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And it is especially in the area of music that the Tamil film industry has consistently held its own, and often, superseded ‘Bollywood’.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


Time Capsule of Delight: Golden Era of Sri Lankan Popular Music


This poster comes from a time and place that no longer exists.   In 1972 after centuries of being known (at least to those who didn’t live there) as the fabled emerald tear drop of Ceylon, the country took the much more ancient name of Sri Lanka.

Though very different from the country it is so geographically close to there are of course  connections of history, faith, legend and people that are now completely entangled.  For most children of the 80s and 90s and 00s, Sri Lanka is infamous (but not unique by any means) for trying to unentangle that heritage with violence.  Tamil Tigers. Peoples Liberation Fronts. Civil War. All of these displaced images (and the reality) of the most beautiful beaches in the world, a lush hinterland and some of the nicest people on earth.

I first visited Sri Lanka in 1977. A longish haired, lungi wearing hippie who crossed the strait between Rameshwaram and Talaimanar on a rusty large steamship.  I fell instantly in love. The greenery. The tea plantations. The white sand. How life was so inexpensive. I think I spent the princely sum of $50 for a 10 day visit (including accommodation and transportation costs).

During those ten days I discovered a band called Supertramp. Some French Swiss longhair had it on his Sony tape recorder. Sadly, the music of the land I was visiting didn’t even register.  And it would be several more decades before it would.

Even now I consider myself an infant in the nursery school of Sri Lankan music and have nothing meaningful to say about it that others have not. Baila is probably the island’s most well known popular form of dance music and traces it roots to the Portuguese time.  But to limit the music of Sri Lanka to the baila would be akin to identifying Punjabi music as only bhangra.

And here, dear readers is evidence of that statement.

This is a recording which can only be described as delightful. A 30 track tour across Serendip in which including bubbly baila you will be treated to folk, rural and urban species of sound from all round.

Six out of five!

Out of the park.

Get down and get back up again!


Track Listing:

01Instrumental Baila Medley

02 Soken Pala Ne

03 Gamen Liyumak

04 Naan Unnai Thedum

05 Instrumental Baila Medley

06 Netha Giya Hematana

07 Kaffiringha

08 Ceremonial Drums

09 Jeevithe Vasanthaye

10 Anbil Valarnthai

11 Pinna Mal

12 Mama Bohoma Bayauna

13 Vairodi Wannama

14 Handa Haami

15 Goyam Gee

16 Eka Dawasak

17 Mindada Heesara

18 Roshi

19 Sigiriya

20 Deepa Tupe Vihare

21 Drum Orchestra

22 Gavaskar the Century Maker

23 Bolanda Katha

24 Sinidu Sudu Muthu

25 Malli

26 City of Colombo (with Noeline Mendis)

27 Durakathanaya

28 Amma

29 Kimada Naave

30 Perakumba Davasa


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)


Magical Initials: MGR


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



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