From church music to composing film songs James Vasanthan has come a long way. He talks to T. Saravanan about his objectives in life, passion for music and future endeavours.
‘Kangal Irandal…’ the popular number from Subramaniapuram is no fluke for composer James Vasanthan as he followed it up with ‘Naan Pogiren Mele…’ of Naanayam. His soothing melodies speak volumes about the die-hard Ilayaraja fan in him.
“He gave a different dimension to film music,” says James Vasanthan. “After hearing M.S. Viswanathan ayya’s songs when I came to a conclusion that no more experiments are possible in film music, his music came like a whiff of fresh air. I was just awestruck hearing the guitar and western music notations. He inspired me into film music,” he says.
But the passion for music was deep-rooted in him right from childhood. “My father was a big music lover and my mother played the harmonium and sang light classical songs. When all my six brothers and a sister attended music class, I was exempted, probably because I was the last in a family of 10,” he smiles.
He used to sit and watch them learn music the hard way. One day when his father asked him to participate in the inter-school singing competition, it was a revelation because till then I did not know that I could sing. I had only attended few Sunday singing classes in Church and learnt to sing ‘Sindhu Nadhiyin Isai Nilavinile…’ from my sister Catherine Nirmala. Though the lines belonged to poet Subramania Bharathi, the raga belongs to M.S.V. Surprisingly, I won the first prize and that acknowledgement gave me enough confidence to take music seriously,” he reminisces.
Liberal access to instruments like piano and guitar helped him hone skills without much hassle. “I joined the church choir and naturally imbibed singing in harmony. I was introduced to English and German hymns. Playing piano and guitar was infectious. During breaks, when my seniors were away, I would experiment,” he says.
James Vasanthan’s first big inspiration was Cooling Rajaiah, popular organist and accordion player. Hearing the songs of Azhage Unnai Aarathikiren and Ilamai Oonjaladukirathu, he further strengthened his passion to compose music. “At that time coffee bar culture was rampant. I used to bunk classes and sit for hours to listen to Ilayaraja’s songs.”
After six years of teaching music at St. Peter’s MHSS in Kodaikanal, he moved on to television industry. He struck a chord immediately as an anchor with his friendly demeanour, warmth and cordiality. From game shows to reality events, his foray into small screen was hugely successful. “I entered television industry in pursuit of a career in music. But I was asked to anchor and I accepted. I never knew my next 17 years will be in this field,” he says.
Luckily for him it was Sasikumar who gave him a big break with Subramaniapuram. “You can learn music but not creativity. It is a gift from God. I don’t want to waste my talent,” he says. Even today he accepts offers to anchor shows, if he is satisfied with the content. The ‘Oru Vaarthai Oru Latcham’ show in a satellite channel is a testimony to it. “The infotainment show is modelled on ‘What’s the good word’ programme in US. School children take it very seriously and do it as an exercise,” he says.
Belonging to the Ilayaraja School of music, he believes in creating soulful songs. His item song ‘Jilla Vittu’ in Eesan created that magic with its earthy feel. “Item songs need not necessarily be harsh. There is a tinge of sadness that has turned out to be the USP of the song.”
James Vasanthan feels that it would be difficult to see another music legend coming up in present scenario. “If a person has to reach that status, he has to survive in the industry for at least 25 years. Take for instance the films released and number of music directors introduced last year – around 160 films and 58 new music directors. I seriously doubt whether they will get second chance to be remembered,” he logically argues.
Standing test of time
He firmly believes in composing songs that will stand the test of time. “Ultimately the music will be identified not with the film but with the singer and the music director. A composer has to register his mark, so that in future their songs will speak their worth,” he says and emphasises the need to pay more attention to lyrics.
He started a music academy last year in Chennai, where he has playback singing as a course, apart from regular classes. His latest music composition is for the movie Vizha, which is due for release soon.
He plans to direct a musical film. “Script, songs everything is ready. I am looking for a good producer. It will be musical in true sense as it does not stop with five to six songs. Basic aspect of a musical is that there will be no playback. I am trying to bring back the old school of drama. Actors will have to sing the songs and perform.”