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.
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And it is especially in the area of music that the Tamil film industry has consistently held its own, and often, superseded ‘Bollywood’.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 Chithra, aka 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.
Chithra 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.
01 Indha Vennila
02 Yaaro Sonnaangalaam
04 Chitthirai Maasatthu
05 Manjai Ndhi
06 Kaiyodu Ennai
07 Vaa Veliye
08 Oh My Love
10 Hey Maina
11 Rathiri Thookkam
12 Oru Pooncholai
13 Pon Maaney
15 Nethu Oruthara
17 Velli Kizhamai