It is not easy to emerge out of the shadows of a famous sibling. But Kaithapram Viswanathan, younger brother of Kaithapram Damodaran Namboothiri, has been able to make a mark of his own, as a musician, composer and teacher. Although a talented singer, he enjoys having makeothers like K.J. Yesudas, Jayachandran and K.S. Chithra singing his tunes, and to teaching youngsters how to sing. The Kozhikode-based musician spoke to Friday Review about his long journey in music.

On initiation into music

Music was always there in our home in a small village called Kaithapram, near Payyannur. My father, Kesavan Namboothiri, was said to be a remarkable singer; he was a disciple of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. My father was known as Kannadi Bhagavathar (Kannadi was the name of our ‘illam’). I never heard him sing, but I was told that he had a great voice. He had tried to be a playback singer, but did not get opportunities. Although I have been fond of music ever since I can remember, I could not learn much when I was growing up. I could not have afforded music lessons, for circumstances at our home were such. We had a lot of financial difficulties. I used to play the mridangam, but many people told me that I had a good voice and that I should learn Carnatic vocal. I have, in fact, played the mridangam, chenda and edakka for my brother (Damodaran), who composed music for Narendra Prasad's play ‘Souparnika’.

Stay in Thiruvananthapuram

It was only when I joined my brother in Thiruvananthapuram, where he had a small job, that I could begin learning music seriously. I wanted to join Sri Swathi Thirunal College of Music, but gaining admission was not easy in those days. You needed some knowledge of music to get past the interview. My brother equipped me for that with his lessons. He had also arranged mridangam classes for me with his friend Trivandrum Raveendran. I was elated when I managed to get admission to the music college in Thiruvananthapuram. I was fortunate that I could learn from teachers like P.R. Kumara Kerala Varma, Palkulangara Ambika Devi and G. Seethalaksmi. Among my classmates was Kallara Gopan. He has influenced my tastes in light music. He was an excellent singer of light songs even then.

On being a music teacher

That is something I enjoy a lot. Even now I try to spend as much time I can with my students; I am the vice-principal of the Swati Thirunal Kalakendram (Kozhikode), founded by my brother. I think one of the best things I have done in my life is to set up a music school called Shrutilaya Music School at Payyannur, which was a boon for many youngsters of that area. The school was inaugurated by Yesudas and I had more than 400 students. I could teach several talented children there, including Payyannur T. Govinda Prasad, who is a leading morsing artiste now.

I taught music at the Government Higher Secondary School, Mathamangalam, where my father also used to teach, and at Raja's Higher Secondary School, Neeleswaram. My stint at the Neeleswaram school played a significant role in making me a composer. Those days there was stiff competition between Raja’s HSS and Durga HSS, Kanhangad, for which Kanhangad Ramachandran composed light songs. I tuned several songs for Raja's school, which won the first prize at the State School Youth Festival.

On being a composer in films

It was director Jayaraj who made me a composer. I used to assist my brother, who scored the music for Jayaraj's films. Maybe he was impressed with my work. I was surprised when he asked me to tune songs for Kannaki. ‘Ennu varum nee...’, ‘Karineela kannazhagee...’ and ‘Iniyoru janmamundengil...’, the songs of the film, topped the charts. Yes, it is ‘Ennu varum nee...’ that has lived the longest. It was composed in Raga Kurinji and it is a raga people like to listen to.

After Jayaraj, Madhu Kaithapram is one director I have had a fruitful relation with. I have composed music for all his three films so far. Though I am a classically trained musician, I try to make my music for films simple, even while retaining the classicism, and therein lies the real challenge for a composer. For instance, I used Raga Gowri Manohari for ‘Ezham baharinte...’ (Daivanamathil). Many musicians have asked me how I could think of such a raga for what was basically a Mappila song. I have done only about 30 films so far, but I am happy that many of my songs have become hits and they have won State awards for the best playback singer on three occasions – ‘Neeyoru puzhayayi...’ (sung by P. Jayachandran in Thilakkam), ‘Aadedi...’ (sung by G. Venugopal in Ullam) and ‘Swantham swantham...’ (Madhyavenal). But I am a bit disappointed that some of my fine compositions went unnoticed because they were featured in films that did not do well at the box office; there were good songs in Vacation and Annorikkal. I am hopeful about my songs in the film Kavyam, which is due for release.

On his favourite composers

G. Devarajan, V. Dakshinamoorthy and K. Raghavan are my all-time favourites.