In conversation with ace violinist and composer T.K. Ramamurthy, of the Mellisai Mannargal duo, as he dwells on his success sojourn in Tamil cinema and more.
A nonagenarian all right, but his mental agility and age-defying prowess on the violin tell a different story. Fiddling away with zest, T.K. Ramamurthy, senior of the two inimitable ‘Mellisai Mannargal,’ who rocked the Tamil film music scene of the 1960s, says, “This is the most unfriendly instrument you can come across. A beginner’s struggle with it is inexplicable. Of course, it can be unbearable for those around him also, because it could squeak like a mouse, mew like a cat or grunt in anger, if you don’t use it properly. You have to keep pampering it the entire time.” The witty explanation is followed by more melodious bowing.
M.S. Viswanathan and T.K. Ramamurthy were the South’s answer to Shanker and Jaikishen, the famous twosome of Hindi cinema. “Viswanathan wanted us to get together. But we didn’t quite expect such success,” TKR travels down memory lane.
Walking down Mount Road, Chennai, after a show at Midland theatre, MSV suddenly turned towards his colleague and asked, “Why don’t we work like Shanker and Jaikishen, as a duo?” TKR was sceptical. “I’m happy with my violin. I’ll play for your songs just as I do for other composers,” he said. But Viswanathan refused to give up. That they went on to create timeless tunes for decades to come is too well known to dwell upon. But how did they actually function as a twosome? “We worked in tandem. I’d add nuances to his compositions wherever I could, introduce notes, play the violin and conduct or sit in the chamber. Even a minor error couldn’t escape my ears. I’d immediately identify the doer and the deed,” he laughs.
Much-deserved recognition is now coming the Mellisai Mannargal way, long after they scaled the pinnacle! Though their genius is still celebrated by fans, their greatness hasn’t been lauded at the highest levels. “I believe in Time or Destiny as you may call it. If you and I are seated together talking today it’s because He has decided so,” philosophises the master musician.
For all his virtuosity TKR seems an egoless person. “I’ve always been so,” he says. Their debut was with N.S. Krishnan’s ‘Panam.’ Initially it was to be ‘Ramamurthy-Viswanathan.’ “It was NSK who said Viswanathan-Ramamurthy sounds better. ‘You are senior to him so you can be behind him, supporting him,’ he said. I had no issues,” recalls TKR.
Matter of Destiny
The split came in 1964, during the making of ‘Aayirathil Oruvan,’ after a partnership that lasted nearly 700 films. “Destiny separated us,” is always his reply to queries about the estrangement. “But it brought us back together too.” MSV suggested they bury the hatchet and join hands again. They reunited for the Satyaraj film, ‘Engirundho Vandhaan,’ which met with a lukewarm response.
During another function in honour of TKR, Ms. Jayalalithaa complimented him for his mastery over the violin. “Yeah, she mentioned my playing for the ‘Kann Pona Pokkilae’ number,” TKR’s voice spells enthusiasm. “All violin solos in the re-recording and songs of our films were played by me.”
TKR went on to compose music for 20 films, including ‘Saadhu Mirandaal’ and ‘Thangachchurangam.’ Many of the songs became very popular – ‘Ammano Saamiyo,’ in the Jayalalithaa starrer, ‘Naan,’ for instance. “At a function some time ago, the CM enquired, ‘How are you, Ammano Saamiyo?’ ‘You have changed my name, ma!’ I replied,” chuckles the veteran.
Tiruchi is the place he hails from. The family had renowned violinists. “We lived near Malaikottai there. My grandfather Govindasamy was a famous violinist. So was my dad Krishnasamy,” he says. That explains his initials. “Yes ‘T’ is for Tiruchirapalli,” the pride in his voice is evident. “I studied at E.R. High School.” TKR began playing on the violin rather late, when he was in his teens. “But I would practise on the instrument for nearly 18 hours a day! My grandfather would place it at his bedside, wake up from his sleep in the wee hours and start bowing, while I always kept it hanging down from a wall. Even now, I’m in touch,” he says and goes on: “A Western musician once said, “Even if you are proficient, when you don’t play on the violin for a day, your family will know it. On the second, your neighbours will notice that you are losing hold. The third day, your friends will sense the discord, and on the fourth, the world around you would realise the nadir you are reaching.”
Among his children, Srinivasan alone is a violinist like his dad. TKR’s father was part of the orchestra of many films, and naturally the son who accompanied him saw his interest veering towards film melodies. After a stint with HMV, where C.R. Subbaraman was the composer, and later with Sudarsanam, TKR left for Coimbatore with Subbaraman. “My father was my guru. But Subbaraman was my mentor too,” he says. It was there that he met MSV, who was working as S.M. Subbiah Naidu’s assistant.
“Viswanathan was a class apart even then. He’s very talented,” TKR heaps praise on his colleague. “People think we are old and can’t deliver. Physically we may have aged, but music still runs in our veins. Mentally we are agile,” he says.
I second him, and take leave.
A genius called Kannadasan
Among his compositions, TKR plumps for ‘Podhumo Indha Idam’ from ‘Naan.’ T.R. Ramanna, its director, narrated the situation for the song sequence and led him into a rather cramped recording studio. “Is this place enough?” TKR commented, and the inimitable lyricist that Kannadasan was, made it the first line of the song! “It’s rare to find a genius like Kannadasan. Sometimes when the tune and verse weren’t working out to our satisfaction, he would say, ‘Chuck it for now boys, let’s go out, eat and meet up again tomorrow,’ and treat us at a restaurant. But when he settled down to write, he would brook no disturbance. Can you believe that he completed the entire ‘Yesu Kaaviyam’ in 15 days?” TKR goes into a reverie.