Excerpts from The Hindu Sport & Pastime, 19 May, 1951
Nothing has been so remarkable in the development of the Indian film industry in the past few years as the emergence of the “invisible stars” - the playback singers. Their popularity has put in the shade many an established film actor or actress and some of them, I am told, are paid as much as, if not more than, the topmost screen artiste.
As a lover of the cinema I have looked upon the intrusion of this invisible force with dismay and sorrow for I consider it a disruptive element which has contributed much more than any other factor to the unreality and artificial atmosphere that generally pervade our films.
The fact is, however, that producers and gramophone companies between themselves have so publicised playback artistes that there is hardly a cinema-goer in India who does not know them. Film journalists, however much they may dislike this development, have to take note of it and satisfy public curiosity about the neo-film idols.
In the stillness of the dead of night on August 15, 1947, a voice rang out in the air, startling and throwing out of their beds peaceful citizens in many homes in Madras. There was magic in that voice and the word that reverberated through the ends of the earth was ‘Freedom!' Its effect was terrific. It unleashed an emotional upheaval in every patriotic heart and long after Independence Day had passed people were still talking of that memorable night.
The herald of freedom was a woman and on that night she was singing on All India Radio a song which Bharati had made famous. I have often wondered since whether anyone except D.K. Pattammal [1919-2009] could have adequately conveyed the tremendous significance of the occasion with just that one word, “Freedom.” She electrified listeners and surcharged them with feelings which they could never have experienced in their lives before.
It is this quality in her music which has endeared Pattammal to thousands of film-goers all over South India and wherever Tamil is spoken. She was the first to start singing for the screen in South India nearly ten years ago and she has remained on the top ever since. Her screen music almost always has a nationalist or patriotic appeal and there can be no greater interpreter of Bharati to the masses than she. Until Pattammal popularised two of Bharati songs in A.V.M. s ‘We Two', appreciation of Bharati was largely restricted to the educated classes. One of the songs, ‘Aduvome', caught the imagination of the public and became the rage in the small towns and villages of Tamil Nad. Thousands of records of this song were sold and it continues to be in demand. The film, ‘We Two' itself became a box-office hit and Pattammal, as the premier playback artiste of the South contributed not a little towards that achievement.
The man who introduced Pattammal to the film world is Mr. A.V. Meiyappan and he has booked her for most of his films. She generally sings background music, when the film opens or ends or renders the song for a dance and so far has not given her ‘voice' to any artiste. It seems in one picture some years ago she did give her ‘voice' to the heroine but the latter was reluctant to accept it and the recorded songs were never released.
Pattammal is very particular about the songs she is asked to sing. Her husband minutely examines the text of the song and he must be satisfied before it can be recorded. Love songs she refuses to consider and her favourites are devotional and nationalist songs. She prefers Carnatic music, but does not interfere with the choice of tunes by the producer. “We give suggestions,” I was told, “but we don't insist they should be accepted.”
She is one of the highest paid among playback artistes and for that reason is not available to the producer with small resources. She has confined herself to singing for Tamil pictures and the only exception she made was Nagiah's ‘Thyagayya' in Telugu. At least two films for which she gave music proved a failure in spite of her songs. In one she introduced a, new song glorifying India and her national leaders. The song whose title is ‘Yengal Nadu' was later popularised on the radio and in concerts.
Thrty-one-year old Pattammal, who is the happy mother of two children, never learnt music in the orthodox way. She says she never had a tutor in her life. Music was in her blood and she was first discovered even while very young by an official of a gramophone company who heard her sing in a school drama. He straightway offered her a contract. It was after making her first record that Pattammal thought of polishing her music and increasing her repertoire. She was not attached to any regular teacher, but learnt from a number of musicians as and when opportunities offered.
Following her success through gramophone records, offers poured on her for concerts. For a long time her father who was averse to modern ideas and thinking resisted, but in the end had to give way and Pattammal's concerts brought her an ever-widening circle of appreciative audiences which was strengthened when she went on the air and lent her voice to the screen. The thing which attracts in Pattammal's music is the richness of her voice, its resonance and faultless intonation which vibrate with life carrying the listener to regions of ethereal beauty and charm. Those who have heard her Gandhi songs could not have remained unmoved and I have seen whole rows of audiences unashamedly cry. She has made it a regular practice to sing one or two Gandhi songs at all her concerts and I never miss hearing them.