Excerpts from The Hindu, Sport & Pastime, July 26, 1952. One of the foremost exponents on the South Indian screen of Carnatic music today is Vasanthakumari (1928-1990). She, perhaps, is the first musician of rank to lend her voice to films.
I am an addict of Carnatic music. It has for me a flavour and emotional significance which I have been unable to find in any other system of music. You may call this a purely personal feeling, provincial or parochial but there it is. And there are millions of people like me all over the country who crave for this music which brings them joy and peace of mind.
It is a good sign, however, that Carnatic music is finding increasing recognition at the hands of some of our producers. One of the foremost exponents on the South Indian screen of Carnatic music today is Vasanthakumari (1928-1990). She, perhaps, is the first musician of rank to lend her voice to films. She is a playback singer of repute, but she is more well-known as a concert musician. She is proud of this fact, for as she told me, "I am a musician," (after a pause) "and also a playback artiste."
Carnatic music was in her family and in her own words, “music is in my blood.” Vasanthakumari began singing at a very early age. By the time she was ten she was singing with her mother at concerts all over India.
The next stage in her life was when she began giving concerts by herself at the age of 13. At the same time she was continuing her studies in a convent in Madras. Although she was fond of films it never occurred to her that one day she would be called upon to provide music for the screen. It happened in 1948 when Vidwan Alathur Subba Aiyar persuaded her to lend her voice for ‘Rajamukthi', featuring Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. She sang five pieces for this picture and all of them were in the Carnatic style.
Her debut was a success and N.S. Krishnan booked her for his ‘Nallathambi' in which also all her songs were rendered in the Carnatic style. Thereafter her fame was rapid, but regretfully enough her proficiency in Carnatic music found less and less scope for expression on the screen because of the producers' craze for imitative music and fantastic tunes which had nothing to recommend them except their novelty.
This is no idle boast. It is a long way from the recording room to the concert hall, metaphorically-speaking, but she has annihilated this distance with little or no effort. To record a song for a film and the next minute change to a chaste Carnatic song is not easy, because the difference between the two is the difference between chalk and cheese. One lacks imagination and depth and gives an impression of superficial music which tickles the palate but never really satisfies it. The other is powerful in emotional content, rich in tone and all-pervasive in character. Vasanthakumari told me she never felt any real difficulty in adjusting herself to the many styles of music she was called upon to practice. Her preference was, of course, for Carnatic music, but she said she could not lay down the law for music directors and producers. For instance, she had found that Telugu producers generally favoured Hindi tunes and she had to do her best to oblige them. She liked classical Hindustani music but the Hindi tunes they wanted her to sing had no relation or connection with the classical tradition. She liked Western music too and in fact was awarded a prize while she was a student in the convent for her proficiency in it.
One of her songs in the Malayalam film, ‘Prasanna' is set in an English tune and it is one of my favourites not because I like it for its merit, but because I have never ceased to marvel at the prodigious pace and mathematical accuracy at which she sang and the clear enunciation of the words which were in danger of being lost because of the foreign setting.
Vasanthakumari's music is so much in demand in the concert hall and on the screen that she has lost count of the number of films for which she has sung. On an average she lends her voice to three films a month, her husband, Mr. Krishnamurthi said. She records four songs per day and her maximum is five. She gave her voice for Shantaram's ‘Nam Nadu' (Tamil) and she sang a Hindi song for A.V.M.'s ‘Bahar', but unfortunately it was only recorded and not included in the sound track. She is a keen amateur photographer and the camera is a constant companion in all her trips outside Madras.
She speaks fluent English and her husband said she could write beautiful essays.