Composer Prathap Singh recalls his brief but fruitful stint with cinema. His song for Mulkireedam (1967) was perhaps the first one in Malayalam to be recorded for a pre-scored track.
Just eleven seven songs in two films. But, four decades later, Prathap Singh’s melodies continue to haunt Malayali music buffs. The evergreen quality of Singh’s compositions could well be attributed to the oft-repeated advice by the elders, ‘kelvi jnanam’ (knowledge acquired through listening). A lover of all genres of music, including western classical, the phalanx of electronic gadgets that adorn his room in Thrissur speak for his deep interest in insatiable passion to listen to sublime music, a habit that he developed in his childhood. In an interview, the septuagenarian musician talks about his career and his rather unexpected tryst with filmdom. Excerpts:
How did you get to compose music for Mulkireedam (1967)?
It was the result of a ‘conspiracy’ hatched between film director N.N. Pisharody and Thampi (Chandrasekharan), son of producer Karunakara Pillai. Thampi was a good singer and was associated with the production of his father’s films. Together we used to sing in ganamelas (music programmes). Those were the days when I had tried composing a few songs, just for the pleasure of it. One of them, ‘Thoo mandahaasam thooki varum’ penned by me, was even adopted in Kedamangalam Sadasivan’s popular play Elayidathu Raani. Incidentally, in the play, the song is sung by the character enacted by Sebastian Joseph Bhagavathar. Since Thampi knew about my exploits in music well, he introduced me to Pisharody, who wanted me to do music for his next film.
When he realised that I would not yield to his compulsions, he requested me to accompany him to Madras [Chennai] just to familiarise myself with the industry. His film Mulkireedam was already on the anvil then. Lyrics by P. Bhaskaran and music by M. K. Arjunan had been arranged. By the time we were in Madras, Bhaskaran Master had left for his home. We were told he would return after four days.
Meanwhile, Pisharody advised me to compose a few tunes that would be useful for his ‘next film’. After much hesitation I complied and he narrated the situations. First, he wanted a tune for a scene that featured a ghost. The tune was born after a few trials on the harmonium. The next day, two more were completed. The last one was ready on the fourth day.
But did you expect a renowned poet like P. Bhaskaran to agree to write for pre-scored tunes?
Here again, Pisharody played a trick. On Bhaskaran master’s return, Pisharody explained to him the same situations. When Bhaskaran Master had completed writing the first song, Pisharody told him about some tunes I had with me. He listened to the first one and wondered how the lyrics dovetailed satisfactorily to the one I had already made! ‘Kuli kazhinju kodi maattiya sisira kaala chandrike...’ was thus born as the first song to be recorded for a pre-scored music composed by a Malayali director.
The same happened with the other three. Why should we need any other music director? Bhaskaran Master was heard asking Pisharody. When S. Janaki turned up at Vijaya Gardens studio, I was trembling with nervousness. But with the bewitching background score by R. K. Sekhar, the first take itself was fine. The musicians in the studio were impressed by the work of a green-horn like me so much so that one of them invited P. B. Srinivasan the next day to listen to the melody.
But you had to wait until 1976 for the next film…
I had been getting a lot of offers regularly. But, I was more dedicated to my job as a draughtsman in the then PHED (Public Health Engineering Department) at Aluva, where I eventually worked for 30 years.
But when Pisharody himself invited me for Muthu, I agreed. Music score for K. S. Namboodiri’s lyrics was now relatively easy, for I had already done many for both Kalady Gopi and Sreemoolanagaram Vijayan’s plays.
However, Pisharody’s suggestion to record the songs in Kerala added to my worries. This was easily solved by entrusting the entire responsibility to the then young musician Johnson. The recording of the seven songs was completed in a make-shift studio at the Natananiketan Hall, Thrissur. Singers [K.J.] Yesudas, [P.] Jayachandran, Radha Viswanath and Sati turned up without a demur and co-operated. It was a celebration, really. Rendition of the melancholic strains ‘Vimooka shoka smrithikal unarthi’ by Yesudas was awe-inspiring.
Why the retreat from the field, then?
I loved my job more than my stint in the filmdom. Nonetheless, I continued composing on the side. Actually, till date, leading vocalists in Malayalam have sung some three score of my compositions. Only a devotional album, ‘Devi Mookambike’, has been released, though. My son Pradeep, a civil engineer in Canada, who passed with the highest grade of the Trinity School examinations, completed the orchestration for these songs.
On the new generation of music composers
I have high regard for the new-generation but I feel that the taste in music has undergone a drastic change.