautiful Draupadi that he through a series of means, fair and foul, manages a rendezvous. Unfortunately, he is met by the even mightier warrior Bhima who slaughters him and ends the episode.  The movie was called Keechaka Vadham  (The Extermination of Keechaka) and was a smash hit, netting Mr Mudaliar even more riches.

In his footsteps over the subsequent years Madrasi film makers became famous around the world for their films, many of which were in the religious costume drama mode of Keechaka Vadham. And while I daren’t even think of getting into the history of South Indian film making here, suffice it to say, that films coming out of Madras and later Trivandrum and Hyderabad have been ground breaking, innovative and completely unreliant upon whatever was happening up in Bombay.

And it is especially in the area of music that the Tamil film industry has consistently held its own, and often, superseded ‘Bollywood’.  As eclectic in its inspirations as the northern film industry the Madras-based music directors always brought a more urgent, jagged and exploring edge to their music. Using hiphop, jazz, electronic keyboards and other trends before or more vigorously then their counterparts in the north.

Just listen to some of A.R. Rahman‘s music, especially before he became an international phenom, to get a taste. Of even better, go to the music of his guru, Illayraja or the work of Vijay Anand to really wig out.

It is some of Illayraja’s compositions that we share today.  All of the songs are sung by Krishnan Nair Shantakumari Chithraaka K.S. Chithra South India’s answer to Lata Mangeshkar.  Again, that’s an unfair and inaccurate description. Both are women, yes. Both have made hits too numerous to count by singing in the film industry, yes.  But the differences are more remarkable.

200Chithra is a classically trained singer in the South Indian carnatic tradition and has established an equally hailed and glorious career as a singer of classical/light classical music.  Lata, for her part has released a number of religious (bhajan) recordings but her reputation is firmly based upon her incredible run as the predominant female popular singer of the last two generations. Hear the name Lata and you know you’re going to get a film song.  But if, like me, you hear the name K.S. Chithra you’re probably, like me, going to think first of a ragini or thumri or bhajan.

At the same time where Lata’s vocal register is in the upper end (to say the least) Chithra has a voice that is to my reckoning more nuanced, supple and well rounded. More like Lata‘s sister Asha Bhosle.

I’m unable to speak Tamil so can’t vouch for the lyrical content of these songs but you don’t need to be a linguist to enjoy them.  The endlessly inventive arrangements that see styles and sound elements from any number of genres (from 80s synths to 60s lounge trumpets to slap bass and electronic squelches) popping up in each track, keep things bubbling along and are as interesting as the vocals. That’s why the title of the album has the subtitle “With Illayraja”.  This is a joint effort. A great singer interpreting the work of another great artiste and composer.



Track Listing:

01 Indha Vennila

02 Yaaro Sonnaangalaam

03 Vandadhe

04 Chitthirai Maasatthu

05 Manjai Ndhi

06 Kaiyodu Ennai

07 Vaa Veliye

08 Oh My Love

09 Sikkunnu

10 Hey Maina

11 Rathiri Thookkam

12 Oru Pooncholai

13 Pon Maaney

14 Poojaikettha

15 Nethu Oruthara

16 Kankaliley

17 Velli Kizhamai


Inter-India Fusion: Dr. L. Subramaniam and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan




Dr. L. Subramaniam and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan maestros of their respective instruments–violin and sarod–have made huge contributions to the two main branches of Indian classical music: Carnatic and Hindustani.  At the same time both have adventured far beyond their own gardens, coupling, tripling and even quadrupling up with a whole assortment of jazz, rock and Western classical musicians. Along with Ravi Shankar, Dr sahib and Ustadji are rightly recognised as some of the best known Indian classical musicians in the West.   Any number of albums could be suggested to  you but among my favorite is Karuna Supreme an early and outstanding example of Hindustani music blended with American jazz (Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and John Handy) and Conversations (L. Subramaniam and Stephane Grappelli).

It should come as no surprise then that these two great men came together to do an ‘Inter-India’ fusion album.  While sharing several commonalities like the raga (the essential musical frame for all compositions) and a similar scale (though with more semitones available to the Carnatic musician) the music of North India is very different from that of the South.  So this album, originally available on cassette, is a fusion of two branches of one of the world’s oldest musical systems.

