M.K. Arjunan, honoured with the Swaralaya-Kairali-Yesudas Lifetime Achievement Award, scores with his music.
Recognition and accolades have come rather late for music director M.K. Arjunan. Not surprising. For, people who hardly care to promote or package their talent for the world at large, recognition usually comes late or, sometimes, never at all.
The Swaralaya-Kairali Lifetime Achievement Award for contribution to the field of music and some other awards that have come his way recently are belated recognition for a man who made invaluable contributions to Malayalam film and drama music for nearly four decades.
But Arjunan's life has been a constant battle against adversities and loud whispers that someone else was making his music. Now, when beautifully composed, soft, lilting melodies have become a rarity, Arjunan Master and his brand of music have found acceptance.
"Such honours are surely encouragement for any artiste. I'm happy that my music has been recognised. I'm happier because this award is in the name of Yesu (K.J. Yesudas). The first song that Yesu recorded was one that I composed. This was in the early 50s. I set to tune a song written by, I think, Ponkunnam Damodaran and sung it to Yesu, who listened to it and we recorded it on an old Grundig spool tape recorder. Listening to it when it was played was thrilling,” recalls Arjunan Master.
A dream debut in ‘Karutha Pournami,' (1968) followed by some unforgettable songs in ‘Rest House' (1969) and Arjunan Master was on his way. Teaming up with Sreekumaran Thampi, this musical duo created a string of hits. And they found a space for themselves along with master combinations such as Bhaskaran-Baburaj, Vayalar-Devarajan.
"When I got the call to make music for ‘Rest House,' I was surprised. I was just a film old and truly never dreamed of a career in films. I was told that Sreekumaran Thampi had recommended my name to the producer K. P. Kottarakkara.”
Arjunan Master, who often struggles with his memory, still remembers that day in Chennai on the location of the film. "The first lines I got were ‘Pournami chandrika thottu vilichu…'; I was asked to create a tune for this. I thought of a tune I had made for a drama song, modified it a bit and sang it for the producer, Thampi and director Sasikumar. They listened to it and then moved to the next room to discuss. I remember how my heart pounded while waiting for the result. They came back and told me that it was good and that I was to make the rest of the songs for the film. I owe my entry into films to Sreekumaran Thampi and the makers of ‘Rest House.'
Modesty and simplicity, which is Arjunan Master's strength, is perhaps his weakness too. These characteristics were forged as a result of a disciplined ashram life. Having lost his father (Kochukunju) at a young age, the burden of looking after a big family fell on his mother (Parvathi). Unable to provide for all her children, she sent Arjunan and his brother Prabhakaran to Jeevakarunyananda Ashram at Palani. It was here that Arjunan got his first lessons in music. “For the next couple of years I began learning music from Kumarayya Pillai. The swami and my first guru turned me towards music. This has been my life ever since."
Returning home, Arjunan Master continued training in music from some dedicated teachers such as Vijayarajan Master and Vathakad Raghava Menon. "Composing music for amateur drama groups led me to professional theatre. I was introduced to G. Devarajan Master by a friend. I began assisting him for plays. Listening to Devarajan Master, his mode of composing, the many tunes he created for one song, was education in itself.
Arjunan Master soon became associated with the top professional drama troupes of the times such as Changanassery Geedha, People's Theatre, Kalidasa Kalakendram, Desabhimani Theatres, Alleppey Theatres and KPAC. He went on to compose around 1,000 songs for around 300 plays. This is a bond that he maintains even today.
Making a mark
In films, Arjuanan Master not only managed to break into the scene when stalwarts ruled the roost but also established an identity of his own. Not one to flaunt his genius, he lets his 500-plus songs in over 220 films speak for him. “The only time I came close to an award was for the song ‘Sukham oru bindu…' (‘Ithu Manushyano'). But that year the award went to Salil Chowdhury."
Cinema not just brought him exposure and fame. "It also helped me meet some great people like MBS, M.S. Viswanathan, Dakshinamurthy Swami, Baburaj, P. Bhaskaran and so many others. But one man who will remain dear to me always is R. K. Sekhar. I can never forget how we used sit at his house late into the night notating, and preparing for the recording next day. When I went to meet him with a couple of his assistants at the Vellore hospital, I remember him telling the others how he was not able to help me like he had done for others. He also asked them to help me even when he was not there. Even after his death I did what best I could to help his family. That bond exists even to this day."
Bound by friendship
The strength of this man is his friends and his unfailing belief in such relationships. In Palluruthy, where Arjunan Master now stays, it is usual to see him on his daily walk, chatting with friends, sharing in the joys and sorrows of his neighbours, always ready to lend a helping hand.
It is perhaps this recognition, this love, from people belonging to various strata of the society that Arjunan Master values more than anything else.