Thattil Antony Johnson has done outstanding work in the Malayalam film industry. The Tamil counterpart, however, ignored him.

Without fanfare, he passed away in Chennai on August 18 at 8.30 p.m. He was an outstanding music director, who died prematurely. A reservoir of talent, Thattil Antony Johnson's (TAJ) career spanned four decades.

TAJ was born into an affluent Christian family on March 3, 1953 at Nellikkunnu in Thrissur. He began to play the harmonium at the St. Sebastian Church in his hometown from 1968. He also excelled in playing the violin, guitar and flute.

Along with like minded friends, he formed a musical club called the Voice of Trichur. Veteran play back singer P. Jayachandran was spell bound by young TAJ's musical brilliance.

Around 1969, when TAJ arrived in Madras to buy an accordion, Jayachandran introduced him to Devarajan, who immediately hired him as his assistant. Unfortunately, he was largely ignored by the Tamil film and television world.

In 1976 when A.R. Rahman's father, R. Sekar, who was working as music conductor for the Malayalam music director M.K. Arjunan (who was earlier associated with Devarajan), passed away, TAJ took his place. At that time TAJ was also working as an assistant to A. T. Ummer, another Malayalam music director.

Some Chennai-based veteran musicians recalled that when TAJ was getting a payment of Rs.150 as music conductor per call sheet per song, Ilayaraja was only getting Rs.80 for playing his instrument.

This writer has been closely observing TAJ since 1976 when he became music conductor, while working as an assistant to Arjunan for films such as‘Seemanthaputhran,' Aval Oru Devalayam,' ‘Raju Rahim,' Irumbazhigal' and ‘Adimachangala.'

The independent producer of the Mohanlal starrer ‘Mizhineer Poovukal,' who had booked M.K. Arjunan as music director, was stunned to see TAJ (who had by then risen to dizzy heights) performing the roles of conductor and also assistant to his guru M.K.A.

Several people in the Malayalam film industry felt that TAJ had missed several golden opportunities just because he refused to make compromises with producers or directors. The fact is that TAJ's self belief and confidence in his gift never made him feel the need to approach anyone to further his career.

Rare gesture

An unforgettable incident unfolded in 1989, the erratic monsoon pushed up the production cost of this writer's film, ‘Pradesika Varthakall,' starring Jayaram and Parvathi. putting the venture in peril. On special request, TAJ, as the movie's music director, came to the rescue. Without sacrificing the quality of his work, he finished re-recording and kept the expenses far below the stipulated budget proposal. He even sang the title song when the original singer's arrival got delayed. A rare and kind gesture, in time of dire need.

Naturally for the next project, the mythological TV serial, ‘Naragasuran,' directed by R. S. Manohar (RSM), TAJ was the obvious choice. But it was quite a task to convince the sceptical RSM.

Later, RSM openly acknowledged his superb skills that showed in his Carnatic-based compositions and the re-recording, which went down very well with the audience giving the serial its highest TRP rating at that time.

TAJ collaborated in 17 films with filmmaker Padmarajan, apart from doing work for top directors such as Bharathan, Kamal and Sathyan Anthikkad.

Another Kerala State Award-winning film music director, Sarath (who is also on the panel of judges of ‘Idea Star Singer' being telecast by Asianet) says that TAJ's composition is original and can be easily identified just like Salil Choudhury's. His orchestral music is unique and unbeatable and his recording skills reflected how profoundly he understood the core of Kerala's melody. Johnson had always insisted that all his singers, however popular they may be, should sing the song in full repeatedly till he was satisfied. He never allowed the songs to be recorded bit by bit as he felt that the end result would be artificial. His outspokenness and a disciplined, traditional way of conducting music often earned him displeasure from those who did not understand his ideas and motives.

It was TAJ’s desire to make K. J. Yesudass sing a western-style song on the lines of Michael Jackson, …but now that wish remains unfulfilled.

Awards and appreciation

T.A. Johnson received the National Award twice for Best Music Director (in performance and re-recording) for the Malayalam films, ‘Pondhan Mada' (1993) and ‘Sugrudham' (1994).

He received the Kerala State Awards in the same category for composing, performing and re-recording for Ormakayee (1982), Vadaku Noki Yendhram and Mazhavil Kaavadi (1989) and Angane Oru Avadhikalathu (1999) and also for performing and re-recording for Sadhayam (1992) and Sallaabham (1996).

He was given the Mathru Boomi Award for performing music in ‘Photographer' (Malayalam, 2006). He has also received several awards and recognition from various organisations.