Raga Jog is sometimes known as Ragam Naat in Carnatic music.  Several North Indian ragas have what you could call counterparts in the South, though to be historically accurate and to acknowledge that Carnatic music is considered to the ‘original’ Indian music,  I should probably turn that sentence around.  Many Carnatic ragams have Northern raga counterparts.

Raga Jog, some say can be traced back to the time of the court of Akbar the Great (15th C.). True or not, I don’t know but this raga is certainly melodious and both maestros  give powerful, sympathetic performances.

I hope you enjoy this.


Track Listing:

  1. Raga Jog Ragam Naatai Teen Taal (pt 1)
  2. Raga Jog Ragam Naatai Teen Taal (pt.2)


No Time to Rest: Bollywood Brass Band with Jyotsna Srikanth


Joytsna Srikanth is a London-based violinist with an amazing CV.  Classical singing training begins at age 5. But by age 9 she has discovered the violin and gives her first solo concert. More classical music (Carnatic and Western) training.  Gets her professional start playing for Illayraja in Tamil movies. Moves to London where she plays her violin for TV series on the National Geographic and  Discovery channels. In between performing with the likes of M. Balamuralikrishna (singer), Kadri Gopalnath (sax), Eduardo Niebla (flamenco guitarist) and Rao Kyao (sax) she organizes the annual London International Arts Festival.


Oh yes, I almost forgot. She is a practicing pathologist too!


Somehow in 2016 she found time to make an album with the English group, Bollywood Brass Band, a music collective the specializes in performing Indian folk, qawwali and Hindi film songs. The album is called Carnatic Connection and is comprised of what sound to me like South Indian film songs. Certainly there are a couple of A.R. Rahman compositions and I’m sure more than one by Illayraja.  All of the 14 tracks are-as you’d expect-lively and upbeat. Some are rather jazzy with Ms Srikanth sounding like  Jean Luc Ponty in fusion glory. Others are pure disco.  All in all good grooves, beats and lots of fantastic playing.


Track Listing

01 Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu

02 Kehta Hai Mehra Dil (Kannodu Kaanbadellam)

03 Deva Deva Kalayami

04 Drum Dance – Chandralekha

05 Sword Fight  – Chandralekha

06 Jai Ho

07 Kehna Hi Kya (Kannalane)

08 Jiya Jale

09 Why This Kolaveri Di

10 Aa Ante Amalapuram

11 Rakkamma (Clap Clap Mix by Charlie Girl)

12 Deva Deva (Molly’s Bar Mix by Rob Kelly)

13 Drum Dance (Diamond Cut Mix)

14 Deva Deva Kalayami (Molly’s Bar Extended Alaap Mix – Rob Kelly)


Ragamala Vol. 7: Yaman/Kalyani


This volume of variations on raga Yaman opens with a modern jazz-influenced rendition by the Neel Murgai Ensemble.  A New York based ‘chamber’ quartet led by sitarist Murgai, NME creates intricate, finely spiced musical atmospheres that draw on Indian classical, jazz, and gypsy music.

Also included is bansuri master Pannalal Ghosh‘s beloved Yaman, a couple of film songs from Umrao Jan Ada (1981) and Junglee (1961), Farida Khanum’s spectacular romantic ghazal Woh Mujh Se Hoay Humkalam Allah Allah as well as interpretations in a Western classical and contemporary jazz setting.

Yaman, also known as Kalyani, is by Indian classical music standards a relatively un-ancient raga. It first emerged in the 16th century with some claiming it was a composition of Mian Tansen and that he based it upon a Persian structure known as ‘Ei Man’. In Pakistan and Afghanistan the raga is often referred to as Eeman (in many varied spellings) and I have concluded this collection with a wonderful Afghan take on the raga  by Ustad Mohammad Omar, the famous rubab player.

Yaman emerged from the parent musical style of Kalyan, itself a style of classical Carnatic musical tradition called thaat. Considered to be one of the most fundamental ragas in the Hindustani Classical tradition, it is thus often one of the first ragas taught to students. In the context of traditional standards of performance, Yaman ragas are considered suitable to play at any time of the day, but they are traditionally performed in the evening. (Wikipedia).

