Magical Initials: MGR

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MGR are magical letters in Tamil Nadu.  They are spoken with the same sort of respect as the letters JFK, in other parts of the world. They belong to a hero of the people and one who, no matter how controversial his latter day followers and acolytes prove to be, is revered as a giant.

Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran (MGR) was born in the highlands of Sri Lanka but moved at a young age to southern India  (first to Pallakad District in Kerala and then to the big smoke of Chennai). After his father, who was expelled from his caste community for an adulterous affair, passed away MGR and his brother joined a travelling drama troupe with the delightful name of Madurai Original Boys Company!  In 1936, at the age of 20, he scored a small part in a Tamil film (directed interestingly by an American!) and found he loved being in front of the camera and a large stage. He did well. Over the next several decades MGR’s name became synonymous with ‘hero’ for his enthralling portrayals of religious figures and gods as well as smartly dressed, moustachioed business men.  He won the National Best Actor Award in 1972 and began to get a name beyond the conservative Tamil film world.

MGR, Chief Minister

MGR had been a member of the anti-Brahmanical, rationalist party, DMK, from the early days of his career so politics was something that always interested him.  But in a fashion as predictable as most Indian movie endings, MGR found himself in trouble with his party seniors.  With a huge ego, a large charismatic presence (always hidden off screen topped with a white karakul cap and hidden behind dark glasses) and a sense of self righteousness he accused the leaders of DMK of corruption. They expelled him from the community in a similar pattern to that of his father.  But unlike this father, MGR, went on to much greater things.  He founded his own party (AIDMK) all the while continuing his acting career.  In 1977 he was elected as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu a post he held and was repeatedly elected to until his death 10 years later.

 

When I lived in Chennai between 1977-78 MGR was at the very peak of his political charisma. He’d moved from being the hero to being a demi god. His picture was everywhere and it really seemed as if a new day had dawned in Indian politics. A film actor! The first of several that would follow, and three years before Ronald Reagan. Once elected he stopped his film career to focus on implementing a string of populist policies, especially introducing free noon meals for school age children.

After his death, his wife, herself a former film starlet, Jayalaitha, took over the AIDMK and today rules Tamil Nadu.

To read more about MGR and his fabled life and career, and the famous assassination attempt of 1967 follow the links.

 

In the meantime, enjoy this collection of ‘sad songs’ from his films!

MGR front

MGR back

Track Listing:

01 Tharamil Pirakka

02 Thanthaiyaipol Ulagile

03 Ponalai

04 Anbe Vaa

05 Naallu Perukku Nandri

06 Oruvan Manthu

07 Avanukkenna

08 Kadavul en Kalanar

09 Dhairyamaka Chol Nee

10 Thayin Madiyil

11 Naan Yaar Theriyuma

12 Pallakku Vangaponnen

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Murugan Music: R.K. Suryanarayan

Lord Murugan

Lord Murugan

I’m in a Carnatic kind of mood today.

 

Woke early, before the sun, hopped on the local train and headed towards the northern outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.  I was picked by a colleague who drove me to Batu Caves, the last station on the commuter train line.  The caves extend into the limestone interior of one of several ranges of hills that edge KL. The caves are said to be about 400 million years old. Today they are a holy pilgrimage site for Hindus from around the world, especially those from Tamil Nadu.

 

Statue of Lord Murugan at entrance to Batu Caves

Statue of Lord Murugan at entrance to Batu Caves

The main temple is dedicated to Lord Murugan (brother of Ganesha and son of Parvati and Siva).  On Friday the annual thaipusam holy day will be celebrated.  This is day that commemorates the occasion when Parvati gave Murugan a vel (spear) with which to ward off evil spirits and the demon Soorapadam.  Hundreds of thousands of people will gather throughout the week to make offerings to the great Murugan, whose gold plated image stands at least 25-30 meters high, by the side of the mountain.  Worshippers carry offerings—tankards of milk and flowers, bananas—on top of their heads and climb 272 steps into the cave temple.  Other pilgrims, dance into a trance and then pierce their skin with hooks or small vels (spears). They hang little pots of milk and other holy things on the hooks and walk up the steps, giving thanks for prayers answered, or seeking the Lord’s favour.

 

A fascinating place, to which I will return again and again, I am sure.

 

The festival is especially significant to Tamilians and one has the feeling of being back in south India, not in Malaysia.  Shops all around the temple sell sweet milk coffee and all varieties of south Indian foods.  When I returned home, tired but exhilarated, I needed to hear some southern Indian music. And it is that I share with you today.

 

R.K. Suryanarayan was one of the premier exponents of the veena, an ancient Indian classical instrument recognised by the two large gourds which form its head and feet.  Suryanarayan hailed from the village of Rudrapatna, in Hassan District of Karnataka.  The village has a long and proud history of learning and culture, with fully 60% of practising Carnatic musicians claiming a connection to the village!

 

Suryanarayan had a very distinctive way of playing the veena which relied on a lot of strumming, almost as if he were playing the guitar.  The sound is vigorous and lively. Close your eyes and focus on Lord Murugan as you listen to this lovely music.

Gayathri Veena

Track Listing:

01 Hamsanaada

02 Krishnaveni

03 Shankara Bharana

04 Mohana

05 Gambheer Nata Madhyamavathi

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