Given its close relationship to Carnatic music the centerpiece of this collection is a stunning live recital by South Indian/Sri Lankan violinist L. Subramaniam and shenai nawaz Ustad Bismillah Khan. Listen carefully to this piece and to the playfulness, mastery and virtuosity of both musicians as they play off each other. It delights and enshivers!

Rudresh Mahantappa‘s group Dakshina Ensemble which features South Indian saxophone innovator Kadri Gopalnath and Pakistani American guitar whiz Rez Abbasi also explores the Carnatic original in their massive track Kalyani.

I hope you enjoy this collection as much I do!


Track Listing:

01 Evening In A_ Raga Yaman [Neel Murgai Ensemble]

02 Raga Yaman [Pannalal Ghosh]

03 Zindagi Jab Bhi [Talat Aziz]

04 Raga Yaman [L Subramaniam and Bismillah Khan]

05 Yaman Kalyan (Largo moderato)[ Zubin Mehta and Ravi Shankar]

06 Ehsan Tera Hoga Mujhpar [Mohmmad Rafi]

07 Raga Emen Kalyan [Pt. Pratap Narayan and Kankana Banerjee]

08 Kalyani [Rudresh Mahantappa and Dakshina Ensemble]

09 Woh Mujh Se Hoay Humkalam Allah Allah [Farida Khanum]

10 Shakal and naghma in the melodic mode of Emen (Yaman) [Ustad Mohammad Omar]


Multi-coloured soul: Susheela Raman


Queen Between, Susheela Raman’s 2014 album, is grownup music by an artist of exceptional quality. When I say ‘grownup’ I mean, mature, substantial, packed with musical nutrition, polished and accomplished. I do not mean serious, ponderous or boring.


Raman, of Indian Tamil (Thanjavur) origin, was born in the UK and grew up in Sydney where she began exploring her gift in a number of ‘funk/rocknroll’ bands. In 2001 her debut album Salt Rain (highly recommended) caught the attention of the British and European progressive music scene, garnering her a shortlisting for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Award.


In Queen Between on which she jams with and is supported by Indian/Pakistani musicians as well as Tony Allen (Fela Kuti’s long time drummer), Raman takes us on a journey into her multi-coloured soul.


Sharabi, opens the album with a nod to the sharabi qawwali popularized in the late 70s by Pakistan’s giant king of qawwali Aziz Mian. Sharab literally means, wine/liquor, hence sharabi is generally a pharase used for a drunk. But in the context of qawwali there is always the hidden implication of spiritual intoxification and it is this ecstatic feel that infuses Sharabi.


The qawwali theme is woven throughout the album, flowering up again in the beautiful Sajana (Beloved) and the killer final track Taboo. The former settles into the familiar male voiced clapping/chorus on top of which Raman sings of anguish, pain and love sounding like a cross between PJ Harvey and a whirling dervish. The atmosphere is explosive and intense: harmonium, men chanting ‘sajana’ over and over, and guitars acoustic and electric picking and stabbing out their riffs.


Taboo which closes the album is a tour de force; a mythic, tale of soul-searching and mortal caution. One thinks immediately of Dylan’s epic story songs like Idiot Wind or Isis. But then we are pushed into some desert shrine in the faraway Tharparkar Desert where ecstatic, frenzied qawwals invoke god and all the saints, long into the night. The drama ultimately subsides and gives way to the very sounds of the Universe which carry, sparkle and whisper the majestic piece to its subdued end.


Karunei, sung in Tamil, is another gem. Acoustic guitar and traditional Indian mouth harp (morchang) form an electric nest for Raman’s stunning, resonant, slithering and orgasmic voice to do its dance.


The remaining songs, Corn Maiden, Riverside, North Star and the title track, are showcases of her rock n roll side. These vary in quality with Corn Maiden being the best of the lot. It moves like a freight train and Raman sings with a Coltrane like intensity.


The moods, rhythms and atmospheres of this album are several but the whole thing hangs together beautifully thanks to Raman’s spectacular voice and the qawwali.


I have no doubt this album will rank among your favourite after just a couple of listens. So much meat on this bone.

Queen Between


Track Listing:

01 Sharabi

02 Corn Maiden

03 Riverside

04 Sajana

05 North Star

06 Queen Between

07 Karunei

08 Taboo